A welcome to readers

As a resident of this planet for more than four fifths of a century, I have enjoyed both successes and disappointments in a wide variety of vocations, avocations, and life experiences. This blog satisfies my desire to share some thoughts and observations--trenchant and prosaic--with those who are searching for diversions which are interesting, poignant and occasionally funny. I also plan to share recommendations about good/great movies I've watched and books and articles which I've found particularly mind-opening, entertaining, instructive. In addition, I can't pass up the opportunity to reflect publicly on how I am experiencing the so-called Golden Years. Write anytime:

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"The Help" Brings it Home. Resetting the Racism Default.

This is the hardest blog that I have tried to write. Why? Because I was raised at a time (40's-60's) and in a Southern culture (borderline geographically, but culturally unreconstructed Southern)  in which WASPs  (hereafter "OT" or "our type") shared  negative and destructive attitudes about those non-white people who lived among us who had skins that were varying shades of black or brown. As members of the "liberal" WASP class, we referred to them publicly as "Nigrahs," and thought nothing of joining a couple of the good ole boys at a party telling, listening to, and laughing at "Nigger jokes"  (ones that usually began, "Did ya hear the one about the two niggers who...?")

Now, if asked was I was prejudiced ("racist" wasn't in use at the time), I would have vehemently denied that I was and would further have explained that I had been taught at home to treat Nigrahs as if they were as good as we were ("we" being OT). I confess to not giving a lot of thought to Nigrahs one way or the other because I rarely was in direct contact with them. Society was strictly segregated black/white in schools, churches, neighborhoods, in movie theaters and ball parks, in restaurants and hotels.  In short, in my normal comings and goings, I never sat or stood next to a Black man or woman, never ate with one,  prayed with one, shopped with one, or, God forbid, dated one.

The one modest exception to this cultural reality of 'complete separation' was our family's version of "The Help." Over the course of my growing up, I was on a first name basis with Bernice Jones who did "heavy" housework and yard work for mother a few days each week. Then there was Alice Starks who did the washing, ironing, vacuuming, dusting, polishing, food preparing, bed-making, child-rearing, and disciplining around our home when mother was shopping,  attending one of her many church circle meetings, playing bridge with friends, or presiding over one of the various woman's clubs she belonged to or of which she was an elected official. They were in their place doing what they were supposed to do.

On the periphery of my life were Anne Carter and her husband, "Carter," who showed up at our house from time to time for special occasions, laden with a bags filled with bottles of heavy cream, cartons of  butter, tubs of shortening, sacks of bread flour, and a collection of special utensils and pots and pans that were used to assemble a glorious, fattening  (caloric, fat-filled, and oh so tasty) meal for some social function in our ample dining room. "Carter" wore a starched white waiter's jacket to go along with Anne's crisp white dress, apron,  and frilly nurses cap. He served Anne's homemade hors liced'oeuvres from sterling trays freshly polished by Alice, and distributed sparking grape juice (in lieu of bourbon) to guests in miniature crystal glasses since my parents religiously avoided any association with the immoral "Demon Alcohol." They, also, were in their place doing what they were supposed to do.

I did not know or relate to our "Help" as people, however. I knew where Alice lived only because we took Christmas gift checks to her on occasion, but I never knew more about her than that she had a husband who was mostly in jail and a son who was always in some undefined trouble. About Anne and "Carter's" life, I knew absolutely nothing. Bernice and I, on the other hand, had a number of conversations about my life and his, about cars and fishing, and about the "race problem" in the South, particularly during my early years at Yale Divinity School in the 60's.

A Brief Intermission

[At that time I was becoming somewhat enlightened about my racism because of the Civil Rights environment at Yale. Many Yale students joined our chaplain, William Sloan Coffin, Jr., in Freedom Rides. There were local sit-ins, discussions, colloquia. At the time, I was trying to decide what my own "Christian" response to  the Southern race issue should be. Should I go South with my teachers and friends and march and  demonstrate? Enrage my parents and their friends? Maybe get hurt physically? Get ostracised from the South forever?  Become one of those dreaded and despised "outside agitators? "Maybe lose my life like Chaney, Goodman, and Scherner?

I confess to being caught an internal conflict between what I newly perceived as a theologically derived moral duty and age-old cultural racial mores that were deeply ingrained in my Southern soul. I was also fearful of displeasing my family, or alienating all my Southern friends and relatives, especially my parents and my country cousins, mountain folk, who would have written me off forever. I faced the fact (not for the first time) that when my physical life and limb might be at risk, I turned chicken. I really was afraid of being hurt or killed even for the best of causes (I would have been a Conscientious Objector if drafted to avoid facing this issue directly). So, no matter the keenness of my Yale enlightenment, I was driven by deeper forces which were both obvious and obscure as I was going through my decision-making].

Return for Final Acts

Other than "The Help,"my association with "Nigrahs" was very limited.  I was a fan of Jackie Robinson whom I admired as a brave man for breaking into White baseball and for his incredible talents as a baseball player, and because he played on the same team as Pee Wee Reese, a Louisville product, who was occasionally a golfing partner of my uncle Emory. Somehow this connection made it OK to admire old Number 42 and the Dodgers, even though he was Black and controversial.

Then there was Cassius Clay, the boxer, another Louisville product. Clay, when I first saw him in person, was in his late teens, just returning by train from the Olympics where he had won a gold medal.  My family and I drove to Louisville's Union Station  to give him a hero's welcome home, perhaps out of civic zeal of some sort. I  remember mother's remark that day as we were exclaiming about what a handsome young man he was, and what an incredible fighter Clay was and what a glowing future there was ahead of him.  "Yes," she said, "and he obviously has white blood in him." The inference was not lost on me,  even then: a Black man without white blood couldn't be a champion, or a scholar, or a physician, or a great athlete, or President.  This was the default attitude I grew up with and that, in unguarded moments, functions automatically and unconsciously to this very day.

I could list many more Black men and women who performed on the edges of my life and consciousness--mostly as celebrities, entertainers and sports figures. However, there was no one, not one Afro-American man or woman who ever became part of my life on a daily basis, not  one I shared intimate feelings with, hopes for the future, worries--stuff that really matters.  This was the reality of my life until recently.

On the wall behind my desk is a photo, one that in itself reveals at least part of what has happened to me as a WASP racist in the last couple of years.  The photo is of three people: my 44 year old, white skinned, red-haired daughter, her new baby, Della, and her husband, Doug, a smiling black-skinned Afro-American man (should be capitalized "MAN") who has made Kate the happiest I've ever seen her, and who helped create Della, named after Nelson Mandela, but spelled to fit this miracle female child--conceived in vitro in their final attempt after years of effort  and dollars and dashed hopes and pregnancy tests, but finally, success, yes a miracle child for sure. Does color of skin make any difference to me now?

It has taken this miracle for me to see, to really "get it" deep down inside, what love and skin color and race are all about. To see Doug and Kate absolutely blown away by the little person they have created, and to be able to share that with them, to see their smiles and joy and wonder has erased much of the detritus left behind as I struggled to think my way out of many of my racist default settings.  The particularity of Doug-Della-Kate has become my new generality, the exception which now defines the rule. So, much to my surprise,  I now see Black people, mixed marriages, mixed race children--all with a different set of eyes.

I'd be lying to you if I said that I have no automatic racist responses any more; I do. But the second I do, I know it, and I cuss myself, and shift mental gears, and see the photo behind my desk, erase the old settings, and move on. What a relief!

1 comment:

  1. You should have a check box for amazing, and one for brave, and one for LOVE.

    I love you brave amazing interesting cool Pa. Holy crap what a blog entry. I've never read anything more important and honest anywhere.

    The world is better for having your words in it.
    I love you so,