Growing Up Racist

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As I was growing up in the 1950s, my dear Mother (may she rest in peace) did everything she could to convince me that White was Superior, and that Blacks needed to stay “in their place”.

She was a good Christian woman who thought the KKK went too far, but that white people were clearly and unarguable entitled to stay on top, and black people should stay on bottom. Considering the area was geographically Illinois but culturally Dixie may have affected her thinking. That, and the rumor which I had heard, unconfirmed, that after the American Civil War, a black family tried to move into my home county and was escorted across the line in certain terms. (The county being one of those Midwest things, twenty miles on a side, smaller than some ranches in Texas.)

There were black people in all the other counties around us, and when on shopping trips, I would tend to stare at them as if seeing some being from another planet.   In truth, there were mostly WASPs in my home county, with a smattering of German Catholics and one or two Italians and Irish. The names, especially of the townships, reflected sturdy English yeomanry, Whitlow, Crouch, Mayberry, and the like.

Song of the South (zip-a-dee-do-dah, y’all) was a popular Disney movie when I was very little. Nobody has seen it for over 50 years, because it was based on the Uncle Remus stories of Joel Chandler Harris, about blacks and whites in the South under slavery. All the black folks jus’ lubbed dem white folks in the big house who had better food, better clothes, and freedom, and wuz loyal to the bitter end. And the white folks jus lubbed dem black folks and patronizingly took care of their poor inferior souls. If you ever heard of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, Br’er Bear, and the Tar Baby in the Briar Patch, this is where it came from. Uncle Remus was a caricature of a bigot’s view of black people, yet I have known a few black folks who practice that stereotype (probably as a matter of learned self-preservation).

It is on a par with… no, it is more notorious than its first cousin, Gone with the Wind. (Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for that, but had to sit at a ‘segregated’ table apart from the white actors.) Not until the mid-Seventies would a film come along (and could not be made today) that would rip apart the silliness of racism in a way that got under the skin of bigotry by mocking its presumptions unmercifully – Blazing Saddles.

 

When I grew into the Sixties, and the Civil Rights marches were on the nightly news, accompanied by the attendant assaults by Southern Sheriffs and KKK-sympathizers, my dear Mother would remark how, “Those people are being agitated by outsiders”, evidence to the contrary.   When the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior would appear on the Nightly News, she would say, “He’s a Communist.” It did not help her blood pressure when she would hear me reply, “No, Mother, he’s a Baptist.”

She once tried to justify her ideas to me by telling of the time she and Daddy were living in Texas during WW2, and her neighbor across the (back) alley, an old black woman, once told her, “I knows my place.” I would always remind her, that if the old black woman had said anything else at that time and place, she would have been burned out of her home.

And in my Senior year English class, we had to write an essay with supporting documentation on a topic of our own choosing. My topic was the injustice of racism, drawing from such varied sources as John Howard Griffin’s classic Black Like Me, and the recently published Autobiography of Malcolm X as well as MLK’s Why We Can’t Wait. It was not received well, especially by a friend I had known since the first grade, who told me the Bible was against blacks because of Ham, one of Noah’s sons (it takes a lot of scripture-twisting to arrive at this, btw. ).   I reminded him that when Miriam, Moses’ sister objected to his “Ethiopian” wife, God gave her what she wanted, a leprous skin of blinding whiteness (Numbers 12: 1-16). He was a good Bible Literalist, and so didn’t know what to say to that.

In college, one of my roommates was a black Baptist from Richmond, Virginia. The college, in central Illinois, had only three years before begun admitting black kids, and had to go to the businessmen in town (small town) to discover who would not object to black patronage. (Not “welcome”, but “accept”. A minor distinction, but an important first step.)

But withal, Mother’s propaganda had an effect.

When another friend and I took the City of New Orleans north to Chicago to apply for admission to the University of Chicago (we both failed to get in), we were decanted on to a street in the Chicago South Side. Never before in my life had I seen a population composed entirely of black people, and it was intimidating.

And when, in college, I dated a girl friend (who looked and sang like Diana Ross, or so I thought), it felt daring and revolutionary. And a bit risky. We were sitting together the night Star Trek broke through the barrier, and on Plato’s Stepchildren, had the first “interracial” kiss between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura (it really wasn’t the ‘first’, but that’s a minor quibble. It’s the most famous First Kiss.). And we cheered, quite unbelieving. (And didn’t need to be forced.)

My Mother was not happy with my strange notions. Daddy was quite unconcerned. He had worked in construction around a wide variety of people, and his condemnations had nothing with skin color, religion, or culture, but only with the issue of hard worker or lazy dog, and he was most eloquent about how a lot of lazy rednecks were outperformed by honest “niggers”. (Yes, he used that word. It was the only one he knew. And he probably meant about as much by it as a black man calling someone a “honkey”.

But there is one thing perhaps I should mention. My Mother’s campaign for Aryan regard was sabotaged – by herself — quite unknowingly one Saturday afternoon when I was ten years old.

We had been to a zoo in a nearby town, and after had a picnic and went to a permanent fair, an amusement park with a large Ferris wheel. We had taken along a cousin, and when he and I ran wild through the park, we came at last to that Ferris wheel. There were so many kids there, the attendant was shoving three kids in each gondola regardless of what they were. And so my cousin and I were seated with a black kid about 7 or 8 years old. I had absorbed some of Mother’s thinking, and was, as mentioned, totally unfamiliar with anyone to looked different, so I (say with shame) maneuvered to have my cousin sit next to the black kid.

We had a glorious time rising up into the air, and looking about. We made friends, all three of us, and perhaps only had three revolutions of the Wheel before being told out to make room for some more kids.

When we got off, my Mother was waiting, and immediately went to my cousin, and brushed his arm, the one which had been next to the black kid, as if brushing off dirt. I looked back, to see the black kid staring at us. He had turned also to wave good-bye, and the sudden hurt in his eyes told me all I would ever need to know about racism. And I never forgave Mother for what she did.

There was another side. One of my classmates, from New Jersey, desperately wanted to be a Black Militant, in spite of his father being a well-to-do dentist. He was ever haranguing (especially the middle-class white liberals) on “Four Hundred Years Of White Guilt”. It worked, too, on all the middle-class guilty white liberals on campus.   I once asked him if that were so, could I have back the life of my G-great grandfather, an immigrant from Germany, who died at Shiloh to make all men free. My classmate was not amused. (He also disapproved of interracial dating as “diluting the strength of the black man”.) For some reason, he never liked me. Ta-Nesi Coates “reparations” sound a lot like my Jersey classmate ‘s “four hundred years of white guilt” — a street hustle is a hustle, regardless of how pretty it’s dressed up.

My own children, I tried to raise without that sort  nonsense, and it mostly worked. Anything they got came from the surrounding culture, from their school friends, and not from home. This to the point where my daughter once off-handedly remarked, “Dad doesn’t hate anything but bigots.”

But ever and anon, because of my upbringing, in the time and place, I discover certain racial epithets come into the back of my skull and do not want to depart. Yes, I am “racist”, in that sense. But no amount of imposed scorn by the guilt-tripping purveyors of Politico-Social Correctness can hurt like what I feel when I slip. (Their fraught concern seems more for wishing the demise of their political and cultural enemies than any real effort to inculcate a morality-based ethic.)

On the other hand, I think that erasing the artifacts of the past because they are uncomfortable for some people today is horrible, as if erasing the reminders will erase the reality of history. Calhoun College, renamed? Removing the Rebel battle flag from monuments? Blasting the profiles of Confederate generals off Stone Mountain? How asinine. What’s next, calling for Winston Smith and RecDep to rectify all history to conform with the prejudices of the present half-hour?

All my past is of no avail when dealing with the self-loathing guilt-mongers. Whatever case I may present is contemptuously dismissed as “privilege”. So, I have given up. To the charge of being racist, I therefore respond, “Why, yes, yes I am.”

Now what? I will not be slut-shamed because of the color of my skin – not being middle-class or liberal, I do not suffer from the self-loathing which are the hallmark of Middle-Class White Liberal Guilt, nor lured by some Aryan Brotherhood – with the delusion an absence of melanin is a mark of superiority — because of it. Where do we go from here? What’s it to you? Is there something you think I ought to do?

Or, more importantly, what are YOU going to do about it?

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