Welcome to everyone who attended this year’s Black Gay Pride. I’m a gay white man who grew up in Atlanta during the Civil Rights Movement. Much of the fight to integrate Atlanta during those years occurred in restaurants. I thought this week I’d share some history of that.
The most shocking and shameful example here was the Pickrick Restaurant, owned by Lester Maddox, who actually became governor of Georgia for one term in 1971 after closing his restaurant. Ole Lester refused to comply with the Civil Rights Act. When black troublemakers attempted to go in the restaurant, the patrons grabbed axe handles stored by the door and chased them into the parking lot. Incredibly, the axe handles, nicknamed “Pickrick drumsticks,” were sold by the thousands as souvenirs.
Meanwhile, a bizarre example of so-called genteel racism flourished at Aunt Fanny’s Cabin in Smyrna, north of the city. It was located in an old slave cabin. Visitors literally from all over the world learned the restaurant’s history: Long ago, a benevolent plantation owner freed Aunt Fanny and gave her the cabin. She was famous for her cooking and lived out her 100 years sharing it with locals. In 1941, a white couple bought the cabin and opened the restaurant, honoring Aunt Fanny’s memory.
Menus were printed on chalk boards worn around the necks of young black boys who stared at the floor as they sing-sang the menu. The servers were all women in patchwork dresses and do rags. At one point, they gathered around a piano and sang gospel music, ending with “Dixie,” which they eventually refused to sing
Of course, as it turned out, the history of Aunt Fanny’s cabin was a complete fiction. That’s something racism has always done to perpetuate itself. It hides itself in a comfortable myth. This one depicted plantation life as joyous. After the restaurant closed in the early ‘90s, the City of Smyrna bought the building and turned it into a welcome center. That’s right. An icon of racism became a welcome center.
Both of those restaurants are closed. But the most famous restaurant of the period, Paschal’s (180 Northside Dr., 404-525-2023) is still open, albeit in a different location from its original. This is the restaurant where, it’s often said, the Civil Rights Movement was hatched by Martin Luther King and his circle of “communist rabble rousers.”
Notably, each of these restaurants served soul food, brought here by people of African heritage and shared with white Southerners. How is it that people like Lester Maddox and Paula Deen never stop to consider that cooking, as shared heritage, is an invitation to a shared table? After all, consider Thanksgiving. Abraham Lincoln popularized the story of Indians and Pilgrims feasting together as an example of needed unity. Nice try, Abe, but that legendary story is mainly fiction too. In fact, what really became designated as Thanksgiving Day occurred amid horrific slaughter of Indian families. But our myth, taught in pre-school, almost completely mythologizes the ugly history that nobody wants to hear.
It was obvious to me, even as a teenager, that racism and classism don’t just wound the hated minority. They also deprive the racist himself of the wonder and new associations that arise in stepping out of one’s comfort zone, as happens with travel. By the time I was 15, I was taking the bus from the lily-white suburbs to downtown Atlanta, exploring African-American culture, eating in cheap restaurants and frequently causing a stir as being a kid with the only white face in sight. I think this adventuring had a lot to do with being bullied in high school and relating to the black community’s oppression. The people I met downtown, especially in a school where I did volunteer work, taught me a lot about living with marginalization. I was mindful of that when I finally emerged from the closet.
When I did come out, illegal segregation was still common in Atlanta’s gay bar scene, well into the ‘80s. It wasn’t unusual for bars to require three pieces of identification from black patrons and usually none from white ones. It still seems odd to me that many gay white men are racist, as if they can’t relate their own status as a long-oppressed minority to that of African-Americans.
The adventure doesn’t end with racism. Now we’re rife with xenophobia . During the last 25 years, Atlanta has exploded with restaurants opened by first- and second-generation immigrants — enough to inspire the Donald to build a wall around Atlanta. I love these restaurants because they are an opportunity to continue the interchange of cultures through usually superlative cuisine. If you’re still shy about that, just take one terrified step into a Mexican taqueria or Vietnamese pho shop on Buford Highway. You’ll encounter delicious “authentic” cuisine and deepen your respect of minorities.
So, understand, white people, that black people and other minorities are being fully assimilated in America, but they still honor their unique heritage. Spare us all the claim that if there’s a Black Pride there should be a white one. White Pride occurs every day and because it does, it necessitates celebration by diverse cultures to preserve their heritage. Get yourself to a subterranean Korean restaurant on Buford Highway and you’ll get a delicious taste of feeling like an outsider.