Of of my most interesting lessons in race I learned this while sharing a tent in a heavy rain storm during officer’s training with a black guy, namely that black people had the same sorts of notions about the strange ways of white people as we did them, and even learned them in the same places.
It was hot and steamy, and we’d pitched our shelter halves in a hurry. We were both wet, both trying to find a way to settle into a comfortable sleep on the ground, which even with pine needles, was already wet. Harry was 6’2, looked like Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns, and I has almost half his size. It was awfully steamy, and we both were perspiring, hoping that darkness would bring in a little cooler air. Then just out of the blue Harry said, “You know, you don’t smell like I thought you would. I was always taught white people just stunk to high heaven when they got all sweaty.”
I laughed so hard my sides split.
“What?” Harry said.
“You know, I was taught the very same thing in my house, ‘specially around election day.” Harry laughed harder, so he knew that old joke, too, then we both laughed and fell off asleep, awakening the next morning, rolling up our gear, grabbing our M14’s and heading off into another day of learning how to lead men. (We were part of a select team, the only ones who actually beat the Vietnam vets who served as the aggressor forces in our war games, so at the end of that camp they took a photo of all seven of us together. Harry had an M60 (machine gun) balanced on his hip like he was about to go bear hunting. My youngest son, who followed the NFL for years until Colin Kaepernick came along to jerk that taste out of his mouth, has that photo now, for both of Harry’s sons were NFL players.
Now, back-step 5 or 6 years.
My dad was a racist. He even told me so when I was in high school. But he also told me it was wrong. It was just how things had always been, a part of the fabric of the society he’d been born into.
Then he told me something very profound, and something about which he’d obviously been thinking about for a long time. He said, “When I die, this kind of racism will die with me. If you become a racist, it will be for other reasons. Store-bought reasons. Not the reasons that ruled the South the past hundred years.”
Dad had obviously given this “lecture” some thought, for he saved it up for a road trip to the county seat in the car. At night. It was my senior year, and the times were a’changin’, for the public schools in Kentucky had finally desegregated. And being an engineer, and critical thinker, albeit a very quiet one (I doubt he had many friends he could confide in on these kinds of subjects) I assume he’d been assessing all the changes going on with the Civil Rights Movement. His world was collapsing.
But his message to me, at 17, was very simple, but scientifically correct. He held private ideas about race that did not comport with the “official view”, namely there were good blacks, “colored people” he called them, and very few n-words, the bad apples. In our house the “n-word” would get your mouth washed out with soap as quickly as all those trashy words I see used daily on Twitter. But not in our town. In our town every black man had a job in the mines, and at the same pay rate of the whites. And they had families, so housing was just like the whites, so he must not have been talking about them. There was a commercial town just down river a few miles, where everyone shopped, drank and honky-tonked, so maybe he was talking about black people there. He never said. I just knew it was something he’d given some thought to.
He said, “When I die the racism of my time will die with me. Every time a man or woman from our time dies, they will be buried with their racism, for it’s impossible in nature for a parent to teach either love or hate with the same depth of feeling as they have. You’re mother can teach you to love God, but no matter how hard she tries, and God knows, son, she’ll try, you’ll have to blaze your own trail to heaven. It’s the same with hate. Now I’ve never hated black people, but we both know people who do, and people who preach it inside their homes as if it were a religion. You know some of their kids in school. I’ve always taught you to avoid these people.” (“Avoid loud and aggressive people, for they are vexations to the spirit”- Desiderata, a poem by Max Ehrmann).
What Dad did not say, but implied, and as I watched evolve myself over the next 40 years with my own children, was how those new other reasons seemed to spring up in the same way Jim Crow did in the South… from the top down. Government and education, state-based at first, then the federal government once Dr King was conveniently taken out of the picture, and the only thing that linked the Jim Crow of state governments and the race-based institutions (government and education) of the federal government is the Democratic Party.
If my father was racist as he confessed he was, simply because he was born into that system, then the federal government that designed that race-based systems since 1967 is also racist.
Every person who is born accepts the world that he/she is born into as “the one and only world”, at least until they reach their own age of enlightenment, which comes at different times in their lives, based on what they had been taught, what they had observed with the own two eyes, and how they used what thinking skills God gave them to make sense of it all.
My dad questioned institutional Jim Crow because he knew of individual black men who did not fit the mold he had been taught that justified the institution. He never completely sorted that out in his mind until he left the South and retired to Arizona. He never knew a college-educated black person until then, but I knew several soon-to-be’s in high school. Southern mothers felt the same way about black women they knew from the black churches, who sometimes came by to shuck beans on the back stoop, or, in my house, also came in to tend her when she was sickly, i.e., Mizz Motley, bringing her own boys to sleep in. I was told, years later in Louisiana, that it was the white mothers and wives of KKK members who sped the fall of Jim Crow after they had seen their clean-cut sons at the universities of Mississippi and Alabama making fools of themselves in front of television cameras as federal troops opened those schools to black students, making daddy proud, but shaming Mom. Many of them locked their husbands out of the bedroom and refused to cook for them until they stopped. (No, really.)
Thomas Jefferson was against slavery, but since he also knew “how things worked”, i.e. how slavery defined southern culture, knew that there would be no peaceable end to it in his lifetime. But his opinion of blacks as people was that they were lesser. Only this was also how many New England Yankees felt about post-Civil War negroes, “They didn’t care how big they got just as long as they didn’t get too close”– Dick Gregory, 1960s.
But Stonewall Jackson believed blacks were smart and not only could be taught, but should be taught, which created a firestorm in Lexington, VA when he suggested this very thing while stationed there before the Civil War. But Stonewall wanted to teach black kids to read the Bible, with Sunday Schools, (which inferred they had souls, and were real people “from the Bible” which popular scripture in the South didn’t teach). Maybe that’s the real reason BLM took Stonewall’s statues down, for you can see how that would set fires today in Portland, if the Bible were ever presented to Black Lives Matter as a positive teaching tool. No different than it would have in Virginia in 1855, for you see, BLM also believes black people have no souls. And like Jim Crow, that’s a socially profitable thing to believe.
We are all born a blank slate, and our path to learning how is how we think our way through the things we are taught at home, in school, and in church. For most Americans today, they only have Door #1 to work with. Home. So make the best of it
My Dad was raised a racist….but….he allowed, even encouraged me to learn how not to be…unless a new reason came along.