Monday, June 3, 2013
I've told this story before, but in light of the recent "controversy" regarding a Cheerios spot with an interracial couple, it's worth repeating.
Years ago, I was down in New Orleans to shoot a documentary, Home Movie (Two Thumbs Up from the late Roger Ebert). We weren't actually in N'orlans, we were 50 miles southwest of the city, in the far reaches of the Bayou Boeuf.
On one particular hot and muggy day -- they were all hot and muggy -- the humidity was messing with the camera lens, so the shooting slowed to a snail's pace. We found ourselves killing time and chatting with some of the locals, who mistook us for big time Hollywood guys.
I distinctly remember sitting on a lawn chair and talking to Earlene, a woman who looked a decade older than her 44 years on earth. In those 44 years it became apparent that she had never sat in a dentist's chair. While not long on dental hygiene or book learning or even proper foot coverings, Earlene was blessed with the gift of country wisdom.
She told me tales about the Ku Klux Klan coming through her neck of the woods and terrorizing the black residents. She told me how the Bayou was literally split in two. And how the two communities never, or tried not to, interact with each other. She told me how hate hung in the air like a late afternoon thunderstorm.
She also shared some interesting observations about inbreeding. You see, in their desire to keep the races pure, white folks in this secluded rural area only dated other white folks. Most of whom were distantly related, second cousins, third cousins and such.
In other words, the gene pool was getting dangerously shallow.
As a result, there was an increase in the population of babies born with birth defects, mental retardation and learning disabilities. (Snarky comment: the last category must have been hard to detect.)
But sometime back in the 1940's or '50's, a few brave souls dared to cross the color line.
As you might imagine, it was not looked upon favorably. And the racial turmoil of the 1960's did nothing to help the matter. Then something interesting happened. The health of the babies, that is the mixed race babies, being born in the bayou improved.
The gene pool had expanded. And so did the notion of what was and wasn't acceptable.
Slowly, the line of separation was being erased.
In fact, as Earlene put it, "years later, there were no longer two communities, of equal numbers, but three communities, white, black and mixed." As it turned out, the thing that people feared the most -- interracial dating -- was the thing that literally saved them.
After a lunch of chicken fried in muddy thick black oil, the skies erupted and we were pelted with a passing 20 minute rain.
The humidity dropped.
The air thinned out.
And the camera lens was suddenly clear.