I grew up in New York City in the ’50s. So when a friend of mine posted this, and I watched it, I was naturally struck with feelings of nostalgia for times and events in my life that are now gone forever.
But along with the nostalgia and wistfulness was an overpowering awareness that I was watching the documentary of a reality that only existed for some Americans. The stark contrast, totally ignored in this yearning little video, is well represented in this image from Life Magazine:
Those happy folks in the back, smiling in their car… those are the people we see in the video. The ones in the front, waiting in a bread line, were not even visible anywhere.
It was great to be white in the ’50s.
You grow up in that environment, and you grow up a racist, and a sexist, even though there may not be a malicious bone in your body. Racism and sexism were in the blood and bones and DNA of society, and you were bombarded with blatant or subconscious reminders that women’s place was in the kitchen (barefoot, pregnant, and with no vote)¹, and black lives didn’t only not matter, they were totally invisible.
This one was relatively subtle. There was much, much worse out there.
With a history like that, anyone born in the ’50s or even the ’60s is going to have these attitudes driven deep into their psyches, and they are devilishly hard to expurgate completely. That’s why a person who wants to have a positive effect on the world around them needs to pay attention to the advice below (which applies to any “-ism,” not just racism) and practice it on a daily basis. Not unlike alcoholics in recovery who realize and understand that they are never really “cured,” these ways of thinking will surface at a moment’s notice given half a chance.
The Old Wolf has spoken.
¹ Things have improved, at least on the surface – but sexism in American society is still a very real phenomenon, particularly in the workplace. Advertising agencies, still embarrassingly aware that sex sells almost more than anything, still pump out sexist ads, although in the #MeToo era, some companies are issuing mea culpas (but only when they get caught out).
As for racism? Sometimes I wonder if we’ve made any progress at all since Selma. Some of the things I’m seeing now in terms of voter suppression in Georgia and other GOP states recalls a very dark stage of American history, as outlined brilliantly by Heather Cox Richardson.
First off, a disclaimer: I’m not a sociologist. I don’t claim to be well-versed in the psychology of racism, bigotry, or prejudice. These are my own thoughts, based on a lifetime of experience and observation from someone born into white privilege and adopted into a generally disparaged faith.
This is a long post. Sorry not sorry.
They taught us about slavery in elementary school. We learned about the ship that arrived in 1620 carrying “twenty and odd negroes.” We learned about how people were stacked in ships like sardines. We learned about the Civil War, and the Emancipation Proclamation. But we learned nothing about what it was like to be a slave, or the 400-year aftermath.¹
A white citizen in America today cannot really know what it’s like to be a slave, or to live as part of a still-oppressed, marginalized, and often brutalized population.² But I can read, and I can learn, and I can empathize. And over time, in the following works, I have gained a glimmer of understanding about what Africans and African-American peoples have had to deal with over the centuries, up to and including today. There are many, many other accounts out there, but these are the ones that have impacted me the most over the years.
If you have a microgram of compassion in your soul, these books cannot help but touch you, and help you to understand what is happening today in Minneapolis and elsewhere, and why.
Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin, Native Son, Black Boy, and 12 Million Black Voices by Richard Wright:
Baldwin and Wright had different ideas about the black experience and how to chronicle it. Both are seminal writers. Particularly Wright’s Black Boy left me absolutely gobsmacked at what growing up in the South was like for a young man who came to earth with a mind that questioned why life around him was the way it was, and could see the injustice, and express it profoundly and honestly.
A quarter of a century was to elapse between the time when I saw my father sitting with the strange woman and the time when I was to see him again, standing alone upon the red clay of a Mississippi plantation, a sharecropper, clad in ragged overalls, holding a muddy hoe in his gnarled, veined hands— a quarter of a century during which my mind and consciousness had become so greatly and violently altered that when I tried to talk to him I realized that, though ties of blood made us kin, though I could see a shadow of my face in his face, though there was an echo of my voice in his voice, we were forever strangers, speaking a different language, living on vastly distant planes of reality. That day a quarter of a century later when I visited him on the plantation— he was standing against the sky, smiling toothlessly, his hair whitened, his body bent, his eyes glazed with dim recollection, his fearsome aspect of twenty-five years ago gone forever from him— I was overwhelmed to realize that he could never understand me or the scalding experiences that had swept me beyond his life and into an area of living that he could never know. I stood before him, poised, my mind aching as it embraced the simple nakedness of his life, feeling how completely his soul was imprisoned by the slow flow of the seasons, by wind and rain and sun, how fastened were his memories to a crude and raw past, how chained were his actions and emotions to the direct, animalistic impulses of his withering body…
From the white landowners above him there had not been handed to him a chance to learn the meaning of loyalty, of sentiment, of tradition. Joy was as unknown to him as was despair. As a creature of the earth, he endured, hearty, whole, seemingly indestructible, with no regrets and no hope. He asked easy, drawling questions about me, his other son, his wife, and he laughed, amused, when I informed him of their destinies. I forgave him and pitied him as my eyes looked past him to the unpainted wooden shack. From far beyond the horizons that bound this bleak plantation there had come to me through my living the knowledge that my father was a black peasant who had gone to the city seeking life, but who had failed in the city; a black peasant whose life had been hopelessly snarled in the city, and who had at last fled the city— that same city which had lifted me in its burning arms and borne me toward alien and undreamed-of shores of knowing.
Wright, Richard, Black Boy, Cleveland, World Publishing Company, 1937
Black Like Me – John Howard Griffin
This work was a product of the 60s, but is important for a number of reasons. It’s often disparaged as a naïve social experiment that was doomed to failure precisely because the author was white, but I find it a work that brings me back again and again.
No, it makes no sense, but insofar as the Negro is concerned, nothing makes much sense. This was brought home to me in another realm many times when I sought jobs. The foreman of one plant in Mobile, a large brute, allowed me to tell him what I could do. Then he looked me in the face and spoke to me in these words: “No, you couldn’t get anything like that here.” His voice was not unkind. It was the dead voice one often hears. Determined to see if I could break in somehow, I said: “But if I could do you a better job, and you paid me less than a white man …” “I’ll tell you … we don’t want you people. Don’t you understand that?” “I know,” I said with real sadness. “You can’t blame a man for trying at least.” “No use trying down here,” he said. “We’re gradually getting you people weeded out from the better jobs at this plant. We’re taking it slow, but we’re doing it. Pretty soon we’ll have it so the only jobs you can get here are the ones no white man would have.” “How can we live?” I asked hopelessly, careful not to give the impression I was arguing. “That’s the whole point,” he said, looking me square in the eyes, but with some faint sympathy, as though he regretted the need to say what followed: “We’re going to do our damnedest to drive every one of you out of the state.”
Griffin, J.Hl, Black Like Me,, 1960
Griffin himself even said,
As I had suspected they would be, my discoveries were naïve ones, like those of a child.
The entire book has the overriding attitude of “You mean this really happens? This is what life is really like for black people in the South? Yes, the discoveries were simple, and everything was filtered through the mindset of a white man of privilege, but it’s still very much worth reading.
Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools by Jonathan Kozol:
Above and beyond describing the hideous disparity that existed in the Boston public school system in the ’60s, it shone a light on the vicious racism that took root there. The persona of the “Art Teacher” is especially breathtaking in its ignorance and ingrained evil – she was a master at destroying the souls of children whom she clearly thought belonged to a sub-genre of humanity. Read it and weep.
“All white people, I think, are implicated in these things so long as we participate in America in a normal way and attempt to go on leading normal lives while any one race is being cheated and tormented. But I now believe that we will probably go on leading our normal lives, and will go on participating in our nation in a normal way, unless there comes a time where Negroes can compel us by methods of extraordinary pressure to interrupt our pleasure.”
Kozol, Jonathan, Death at an Early Age
To Be a Slave by Julius Lester:
While this book is aimed at youth readership, its collection of tales from people who actually lived through slavery cannot fail to move adults if they have a shred of humanity.
“One day while my mammy was washing her back my sister noticed ugly disfiguring scars on it. Inquiring about them, we found, much to our amazement, that they were Mammy’s relics of the now gone, if not forgotten, slave days. This was her first reference to her “misery days” that she had made in my presence. Of course we all thought she was telling us a big story and we made fun of her. With eyes flashing, she stopped bathing, dried her back and reached for the smelly ol’ black whip that hung behind the kitchen door. Bidding us to strip down to our waists, my little mammy with the boney bent-over back, struck each of us as hard as ever she could with that black-snake whip. Each stroke of the whip drew blood from our backs. “Now,” she said to us, “you have a taste of slavery days.”
Frank Cooper, Library of Congress
Don’t You Turn Back by Langston Hughes
As described by Nancy Snyder at Bookriot.com, “Langston Hughes was the chronicler of African American life in Harlem, New York City, from the 1920s through the 1960s. Hughes set out to portray the stories of African-American life that represented their actual culture—including the piercing heartbreak and the joy of everyday life in Harlem.” His poetry is beautiful, yearning, and haunting. It should be on the to-read list of anyone who is interested in the human condition.
Dream-singers, Story-tellers, Dancers, Loud laughers in the hands of Fate— My People. Dish-washers, Elevator-boys, Ladies’ maids, Crap-shooters, Cooks, Waiters, Jazzers, Nurses of babies, Loaders of ships, Porters, Hairdressers, Comedians in vaudeville And band-men in circuses— Dream-singers all, Story-tellers all. Dancers— God! What dancers! Singers— God! What singers! Singers and dancers, Dancers and laughers. Laughers? Yes, laughers….laughers…..laughers— Loud-mouthed laughers in the hands of Fate.
Hughes, Langston, Don’t You Turn Back
Be warned, these books are “products of their times,” and the language used in most of them would be highly offensive by today’s standards. But this is the way it was, and you can’t whitewash it or sanitize it.
We didn’t know nothing like young folks do now. We hardly knowed our names. We was cussed for so many bitches and sons of bitches and bloody bitches and blood of bitches. We never heard our names scarcely at all.
Sallie Crane, Library of Congress.
A recent post (June 2, 2020) on Facebook by Caroline Crockett Brock illustrates poignantly that these attitudes, these experiences are not a thing of the past. They are not just the stuff of history, of Emmett Till and Rodney King and George Floyd and so many nameless others. It relates the experiences of Ernest Skelton, the owner of Grand Strand Appliance Repair Services.
When Ernest, my appliance repairman, came to the front door, I welcomed him in.
As this was his second visit and we’d established a friendly rapport, I asked him how he was feeling in the current national climate.
Naturally, he assumed I was talking about the coronavirus, because what white person actually addresses racism head on, in person, in their own home?
When Ernest realized I wanted to know about his experience with racism, he began answering my questions.
What’s it like for you on a day-to-day basis as a black man? Do cops ever give you any trouble? The answers were illuminating.
Ernest, a middle-aged, friendly, successful business owner, gets pulled over in Myrtle Beach at least 6 times a year.
He doesn’t get pulled over for traffic violations, but on the suspicion of him being a suspect in one crime or another.
Mind you, he is in uniform, driving in a work van clearly marked with his business on the side. They ask him about the boxes in his car–parts and pieces of appliances.
They ask to see his invoices and ask him why there is money and checks in his invoice clipboard. They ask if he’s selling drugs.
These cops get angry if he asks for a badge number or pushes back in any way.
Every time he is the one who has to explain himself, although they have no real cause to question him.
Ernest used to help folks out after dark with emergencies. Not anymore.
He does not work past dinnertime, not because he doesn’t need the business, but because it isn’t safe for him to be out after dark.
He says “There’s nothing out there in the world for me past dark.”
Let me say that again. Ernest, a middle aged black man in uniform cannot work past dark in Myrtle Beach in 2020 because it’s not safe for him.
He did not say this with any kind of agenda. It was a quiet, matter of fact truth. A truth that needs to be heard.
Ernest has a bachelors in electronics and an associates in HVAC.
Ernest says most white people are a little scared of him, and he’s often put in a position where he has to prove himself, as though he’s not qualified to repair appliances.
After getting a job for 2 years at Sears appliance, Ernest started his own company, one he’s been running for several years.
He is the best repairman we’ve had, and has taught me about washer dryers and how to maintain them myself, even helping me with another washer/dryer set and a dishwasher without charging me.
I highly recommend his company, Grand Strand Appliance.
Ernest doesn’t have hope that racism will change, no matter who the president is.
His dad taught him “It’s a white man’s world”, and he’s done his best to live within it.
When I asked him what I could do, he said, “everyone needs to pray and realize we’re all just one country and one people”.
I am a 45 year old white woman living in the south. I can begin healing our country by talking frankly with African Americans in my world—by LISTENING to their lived experience and speaking up.
I can help by actively promoting black owned businesses. That’s what I can do today.
Let’s start by listening and lifting up. It’s that simple. #listenandlift
The Watts riots. The Rodney King riots. The George Floyd riots. These are “the methods of extraordinary pressure to interrupt our pleasure” that Jonathan Kozol mentioned. Taken by themselves, the destruction and looting are senseless and wrong. Taken in the context of 400 years of systemic oppression, they are entirely understandable. These things happen because the white establishment refuses to listen, to understand, and to act.
The BLM movement is being used by opponents of progress and maintainers of the status quo to show their ignorance. There is no implied “only” in front of “black lives matter.”
An exquisite example of this happened in 2016, when a supposed group of law students wrote a letter to Patricia Leary, a professor at Whittier Law School, taking her to task for wearing a BLM teeshirt “on a day in Criminal Procedure when we were explicitly discussing violence against the black community by police.” ³ Images of the letters and concomitant transcripts can be found at Imgur; the professor’s response to these entitled and presumptuous brats is a takedown worthy of 1998, when the Undertaker threw Mankind from the top of Hell in a Cell, and he plummeted 16 feet through an announcer’s table.⁴
Of course all lives matter. Despite the fact that there are pervasive problems of racism, discrimination, racial profiling, and unwarranted brutality among police departments today, blue lives matter too. But as mentioned before, BLM is not about “only” black lives. It’s a movement because black lives are the ones that have been being – and continue to be – devalued and oppressed and taken.
Two recent artistic representations of current events:
We are at a difficult and critical juncture of our nation’s history right now. Things could go a number of ways. It’s not inconceivable that given the attitudes of our current leadership, we could see a Tienanmen Square type of event in our country. Or much in the way of Occupy Wall Street, the BLM movement could peter out into irrelevance and we could see a return to the status quo. These are extremes. It is my hope that the momentum gained in recent times will continue, and that rational heads will prevail, because we owe it to our founders to preserve the republic that they gave us.
Edit: This belongs here.
The Old Wolf has spoken.
¹ Just in passing: Most of the kids in my class were white and Jewish. I was one of only three goyim. There were two black kids. Most of us have stayed in touch for 65 years. We never heard from the black kids again, even though we tried hard to find them for our 50th reunion.
Edit: recently found one – he was delighted to be contacted!
² Some white people in this country know what it’s like, even if for a brief time. I refer you to the depredations suffered by members of the newly-formed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as they were cursed, hunted, slaughtered, mobbed, abused, robbed, subject to a statewide legal extermination order, and driven west across the country from 1830 to 1847. It was a small taste of what slaves and their descendants have suffered for over 400 years. But the point is that unless you’ve experienced this kind of systemic hatred and persecution first hand, you can’t really understand what it’s like.
Edit: It occurred to me some time after writing this post that understanding persecution does not always automatically translate into compassion and sensitivity. The history of the Latter-day Saints with regard to people of color is unenviable.
³ Although the text has been widely shared with critical details redacted, Inside Higher Ed posted the relevant details to show that this was an actual event that really and truly happened.
⁴ With thanks to redditor u/shittymorph for the useful reference.
“Separate but Equal” was the rallying cry of racism.
Original caption: Charlotte, NC: A crowd of youths taunts Dorothy Geraldine Counts, 15, as she walks to a previously all-white Harding High School to enroll. Leaving the school, she was pelted with trash, small sticks and pebbles. (Copyright Bettmann/Corbis / AP Images)
Anyone who dared go up against the idea that schools should be integrated found themselves the target of really classy behavior;
On the morning of September 4, 1957, fifteen-year-old Dorothy Counts set out on a harrowing path toward Harding High, where-as the first African American to attend the all-white school -she was greeted by a jeering swarm of boys who spat, threw trash, and yelled epithets at her as she entered the building.
Charlotte Observer photographer Don Sturkey captured the ugly incident on film, and in the days that followed, the searing image appeared not just in the local paper but in newspapers around the world.
A week later, the girl in the photograph was gone. Her parents -having been told by the school administrators and police officials that they could not guarantee her safety -sent her to live with a relative in suburban Philadelphia, where she could peacefully attend an integrated school.
Ms. Counts, who has long been active in the fight to attain racial tolerance and equality of education and other opportunity, sees things headed in the wrong way.
At West Charlotte High — a predominantly African American school her granddaughter recently graduated from — she says the lack of resources is disturbing.
“At the beginning of the school year, they would go for weeks without books, for weeks without enough chairs for everyone in the classroom,” she says. “When I heard about that I thought, Lord, this brings back memories.”
I wonder what kind of memories Ms. Counts could relate? Here’s a quote from Jonathan Kozol, in his troubling book, Death at an Early Age, which recounts his first year of teaching in the Boston schools in the 60s, Kozol recounted the attitude of racist teachers who infested the system:
“You children should thank God and feel blessed with good luck for all you’ve got. There are so many little children in the world who have been given so much less” [said teacher who didn’t care to address reality.] The books are junk, the paint peels, the cellar stinks, the teachers call you nigger, the windows fall in on your heads. “Thank God that, you don’t live in Russia or Africa! Thank God for all the blessings that you’ve got!”
And now we live in the 21st century, when such inequality, such oppression, such discrimination should be behind us. Yet in a December, 2014 essay, two prominent voices for equality (Grace Ji-Sun Kim and the Rev. Jesse Jackson) point out that what we are now seeing in Baltimore (which at the time of writing had not yet happened) is the result of a continuing pattern of inequality.
The dying words of Eric Garner symbolize our situation. “I can’t breathe” speaks from the grave and describes the circumstances faced by many who are being choked by a system that treats different races and classes of people unequally.
When the banks of black and brown homeowners drove them into foreclosure, we couldn’t breathe.
When inner-city hospital trauma units are closed to those without insurance and the poor are denied access to Medicaid, we can’t breathe.
When inner-city residents are denied access to public transportation to get to where the jobs are, we can’t breathe.
When inner-city schools have a lower tax base to support public education but students have to take the same exams as suburban kids with a stronger tax base, we can’t breathe.
When they changed the formula on PLUS loans loans, poor and black parents couldn’t breathe.
When student-loan debt is greater than credit-card debt, students can’t breathe.
When corporations we support will not advertise with black media, black-owned media can’t breathe.
When Silicon Valley locks us out of boards and corporate suites and locks us out of employment, contracts and entrepreneurial investments, even though we disproportionately use their products, we can’t breathe.
When banks cut off lending and investment to African Americans, they cut off our breath; but the government gave failing banks oxygen tanks with no obligation to help those who paid for the oxygen.
As inequality persists, many are left in the dark, desperate for life and breath.
And yet there are some who wonder why things like Watts and Baltimore happen. What I wonder is why it doesn’t happen more often.
Middle-class America is talking a lot these days about living as the 99%, and there’s merit in that conversation. But I hear more outrage from people who live better than most of the world’s population with regards to their own situation than I do about people in our own country who have virtually next to nothing, and who are being kept in that situation by societal pressures which persist in large part from the days of slavery.
I believe in Reverend King’s dream, but my own dreams go farther.
I have been accused of hoping for a utopia, a socialist paradise, but I believe that as a species, we as humans can do much better for one another than we have ever done. I believe in a world that works for 100% of humanity, where those who have give freely, and where those who have not can work for what they receive; where hate and envy do not trouble us; where divisions over race, religion, and gender are done away; where children are taught principles of humane living with just as much vigor as they are taught their three Rs.
To those who would dismiss these dreams as pie in the sky, I simply say that if we do nothing today, we will live tomorrow the same way we lived yesterday.
I previously wrote two articles, here and here, about the efforts of France (and Québec, since we’re on the subject) to keep their language unspotted. Many Gallic purists will point at the magna carta of La Pléiade, “Défense et illustration de la langue française,” as reason enough to fight against the encroachment of other, less worthy tongues into the only true language; in view of the recent flap over English as the language of America the Beautiful, really nothing more than a tempest in a teapot promulgated by the intellectually challenged and those devoid of any sense of humanism, I present here a dictionary of terms which must be avoided and their acceptable English alternatives.
The Xenophobe’s Dictionary List of Words for Folks who Don’t Like Outlanders.
Ketchup (from k’ē chap, Chinese for “tomato sauce”): Tomato paste with vinegar and onions and other stuff what makes it a vegetable for school lunches.
Kangaroo (from Australian aboriginal): Big Jumping Rat that makes fine eating.
Cola (from West African languages (Temne kola, Mandinka kolo): That brown drink what goes good with rum.
Coca-Cola (From from Quechua cuca and “cola” above): Something from that liberal-ass un-American company what right-thinking ‘Murcans won’t touch with a 10-foot pole. Even “Big K” has better stuff.
Jukebox (possibly from Wolof and Bambara dzug through Gullah + box): Record-player thingy what you put quarters in.
Candy (from Arabic قندي qandī, sugared): Dayum, you mean mah lemon-heads wuz invented by the A-rabs? Sumbitch, I’ll just have to switch to chawin’ terbacky. Say, Clem, gimme a chaw.
Tobacco (From Taino, a Caribbean language. Said to refer either to a roll of tobacco leaves or to the tabago, a kind of Y-shaped pipe for sniffing tobacco smoke also known as snuff, with the leaves themselves being referred to as cohiba): Stuff you roll up and stick in your mouth and then set on fire. 
Well, you get the idea. In fact, purging our English language of all foreign influence would be an exercise in futility, for even Old English was liberally infused with Latin as the result of a 400-year Roman occupation, as well as being a combination of dialects prevalent in the area, including the languages of the Celts, the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes. There is no “pure English,” and if you tried to take away all the foreign influences our language has not only survived but reveled in over two thousand years, we’d be reduced to speaking in grunts and belches. Oh wait, a lot of people haven’t got much farther than that anyway.
The Old Wolf has spoken.
 Thanx and a tip of the hat  to Bob Newhart
 Thanx and a tip of the hat to Bill Holman
It’s a simple concept. People of various nationalities singing “America the Beautiful” in their own language. But for sheer ignorance, have a look at some of the Twitter comments recently posted about this commercial:
The Coca-Cola Co. Should apologize for the ridiculous #SuperBowl commercial #AmericaTheBeautiful should ONLY be in one language #English
Really glad I drink @Pepsi and not @CocaCola because that commercial was just AWFUL next time #ENGLISH please! #SB48 #SuperBowl
If you want to come to this country fine we welcome you BUT your going to sing America The Beautiful in #ENGLISH & drink #PEPSI #SUPERBOWL
I don’t think a commercial that sings in other than #English is a good idea #SuperBowl am not gonna buy ur product anymore
WTF? @CocaCola has America the Beautiful being sung in different languages in a #SuperBowl commercial? We speak ENGLISH here, IDIOTS.”
The xenophobia and ignorant racist vitriol being spewed out onto the Internet breaks my heart. Yet these people seem to have no problem driving down Via Verde Avenue in their Prius to go eat Pizza with their Swedish girlfriend… the intellectual and spiritual disconnect is very difficult for me to get my head around.
Some statistics would probably not be amiss here. The 2010 census reports:
Of that total, 16.4% are of hispanic or latino ancestry. That’s close to two out of every 10. Moreover, have a look at the 15 largest ancestries of these oh-s0-proud Americans:
It wouldn’t be surprising if the real names of some of these uneducated and small-spirited bloggers were Jorgensen, DeSalvo, O’Shaunessy, Kang, or Graumann. If they’re taking pride in being called Jones, they may well have forgotten their Welsh ancestry.
Kris Kristofferson has Swedish ancestry. The Governator is from Austria. Rocky Marciano was Italian. Bruce Willis was born in Idar-Oberstein, West Germany. Walter Cronkite had Dutch ancestry. Robert Zemeckis had Lithuanian ancestors. Gene Simmons was born in Israel. My own grandparents came from Tuscany and Calabria. America the beautiful, the open, the welcoming, the free – it has always been and will always be a melting pot of cultures, races, languages and ideologies. We must never forget the words of Emma Lazarus:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
“The New Colossus,” 1883
As our nation grows in population and we deal with issues of unemployment and the social well-being of our citizens, the issue of immigration must of necessity be dealt with in a rational and humane way, giving priority to those who enter our country through legal and approved channels – but we must never become a nation where ugly and brutal nationalism is allowed to become a vehicle for the demonization of any race, creed or culture. Our national language is English, and those immigrants who have been most successful are the ones who have assimilated rapidly, learned the language and the culture of their adopted home, and mainstreamed themselves and their children. But remembering and honoring their cultural heritage is also a big part of who they are, and how they interact with and contribute to the nation.
If you’re going to insist on English only, you must by rights exclude yourself from ever eating at Acquerello in San Francisco (in fact, you must refer to it as Saint Francis, and no one will know what the hqiz you are talking about) or Piccolo Angolo in New York; you are prohibited from ever driving a Porsche or a Mercedes-Benz; you may never refer to a shiatsu massage or a reiki treatment; you can’t drink vodka; taboo is taboo; you can never again use ketchup; and heaven help you if you want to eat fondue.
For the love of whatever you hold sacred, fight racism, exclusionism, nationalism and xenophobia with every fiber of your being. Every American citizen in this country is entitled to the same respect and status – remember, in the end, – with the exception of Native Americans who were here long before the Mayflower – we all got here on a boat one way or another.
There is a serious cognitive disconnect in our society. Paula Deen has been pretty much thrown in the dumpster for using the word “nigger”… once. Yet “Django Unchained” throws that word around one hundred and thirteen times, and earns an 88% (reviewers) / 94% (audience) rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
This isn’t Huckleberry Finn, a book written in 1884 and “a product of its times” (that book uses the word 203 times, by the way)… this is a 2012 production that has grossed over $423 million, and won two academy awards – one for best screenplay.
I abhor prejudice and discrimination in all its forms. Ms. Deen committed a serious error in judgment when she dropped that word in public  and I’m not condoning or justifying what she did… but rather, I’m asking the question, “Why was “Django” so popular if, by virtue of statistics, it should have been found 113 times as offensive as one person’s lapse of good manners?” Where’s the justification for that kind of popularity? If this racial slur is as offensive as everyone at politically-correct dinner parties and media newsrooms seems to think, how could a movie like this even get greenlighted, let alone make it to the Academy Awards?
There are a lot of people out there still talking about race relations, but I’d be really interested to hear what Morgan Freeman thought about this. He’s the one who pointed out that we’ll never get past the issue of race until we stop talking about it, and movies like “Django” seem – in my simple opinion – to be a force counter to progress toward greater humanity. That means that if a word is unquestionably offensive, everyone ought to stop using it. White folk shouldn’t use it. Black folk shouldn’t use it (claiming that they’ve pre-empted it, and made it “theirs”). Filmmakers and authors shouldn’t use it. If people keep using an offensive word and sometimes it’s OK and sometimes it’s not, then there are some serious questions to be asked.
I have no real answers, but the matter – in the words of Khan – “tasks me”… and I felt moved to put the questions out there.
The Old Wolf has spoken.
 I’m aware that her problems are a bit more complex than the one incident in question, but for the sake of simplicity I won’t elaborate on that here, as the other issues don’t really bear on the root problem.
Utah gets nothing but sugar beets (now a defunct industry.) Colorado gets a mint, Montana gets Injuns, the South gets nothing but happy darkies workin’ in the fields. Pretty sad map all the way around, if you ask me; even discounting the racism, it doesn’t even highlight the best things each state has to offer.
I’d like to think we’ve come a bit farther than this.
A 1994 documentary, now approaching 20 years old, depicting how young Native Americans perceive racism. I would not be going out on a limb to say that the same film could be made today.
Racism exists. It cannot be denied, or covered up, or excused. It is tied to the same mechanism that drives bullying, in the family, the schoolyard, or the workplace. Racism rears its head when people deny their better nature and look for mechanisms to justify their behavior. It is fed by the “us vs. them” dichotomy.
In a world that works for everyone, with no one left out, there is no room for hatred or cruelty. Despite all our technological advances as a race (and here I mean the human race), in some ways we are still scrabbling about in the mud. If we are to reach the stars, these weak and foolish tendencies must be rooted out of the global psyche.
Widely acclaimed for its daring, roundly criticized for its superficiality, it still resonates 50 years later.
Yes, as a nation we’ve made significant forward motion, but the recent viral video featuring Ms. Karen Klein who was bullied by some truly misguided 7th-graders until she wept demonstrates in a riveting manner how the herd instinct operates. If a group of people conspire to keep another person/group/race/religion down, and no one does anything to stop it, things spiral out of hand in a frightening manner. Translate those four boys into an entire society and you can see that the primal brutalities which lay at the heart of the slave trade and all subsequent indignities inflicted upon those of African descent are in no way gone… just covered up with a veneer of respectability. There are still some really, really mean people out there.
I was 4 years old when Rosa Parks shook the world, 8 years old when “whites only” was still seen commonly around the South, and 14 years old when civil-rights activists marched from Selma to Montgomery. I was fortunate to have been raised in the multi-racial, multi-faith, and multi-cultural environment of New York, but there are millions of people my age who were not, and for whom second-class citizenship was as normal as a toasted English muffin. Many of them are still alive, and old habits and old ideas die hard.
The good news is that the rising generation is being brought up in a world where intolerance and prejudice is largely looked upon as an abomination rather than the norm. Witness the more than $600,000 raised by over 30,000 people from 80 nations for the good Ms. Klein by indiegogo, who, thanks to that outpouring of support and execration of the bully mentality, will never have to work again. Witness the punishment of the four boys involved, who instead of the usual slap on the wrist were handed 1-year suspensions, community service, and anti-bullying counseling. Nowadays, more and more people are becoming aware that they detest bullies, and racists fit squarely into that category.
Griffin’s book was described by Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) as “an excellent book—for whites.” Griffin himself agreed and ultimately scaled back his lecturing, realizing that it was disingenuous for a white man to be speaking for the black community when they had many powerful voices of their own. Yet in the 21st century, when the black power movement has become more or less a historical footnote in the consciousness of today’s young people, this book – along with some others I could recommend1 – is in some ways more germane now than it was then, precisely because the long road of the African American is no longer front and center in the American psyche, but the old attitudes remain, percolating just below the surface and in danger of surfacing should we as a society cease to be vigilant.
I recall that when I read this book for the first time, I wished fervently that I could get hold of the original Sepia articles which preceded the book’s publication. I wanted more pictures than the few small prints that adorned the paperback’s cover. I still wish that, but thanks to the miracle of the Internet, many photos of Griffin have surfaced. I have collected all the ones I can find, in the best possible resolution, and I present them here for their historical value. NB: I have no doubt these pictures are still copyright by someone, somewhere; if you own these images and have an issue with their being displayed here, a quick comment will be more than sufficient to have them removed.
John Howard Griffin
Griffin after a 1946 Air Force accident left him blind – he learned cane walking in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and when he returned there for his Sepia project he had to re-learn the quarter as a sighted man.
Taking large doses of medication designed for vitiligo patients and lying under a sun lamp, Griffin darkened his natural skin to a dark brown tanned base, which was then covered with stains on his face, legs and hands.
Griffin shaved his head, and applied coat after coat of stain, wiping off the excess until he could pass for black, and was even considered by many African-Americans with whom he associated to be one of the “darker Negroes.”
After his initial tour through the South, Griffin returned to the places he had written about with photographer Don Rutledge, show here in 1959, to chronicle his project in photographs. It looked odd to have a white photographer taking pictures of a black man, so the two of them had to present Rutledge as a tourist, with Griffin just “happening” into the picture at the right time.
“Here it was pennies and clutter and spittle on the curb. Here people walked fast to juggle the dimes, to make a deal, to find cheap liver or a tomato that was overripe. Here was the indefinable stink of despair.” (From Black Like Me)
While walking the French Quarter as a white man, Griffin looked for a way to enter black society. He often stopped at the shoeshine stand where Sterling Williams worked, and they chatted a number of times. After making the transition, he returned to Williams and confided in him; Williams and his partner, who owned the stand, provided a critical service to Griffin to help him make the initial shift into the world of a black man in New Orleans.
“I got off and began walking along Canal Street in the heart of town… I passed the same taverns and amusement places where the hawkers had solicited me on previous evenings. They were busy, urging the white men to come in and see the girls. The same smells of smoke and liquor and dampness poured out through half-open doors. Tonight they did not solicit me. Tonight they looked at me but did not see me.” (From Black Like Me).
Griffin appearing to look at a movie poster.
Griffin found that as a black man he was the recipient of rejection, abuse, and outright hatred at the hands of white people, whereas blacks treated him with great warmth. Passing through the same areas as a white man, he found the exact opposite; the white South looked elegant, refined and graceful, and all doors were open to him, but the black community regarded him with suspicion and treated him as an enemy.
After the publication of Griffin’s works and publicity about his experiment began to spread, at one point he was hanged in effigy from the center of Main Street in Mansfield, Texas where he lived. The dummy was later removed and placed in the dump under this sign. While hostility from some whites was intense once the project became known, the vast majority of letters sent to Griffin from all over the world were ones of support. Still, as a result of threats to his family, Griffin moved to Mexico for a time until the worst of the storm had blown over.
I keep this remarkable book on my shelf along with others, to remind me. So that I will never forget. Despite my cosmopolitan upbringing, I am a child of those times, and I must never allow a whisper of intolerance or prejudice to surface.
1 Other books which I read periodically include To Be A Slave, by Julius Lester; Death at an Early Age by Jonathan Kozol; and Black Boy by Richard Wright. Libraries bulge with other, more erudite works, but these speak to me, and help me to stay centered.