I grew up in the red state of Oklahoma at a time when “red” simply meant that just about everyone who lived there had Native American blood (including Elizabeth Warren and me). The election of Donald Trump, who fomented racial hatred against any number of “others” during his divisive presidential campaign, has reminded me of my childhood and the values I am proud to have grown up with during a time when tumultuous social changes were just beginning to rock the US.
My parents, Robert and Diane (nee Brodie) Celarier, were both from Arkansas.
They weren’t overtly political but they were FDR-era Southern Democrats, a minority in the small college town of Stillwater, Oklahoma. They were not afraid to be different. My dad, who was a college professor of botanical genetics, was from Little Rock, and one of my first political memories is watching on our black and white TV the ugly fight to stop the integration of a Little Rock high school in 1957. I can still see it in my mind, as the Arkansas National Guard was called in by Gov. Faubus to stop black students from entering the school, in direct defiance of the US Supreme Court mandate on racial desegregation. It was one of the first big events in the Civil Rights Movement.
We didn’t know any African-Americans, whom polite people called “Negroes,” in Stillwater. (They lived not far from us, however, in what we called “colored town.”) But my parents told my sister, Mimi, and I that the color of their skin did not matter; they were just as good as we were. Bigotry and racism had no place in our household, where the “N” word was forbidden.
My dad was, and remains, my hero. He also had an unusual tolerant view of religion for people in what we used to call the “Bible Belt.” Daddy had left the Catholic Church (Celariers were French Catholics, not Huguenots) to marry my protestant mom and had us reading Darwin’s “The Origin of the Species” at an early age. Mom was (and still is) a Methodist, but Daddy did not believe in baptizing children at birth. He thought people should study religions and decide which one they agreed with (I settled on Unitarian Universalism). I also found out much later that Daddy, who died suddenly of a heart attack when I was ten, thought intermarriage between the races was the only thing that would end racial discrimination. (He was a geneticist, after all.) My mother remains a fervent Democrat, although most of the rest of the family followed the South into the Republican Party after the 60s. (I left Oklahoma after college, moving first to Boston, then the Northwest (Bellingham and Seattle) and finally to New York, with a two-year reporting stint in Frankfurt, Germany, in the 1990s.)
By no stretch of the imagination can I be considered part of the “media elite.” My parents grew up in the Great Depression quite poor, but they were smart and wanted an education more than anything else. My dad joined the Navy during World War II (Happy Veterans’ Day!) and thanks to the GI bill was able to go to college and get a PhD. Mom couldn’t afford teacher’s college so she went to a business school and learned typing and shorthand. After my father died, she worked for decades at Oklahoma State University, starting off as the secretary in the philosophy department and becoming the top administrative assistant in the Global Studies division where, for a time, her boss was a Muslim from Kenya. She held everything together (and now has a really good pension).
In recent months, my mom, a spry 94, said the thing that she feared most was the election of Donald Trump. It’s going to be okay, I told her when, rather shaken, she called me the day after he was elected. It was what I was also saying to reassure my Muslim, Mexican, African American, Jewish, women and gay friends. I hope I’m right.