FROM CHEESESTOCK TO CULTURAL CUES
By Terri White
“Mimi,” asked Tristan, “did you go to Woodstock?”
“No, but I attended a similar rock fest in Wisconsin.”
Without skipping a beat, Tristan responded, “Did they call it Cheesestock?”
It was 1970 during my dad’s gubernatorial race. After a campaign event, I escaped with my friends to the Wisconsin boonies. They held it in a rural pasture with all the trappings of Woodstock – except no rain. Unseasonably warm that weekend, the temperature rose to 70 degrees. An April heatwave for us Wisconsinites.
Ahhh, the carefree years of young adults. Still in college and supported by parents, we worked part-time jobs for spending money. The late ‘60s and ‘70s music told the tale of the times. “The Times Are a Changing” rasped Bob Dylan. Indeed.
It was the best of times and the worst of times. The Vietnam Conflict raged while college students demonstrated against it. The Civil Rights Movement exploded. Black Panthers. Weatherman. SDS. Molotov cocktails flew. Heads bashed. Students and police clashed - tear gas hanging in the air the next morning. Jail sentences. Violence met with violence.
Many, though, worked peacefully to bring about change. Quiet, candlelit marches expressed our opposition to our involvement in Vietnam. My dad and others promoted “dove” political candidates running for various offices. Busses of northern college students drove south to participate in sit-ins for black civil rights.
To further racial understanding, the University of Wisconsin joined an exchange student program with Louisiana’s Grambling College, the famed all-black college in which Eddie Brown churned out NFL pros. Universities from Ohio and North Dakota joined the program as well.
After a thorough vetting, I hopped aboard a Greyhound bus bound for Louisiana. The closest I had ever come to the South was driving through it on the way to Florida for spring break. I was in for a surprise.
What did I, a while middle class girl from the North Central Midwest, know of racial relationships? Only what my parents taught me: to respect all people no matter their race, religion, or financial status. But understanding the nuances of cultural differences? Nothing. Zero. No one talked about that.
So, totally unprepared, I dove in. Three other students from my campus and eight others from the other two campuses attempted to navigate the cultural cues. Meanwhile, the twelve Grambling students sent to the three northern campuses struggled likewise.
The Grambling students and staff were the black folks who stayed behind under Jim Crow laws instead of joining the 1910-1970 Great Migration to the North and West. These were the folks who endured. The ones whose relationships with whites were always more conspicuously on thin ice. Not the subtlety of northern bigotry. It never occurred to me.
Black migration? Jim Crow? To me, people were just people. But they’re not. Sure, we are all human with the same needs and similar desires. However, a culture’s history seeps into the DNA. The suffering. The triumphs. The abuse. The joys. The deprivation. The teachings. The struggles. The parenting, or lack of it. They are passed down subtly and explicitly.
Regardless of one’s ancestors, those experiences, handed down over the centuries, determine the culture of a people.
Enter this naïve 21-year-old, who takes people at face value – not picking up the nuances, expecting others to think like me. Why wouldn’t I? I had only experienced white, middleclass Midwesterners with rare exceptions.
There were kindnesses. Once at the student union, a fellow asked if anyone would play chess with him. I volunteered. Soon other students surrounded us. Within three moves, I realized I was in way over my head. Clueless about strategy, I only knew how to move the players. The game dragged on. Finally, defeated, I bowed out gracefully – totally embarrassed.
I’ve often thought about that day. Not long ago, I realized that my opponent knew immediately that I was out of my depth. So to not embarrass me, he took his time beating me when he could likely have won in three or four moves. A kindness.
When my girlfriend from UW visited me on spring break, we piled into a car with my Grambling friends to party elsewhere. As we chatted, Jo turned to me, “I can’t understand what they’re saying.” I had to “translate” the southern, black dialect for her. Interestingly, I don’t remember struggling with that.
My roommate, gone most of the time student teaching, was cordial, but we never developed a relationship. However, one of the other UW exchange students visits her Grambling roommate to this day. That remarkable friendship remains the touchstone of the program.
Our dorm provided the usual common area with comfy chairs and a TV. In those days, Saturday night featured iconic family programs, one of which was “All in the Family” with the infamous Archie Bunker.
On my own one evening, I strolled into the room. Since it was packed, I sat in the only empty chair at the back. Oh, how I wanted to laugh! Because that program, if you understood the sarcasm, was hilarious. However, not wanting to offend the others, I remained quiet. Eventually, I eased out of the room, too uncomfortable to stay.
Cultural nuances. What were they? How to respond?
At the end of the semester, someone pushed me, shattering my right elbow. It never occurred to me to inform the college officials about it. Years later, I realized that even in 1971, Grambling could have experienced a backlash from the southern white community had I reported it. Fortunately, the incident was not racially motivated. Just a hothead who lost control of his emotions. The school provided transportation to the doctor. In a temporary cast, I flew home for surgery, ending my exchange experience.
I encountered the discomfort of being conspicuously the only white person in the room. Of not knowing the acceptable responses. Of not feeling safe in certain situations. All crucial to understanding the culture.
Then that summer, a friend from Grambling surprised me with a visit. Between letters and visits, he asked me to marry him two years later. By that time, I had graduated from college and was working as a school librarian in Virginia. He had secured a teaching job in Seattle. With all the best intentions, that ship had sailed. It was not to be. I returned to Wisconsin to reboot my life.