Friday, November 19, 2010

Looking up

I remember being a little girl and visiting the echoing halls of the building on Market Street that housed the federal probation office where my father worked. Dad introduced me to his friend, Mr. Brown, a big man with huge, dry hands, and I took his hand solemnly and observed, “You must be Mr. Brown because your skin is brown.”

“No,” my dad explained, “Mr. Brown is a Black man. Brown is just his name.”

“He’s not black,” I said. “He’s brown!"

“That’s why he’s a Black man,” said my dad, “and you’re a white girl.”

“I am not,” I said. “I’m pink!” At which both men laughed and slapped each other’s arms.

How could anyone understand these crazy grownups?
I remember thinking. I didn’t know that the Cold War was at its height, that pink was used as an epithet like black was used as an epithet, or that the color of a person’s skin could make or break a man or a girl.

Then Mr. Brown, the token Negro, and Mr. Greenwald, the token Jew, turned to one another and made a joke that was already old between them, “Hey, everybody still shits brown.”

Hey, you guys used the “s” word!
I thought, somewhat stunned by the whole confusing adventure. I remember the event to this day, perhaps because the air was highly charged and I didn’t understand why. Or perhaps because my father would listen to the news every now and then in the years to follow, and mutter under his breath, “Everybody still shits brown.”

I grew up in a multicultural environment. We had friends of all kinds, many religions, many skin colors and accents. I didn’t become conscious of race until I was a teenager, and even then I believed that Jews and Blacks, in particular, had much in common. We had both been slaves. We had both broken free, only to be hounded by oppression and bigotry everywhere we wandered. Mythology? Perhaps. But a common mythology, enough to make us friends.

The first time a Black person refused my friendship because of the color of my skin, I was an adult and times had changed. We were no longer allies fighting together for a loving world. I had become the enemy, just because of the color of my skin.

Here’s a picture of my dad’s college fraternity at Rutgers in the 40s. Dad’s the second from the left, front row. Get a load of that bohemian tie and the mane of wild hair! He told me that he and his buddies set up this fraternity for Jews and Negroes, after they’d been refused membership in any other fraternity. We were still together then, Jews and Blacks. By 1967, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was writing that Black rage against Jews was justified because we were the wealthy, cheating landlords (see Chaos and Community: Where Do We Go From Here), Blacks had rejected Jewish friendship.

Maybe that’s why I’m sore about the obsessive focus on race in my school district. Academic statistics are collected by student skin color and the stated goal of the district is not to create positive learning environments for all students, but to eliminate race as a predictor of academic achievement. As if the grades kids get measure their true success. As if the color of students’ skin is the only predictor of failure, and their family’s cultural attitudes towards education or their economic status or the constant anti-intellectual media hype has nothing to do with it. As if their identification with the victim has nothing to do with it.

That victim status, now, is an interesting thing. I see some Black people nurture it carefully and make good use of it and I don’t blame them, if it’s the only way they can find to make the best of a bad situation. After all, people save their most vitriolic anti-semitism for Jews who reject victim status and insist on being successful. You lose sympathy when you’re no longer a victim. You lose that special treatment we reserve for those who accept an inferior status and don’t presume to dip their fingers into our pie. Blacks, too, are held in contempt when they achieve. One has only to look as far as the White House for an example, as Mr. Obama is hounded by racist attacks.

But, he is, after all, a Black man and he is the leader of the most powerful nation on earth. Shouldn’t our African-American students be looking up instead of down?


Green Man said...

Great post. Very fascinating story at the beginning with your father and Mr. Brown. My Mom told me a story of a friend she knows. He grew up in 1950s South Dakota; no African-Americans in sight.

Well, one day they went down South to visit and he saw a black man sitting on a porch. He was chewing tobacco and just then spat out a big load of spit. My Mom's friend exlamed, "Whoa. They even SPIT black!!"

My Mom's friend said his Mom was horrified by her son's awkward yet honest interpretation from a innocent child's observations.

I'll offer one more story. I lived in Africa for two years, which was a great experience. Needless to say I'm very defensive against racial slurs. Some of these Africans are like family.

Anyway, one day we visited a family in their hot, small, two room house. One of their daughters shook my hand and right away looked at her's to see if the "white" rubbed off onto her. It was so cute.

She stared and stared at me. Finally she bravely piped up and said, "Did you take a bath in bleach?" I laughed my ass off again. I said, "No. God just made me that way" (That was back when I believed in God). That seemed to satisfy her and we ended up really bonding. Kids are so honest and I love that about them.

puny human said...

Thanks for your stories!

masterymistery said...

Excellent post. Growing up in apartheid south africa I witnessed/experienced many similar episodes, some horrifying ones at that...

Green Man said...

You're very welcome. Happy solstice!!

Heather Awen said...

Weird timing! I just started reading "Afraid of the Dark: What whites and blacks need to know about each other" by Jim Myers and it opened my eyes bigtime to a lot of stuff I never thought of. I didn't know that some Black people were sure that the Million Man March was a set up to get Black men in a group and kill them (actually that sounds like something me and my white anarchist friends probably would have thought too), or that when I flick my long straight hair out of my face it is seen as a statement about my beauty and "good hair" thrown in the faces of Black women. Or that as a white woman I might worry about Black gang drive by shootings, while a Black person might be worrying about crazy white serial killers that eat people's livers. Weird thoughts about our neighbors. I just wrote a blog entry about Heathenry and ancestral based religions and how tricky the race issue is. Because even if you are not a racist, you are still in a racist world, with certain privillages and oppressions based on nothing more than your ethnicity. The white liberal thing of playing color blind doesn't make it go away, so I am hoping that we can start talking about it. I liked this entry of yours because you are talking about it. I had a lot of friends whose Moms were Jewish and Dads were black that were born in the 60s, but by the 70s the unity was gone. Divide and conquer....