Living the Legacy

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Moments of Personal Resistance

Unit 2 , Lesson 1

Jewish Women's Archive - Living the Legacy

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Moments of Personal Resistance

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"Traveling" by Grace Paley

Traveling by Grace Paley

[Part I]
My mother and sister were traveling south. The year was 1927. They had begun their journey in New York. They were going to visit my brother, who was studying in the South Medical College of Virginia. Their bus was an express and had stopped only in Philadelphia, Wilmington, and now Washington. Here, the darker people who had gotten on in Philadelphia or New York rose from their seats, put their bags and boxes together, and moved to the back of the bus. People who boarded in Washington knew where to seat themselves. My mother had heard that something like this would happen. My sister had heard of it, too. They had not lived in it. This reorganization of passengers by color happened in silence. My mother and sister remained in their seats, which were about three-quarters of the way back.

When everyone was settled, the bus driver began to collect tickets. My sister saw him coming. She pinched my mother: Ma! Look! Of course, my mother saw him, too. What frightened my sister was the quietness. The white people in front, the black people in back—silent.

The driver sighed, said, You can’t sit here, ma’am. It’s for them, waving over his shoulder at the Negroes, among whom they were now sitting. Move, please.

My mother said, No.

He said, You don’t understand, ma’am. It’s against the law. You have to move to the front.

My mother said, No.

When I first tried to write this scene, I imagined my mother saying, That’s all right, mister, we’re comfortable. I can’t change my seat every minute. I read this invention to my sister. She said it was nothing like that. My mother did not try to be friendly or pretend innocence. While my sister trembled in the silence, my mother said, for the third time, quietly, No. Somehow finally, they were in Richmond. There was my brother in school among so many American boys. After hugs and my mother’s anxious looks at her young son, my sister said, Vic, you know what Mama did?

My brother remembers thinking, What? Oh! She wouldn’t move? He had a classmate, a Jewish boy like himself, but from Virginia, who had had a public confrontation with a Negro man. He had punched that man hard, knocked him down. My brother couldn’t believe it. He was stunned. He couldn’t imagine a Jewish boy wanting to knock anyone down. He had never wanted to. But he thought, looking back, that he had been set down to work and study in a nearly foreign place and had to get used to it. Then he told me about the Second World War, when the disgrace of black soldiers being forced to sit behind white German POWs shook him. Shamed him.

[Part II]
About fifteen years later, in 1943, in early summer, I rode the bus for about three days from New York to Miami Beach, where my husband in sweaty fatigues, along with hundreds of other boys, was trudging up and down the streets and beaches to prepare themselves for war.

By late afternoon of the second long day, we were well into the South, beyond Richmond, maybe South Caroline or Georgia. My excitement about travel in the wide world was damaged a little by a sudden fear that I might not recognize Jess or he, me. We hadn’t seen each other for two months. I took a photograph out of my pocket; yes, I would know him.

I had been sleeping waking reading writing dozing waking. So many hours, the movement of the passengers was something like a tide that sometimes ebbed and now seemed to be noisily rising. I opened my eyes to the sound of new people brushing past my aisle seat. And looked up to see a colored woman holding a large sleeping baby, who, with the heaviness of sleep, his arms so tight around her neck, seemed to be pulling her head down. I looked around and noticed that I was in the last white row. The press of travelers had made it impossible for her to move farther back. She seemed so tired and I had been sitting and sitting for a day and a half at least. Not thinking, or maybe refusing to think, I offered her my seat.

She looked to the right and left as well as she could. Softly she said, Oh no. I became fully awake. A white man was standing right beside her, but on the other side of the invisible absolute racial border. Of course she couldn’t accept my seat. Her sleeping child hung mercilessly from her neck. She shifted a little to balance the burden. She whispered to herself, Oh, I just don’t know. So I said, Well, at least give me the baby. First, she turned, barely looked at the man beside her. He made no move. So, to my surprise, but obviously out of sheer exhaustion, she disengaged the child from her body and placed him on my lap. He was deep in child-sleep. He stirred, but not enough to bother himself or me. I liked holding him, aligning him along my twenty-year-old young woman’s shape. I thought ahead to that holding, that breathing together that would happen in my life if this war would ever end.

I was so comfortable under his nice weight. I closed my eyes for a couple of minutes, but suddenly opened them to look up into the face of a white man talking. In a loud voice he addressed me: Lady, I wouldn’t of touched that thing with a meat hook.

I thought, Oh, this world will end in ice. I could do nothing but look straight into his eyes. I did not look away from him. Then I held that boy a little tighter, kissed his curly head, pressed him even closer so that he began to squirm. So sleepy, he reshaped himself inside my arms. His mother tried to narrow herself away from that dangerous border, too frightened at first to move at all. After a couple of minutes, she leaned forward a little, placed her hand on the baby’s head, and held it there until the next stop. I couldn’t look up into her mother face.

[Part III]
I write this remembrance more than fifty years later. I look back at that mother and child. How young she is. Her hand on his head is quite small, though she tries by spreading her fingers wide to hide him from the white man. But the child I’m holding, his little face as he turns toward me, is the brown face of my own grandson, my daughter’s boy, the open mouth of the sleeper, the full lips, the thick little body of a child who runs wildly from one end of the yard to the other, leaps from dangerous heights with certain experienced caution, muscling his body, his mind, for coming realities.

Of course, when my mother and sister returned from Richmond, the family at home wanted to know: How was Vic doing in school along all those gentiles? Was the long bus ride hard, was the anti-Semitism really bad or just normal? What happened on the bus? I was probably present at that supper, the attentive listener and total forgetter of information that immediately started to form me.

Then last year, my sister, casting the net of old age (through which recent experience easily slips), brought up that old story. First I was angry. How come you never told me about your bus ride with Mama? I mean, really, so many years ago.

I don’t know, she said, anyway you were only about four years old, and besides, maybe I did. I asked my brother why we’d never talked about that day. He said he thought now that it had had a great effect on him; he had tried unraveling its meaning for years—then life family work happened. So I imagine him, a youngster really, a kid from the Bronx in Virginia in 1927; why, he was a stranger there himself.

In the next couple of weeks, we continued to talk about our mother, the way she was principled, adamant, and at the same time so shy. What else could we remember…Well, I said, I have a story about those buses, too. Then I told it to them: How it happened on just such a journey, when I was still quite young, that I first knew my grandson, first held him close, but could protect him for only about twenty minutes fifty years ago.

—1997

Details

Grace Paley, "Traveling," Just As I Thought, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1st edition, April 1998. (p. 31-35).


Discussion Questions

Review: Who wrote this essay? When? For what purpose and what audience?

Questions about "Traveling," Part I:

  1. What happens on the bus? (Describe it as objectively as possible)
  2. Grace Paley writes, "My mother had heard that something like this would happen. My sister had heard of it, too. They had not lived in it." Why do you think she emphasizes the difference between hearing of something and living something?
  3. How do you think Paley's mother and sister feel during their moment of personal resistance? What evidence of this do you find in the story?
  4. The last paragraph in Part I is primarily about Grace Paley's brother who is studying in the South. What is his experience as a Jew in the South? How does he handle his experience? How is his experience similar to that of his mother and sister's experience on the bus? How is it different?

Questions about "Traveling," Part II:

  1. It is now fifteen years after the events that took place in Part I. What happens to Grace Paley on the bus? (Describe it as objectively as possible)
  2. Which action or actions on Paley's part are moments of personal resistance? Where does it begin and end? Provide evidence for your position.
  3. On this trip, Grace Paley is married, but doesn't have any children. What evidence is there that she identifies with the African American mother she meets on the bus? How, if at all, do you think that identification plays a part in Paley's actions? Do you think identifying with someone is an essential part of standing up for them? Why or why not?
  4. Consider the role of the black woman in the story. Would you characterize her behavior in this story as personal resistance as well? Why or why not? Who do you think had more to lose, the black woman or Paley? Does that matter?

Questions about "Traveling," Part III:

  1. This part of the story takes place more or less in the present. Paley also mentions a child in this part of the story. Why do you think she included this reference to her grandchild in her story? What do you think the grandchild represents?
  2. How do you think Grace Paley and her mother helped change that world?
  3. According to Grace Paley, how did the earlier stories shape her and her brother?

A satirical essay by Harry Golden

The Vertical Negro Plan

…One of the factors involved in [North Carolina’s] tremendous industrial growth and economic prosperity is the fact that the South, voluntarily, has all but eliminated VERTICAL SEGREGATION. The tremendous buying power of the twelve million Negroes in the South has been based wholly on the absence of racial segregation. The white and Negro stand at the same grocery and supermarket counters; deposit money at the same bank teller’s window; pay phone and light bills to the same clerk; walk through the same dime and department stores, and stand at the same drugstore counters.

It is only when the Negro “sets” that the fur begins to fly.

Now, since we are not even thinking about restoring VERTICAL SEGREGATION, I think my plan would not only comply with the Supreme Court decision, but would maintain “sitting-down” segregation. Now here is the GOLDEN VERTICAL NEGRO PLAN. Instead of all those complicated proposals, all the next [state Legislature] session needs to do is pass one small amendment which would provide only desks in all the public schools of our state — no seats.

The desks should be those standing-up jobs, like the old fashioned bookkeeping desk. Since no one in the South pays the slightest attention to a VERTICAL NEGRO, this will completely solve our problem. And it is not such a terrible inconvenience for young people to stand up during their classroom studies. In fact, this may be a blessing in disguise. They are not learning to read sitting down, anyway; maybe standing up will help. This will save more millions of dollars in the cost of our remedial English course when the kids enter college. In whatever direction you look with the GOLDEN VERTICAL NEGRO PLAN, you save millions of dollars, to say nothing of eliminating forever any danger to our public education system upon which rests the destiny, hopes, and happiness of this society.

Details

Golden, Harry. Only In America, World Publishing Company, Cleveland and NY: 1958, p. 121-122. Permission granted by Richard Goldhurst.


Discussion Questions

  1. Review: Who wrote this essay? When? For what purpose and what audience?
  2. Summarize: What is the problem that Harry Golden wants to help "solve"? What is Golden's "solution"?
  3. On what does Golden base his "solution"? What disparity is he pointing out? Do you think Southerners were aware of this disparity?
  4. Based on Golden's essay, how do you think he feels about segregation? What point do you think he is trying to make?
  5. Why do you think Harry Golden chose to present his views on segregation satirically and not in a more direct essay or article? How, if at all, was your reaction different to his essay than to the other texts we read?
  6. How do you think Golden's essay might have changed him and/or his world?

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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Living the Legacy - Lesson: Moments of Personal Resistance." (Viewed on April 24, 2014) <http://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/civilrights/moments-of-personal-resistance>.