James Redmond teaches Ancient History at a college in central Connecticut.
My folks were from Jamaica, my daddy black, my momma white. Daddy was a technician on a sugar burner on a plantation, an engineer except for the fact that he was “colored,” as they called him. But colored in Jamaica in those days didn’t carry much sting, although opportunity could be limited. It was more like calling a redhead “carrot-top.”
People were unsure what to call me because of my mother. My complexion was medium. In 1962, when I was 8, we moved to Louisiana and I was called a “negra,” and the N-word, which I had only heard before on television and in movies. It was back country, sugar fields, in Vacherie, up from New Orleans.
Not long afterward came Cassius Clay and the “Black is Beautiful” movement. But in my mind I wasn’t black, I wasn’t white. I was Jimmy Redmond Reston, or J.R. or Double R.
I played a lot of baseball, some football, and was lanky, so it was either receiver or first base for me. On the field, we weren’t anything but the position we played. “Hey, first base – look alive!” Sometimes a boy would be called “Shawty,” or “Fatty,” but race didn’t come into it unless we played an all-white team. Then the words flew and sometimes the fists.
As I grew up, I went to a small college up North – in Connecticut, played outfield in baseball, and the words melted away. The sugar fields and the sugar cookers melted away. No matter what they might be thinking, those boys and girls wouldn’t say a word out of place. I appreciated their self-restraint because bigotry still existed but their folks (or teachers) were training it out of them.
When Barack Obama became President, I really didn’t know what to think at first. There was no quick “aha” moment. But gradually it sank in. He was like me. I was like him, except I wasn’t President. I was a college professor and proud to work for my alma mater, the place that had first been completely neutral about what I am, and considered me for who I am.
Things haven’t changed enough, but they’ve changed a lot since Louisiana in the 1960s.