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Chicken Along the Mason-Dixon Line (Friday, April 1, 2011)

July 22, 2011

Friday, April 1, 2011


Chicken Along the Mason-Dixon Line

I had a deja vu moment this morning as I bit into a piece of chicken that was left over from last night’s dinner.

The bite of chicken was a memory flash as brilliant as the memories invoked by our sense of smell. It was a memory from childhood and like so many, it was fond, but the realities behind it are less pleasant.

At first taste, I was brought back to a two-lane highway, somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line on a very hot summer day when all of us, the whole family of six, were glad to be out of the confined quarters of the station wagon, even to be baked by the sun at the picnic table of a wayside rest.

Years ago, I had the opportunity to spend some time in my son’s fourth grade class. One day, I pulled read-out-loud-to-the-class duty. The book was The Watsons go to Birmingham—1963 (Bantam, Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers, 1995) by Christopher Paul Curtis. I read the scene of the Watsons’ trip south to visit grandparents. As I read, I felt as if I were reading the story of the trips that our family took most summers of my childhood to New Orleans.

The Watsons took cold fried chicken with them. They ate out of their cooler. Not in restaurants.

Most African Americans of a certain age whose families traveled know this drill. Cold fried chicken, because it will keep for the long haul. It is cheaper than most other things that could be packed and much cheaper than buying meals on the road. On a hot summer day, with a can of soda to chase it down, it is delightful passing the lips. We didn’t know—or care that other people were stopping into a local diner to be served their bite to eat.

As kids, we didn’t really know that those road-side diners existed because my father was not going to bring his family into one, especially one south the the Mason-Dixon.

When we, or most other African American families, traveled, we packed provisions because there was no guarantee that we would be welcome in any establishment; that basket of chicken was vital. So were the wayside rests where we knew we could stop. Regardless of whether other people were happy we were there, they had little authority to tell us to leave.

Even today—especially today, people take for granted public accommodations. (Certain political ideologies are not keep on paying for them, those most associated with dispositions that will have little trouble being welcome at every place to eat.) Some of us know that there are just places we cannot go, are not allowed or where we must at least endure the hot glares on the backs of our necks in order to do things as simple as use a restroom or eat at a restaurant. There are places in this country that are tacitly declared off limits. Those places are closer and far more numerous than most of us, even I, are willing to admit.

Our trips to New Orleans were to visit grandma and grandpa. On most of our trips to the south, we stopped in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. It was close to the midway on the two-day trip to the Mississippi delta. There was a more important reason for stopping there for the night. Past this point, we were entering the American South, where we could not be sure which establishments would “have a vacancy” for US. Would mother and father be able to find a place that would welcome our patronage?

We were kids. We looked forward to the hotel stay. We looked forward to Cape Girardeau, where we knew we would get our treat, a motel stay almost as wonderful as the two or three weeks we would spend at grandma and grandpa’s. The stories of danger and trepidation that lie just off the thoroughfare were just stories that were tucked neatly in a package of lore that we should not forget, cautionary tales to be heeded by little black children, but that we should not fret about, because we were just children and we were on vacation to grandma and grandpa’s.

Meanwhile, my father worried, only slightly as a wise and brave protector. My mother worried, because that is the job of mothers. We set worry aside, opened the cooler and pulled out the cold fried chicken and maybe potato salad. We jumped from bed to bed until mother said, “You kids are driving me crazy,” and “Get in the tub,” and wondered when the motel staff would bring the folding bed for the younger siblings.

Soon, we would be in New Orleans. We would eat well and mostly forget how wonderful the cold chicken seemed. We would have a mountain of red soda (or cold drink, as they called it) that grandma tried to make as big as her of love that could more than fill the Gulf of Mexico. We ran around in the sweltering heat of the city, again only slightly aware of the dangers that lurked in the craziness of that place and which mother and father tucked away in their own childhood memories.


7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 29, 2011 3:06 am

    How does racism impact your daily life now — besides in rehashing these memories?

    Personally, I find when I dwell on past injustices I continually re-create them in ways I am unaware of …
    April 1, 2011 3:58 PM

  2. Paul Hark permalink
    July 29, 2011 3:07 am

    Clarence—thanks for sending. I just finished reading a book called “The Great Migration” which talked about African-Americans migrating from the South to the North. One of the largest human migrations, ever. At pone point it talked about how the people taking the trains north would eat chicken for the same reasons you mentioned.

    In any case, your blog was very interesting. It also distresses me to hear these stories about african-americans traveling south.

    I look forward to your next post.

    Paul Hark
    April 1, 2011 4:02 PM

  3. July 29, 2011 3:08 am


    Chicken is today as it has been for a long time.

    It’s not about being sad that we didn’t get to go to the diner. It is about all the places and opportunities that we are robbing our co-inhabitants of our world.

    The politics of today takes for granted public accommodations. It is like the sidewalks missing from the suburbs. It is a segregation that keeps us apart and fractures our communities and creates an underclass that always has to struggle harder just to stay above water rather than soar in the light air.

    It is the same as the second class citizenship that Jews in our town lived with that expressed itself in ways like not being able to get a seat for themselves and family at the Lexington on Grand but also the job in the Pioneer Building downtown. It’s about getting to sit at the board table instead of hoping the man who gets to sit there, regardless of qualifications, will marry me and hold me prisoner to my access to sustenance and that of my children. It is about the constant murmur of hostility that still makes it risky and emotionally dissonant for me to show up in certain neighborhoods, VFWs, gas stations and places of worship–and all the live-sustaining opportunities that exist within.

    There is enough of a push to do away with public places, that we don’t really need them, that they are a luxury and “we” have other places to go–we don’t need the sidewalk, a state Capitol open to the public, or schools funded by something other than the base of the wealth of the houses in our town. hey say, “My dinner was fine at the road side diner; I don’t know what they’re complaining about. Build your own if you’re unhappy.” And we do build one, but there is an entire culture of diners and other things that only get built when all the resources of the society get put to them–and, thus far, we have let people keep much of that capital that came from public realities for themselves and not for and with everyone else.
    April 1, 2011 4:17 PM

  4. July 29, 2011 3:09 am

    Just so everyone knows, Linda and I do not hate each other–or disrespect each other–most of the time. 🙂
    April 2, 2011 10:16 AM

  5. July 29, 2011 3:10 am

    define “most of the time” … haha!
    April 2, 2011 12:51 PM

  6. July 29, 2011 3:10 am

    Just don’t say anything bad about the car…
    April 2, 2011 1:12 PM

  7. Barbara permalink
    July 29, 2011 3:11 am

    Interesting that this post went up just before Zander started working on his report on Rosa Parks. He hasn’t read your post yet but he will.

    April 8, 2011 4:53 PM

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