by Jean Swearingen, January 23, 2013
I recently reread my (apparently original) paperback copy of Helen Doss’s book, The Family Nobody Wanted (1954, New York: Scholastic Book Services), the last half of which is set in Boonville in the early 1950’s, during the period of time that her then husband Carl was the Methodist minister at the churches in Boonville and Philo, and they lived in the parsonage in Boonville with their large family of 12 adopted children of mixed races/ethnicities. As with the first time I read it, it was surreal reading her descriptions of the same house in which I lived with my family during my first three years of school (when my father was the minister there several years later), having some of the same adventures with my older brother that these children experienced.
In one of the chapters Helen relates their efforts at adopting a four-year-old girl living at an orphanage in Germany, whose mother was German and whose father was an African-American soldier stationed there during World War II. Bogged down in bureaucracy throughout the international adoption process, and racism and prejudice throughout the Dosses’ circle of family members and acquaintances (not so much their generation, but the next one up), they eventually gave up, and were able to help facilitate little Gretchen’s adoption by an African-American family. So although none of the children they adopted and raised were of African-American ancestry, they still experienced the sting of non-acceptance because of their dark skin when they began school, something to which I was oblivious when I started at the same school in 1956.
It seems to me to be more than coincidental that Helen’s book was first published during the same year in which the U.S. Supreme Court passed its ruling in the historically significant Brown v. The Board of Education case, declaring the “separate but equal” doctrine segregating public schools in this country to be unconstitutional. Helen (who was born in 1915, the same year as my mother) makes a valid point in her book about prejudice being learned behavior; children are not born discriminating against each other, but pick up subtle cues from adults regarding whether to accept or reject differences of any nature, racial/ethnic or otherwise, between themselves and the other people with whom they come in contact throughout their lives. I believe this was one of the primary reasons why my parents left the Southern influence of their own upbringing to relocate to California two years prior to our move to Boonville; they wanted their children to be raised in an environment in which differences are not only accepted but embraced. Granted we were still far from that in 1956, even on the west coast, but hopefully closer than if my brother and I had been raised in Tennessee, Kentucky, or Georgia (where we lived just prior to moving to California two years earlier).
One of the facets of the book that I enjoyed the most is that Helen allowed the voices of the children, in their natural, curious, and spontaneous tones, to be clearly heard throughout the narrative. Like any adoptive, blended, or even biological family, the children had their differences with each other, but, thanks to Carl and Helen’s example, racial intolerance was never a factor. By the time she had begun writing the book, Helen was a fairly seasoned author/journalist, having served as Redwood Empire/Anderson Valley correspondent for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, reporting on local happenings in Boonville, such as school board meetings, Lodge activities, and the Fair. She and Carl eventually divorced in 1964 and both remarried, and she is now 97 and living in Yuba City with her second husband, Roger Reed.
A few weeks before Christmas, right around the time that my last article was printed about those three years that my family lived in Boonville, and right before relocating from Clearlake to Ukiah, I spent some time in and around Sacramento visiting with friends, and viewed the current exhibit at the Crocker Art Museum, entitled AMERICAN CHRONICLES: The Art of Norman Rockwell (which is still on view there through February 3rd). Born in 1894, a generation before Helen Doss and my mother, Rockwell was, like them, motivated by a spiritual imperative to use his talents to further the cause of racial harmony. Of all of the paintings he completed throughout his life, one of the most controversial was The Problem We All Live With, from 1963, which was reproduced in the January 14, 1964 issue of Look magazine. The painting was also on display at the White House from July through October, 2011, during which its principal subject, Ruby Bridges, now 58, viewed and discussed it with President Obama.
The painting depicts six-year-old Ruby’s walk, flanked by four white male deputy US Marshalls in perfect step with one another, to an all-white public elementary school in New Orleans on November 14, 1960 (six years after the Brown v. The Board of Education decision was rendered), the first African-American student to ever attend that school. Seeing the original painting taking up considerable space on the museum wall, I noticed so many subtle nuances that had never caught my attention in smaller and less distinct reproductions. Despite the racist scrawls and tomato stain on the wall of the building that the quintet are passing, the focus is clearly on little Ruby, her dark skin a stark contrast to her all-white apparel, even up to the bow in her black hair. There is an unmistakable pride and sense of resolve about her regal bearing, as if, even at that tender age, she is acutely aware of the significant historical impact of her presence on that walk.