****I want to note that this was also published on my blog Incredible Edibles. I don't think everyone who reads one of my blogs reads the others... and I think these stories should be shared. I have many to write about regarding racism in our family... and will tackle one story at a time.****
I’ve been thinking a lot here lately about what little I know or understand about racism. It bothers me a great deal because I feel I am ill prepared to help my daughter through any problems she may have with it. I try to read and be aware - but I am surprised at how many times I hear something and don’t realize the racist underpinnings of what was said. I have a long way to go before I am truly capable of realizing the subtle racism in every day conversation.
What I can do is give a clear picture of the racism that was prevalent in our family. My very first experience of racism that I can remember clearly happened when I was 5 years old. I frequently spent time with my great-grandmother and her daughter, my paternal grandmother, at their home in Noblesville, IN during the summers so my parents had some time to themselves. I dearly loved my great-grandmother, whom we called Mama. I can remember staying there was a fun time. They had a neighbor that had an apple tree. It produced the sourest apples I’d ever tasted, but they made the very best apple pie. And looking out their enclosed back patio (a big luxury back then) I saw my first hummingbird, which was terribly exciting. I remember they had a huge lilac bush outside their living room window, and the smell was heavenly when it was in bloom.
When I was five, I was staying with her by myself. My brother wasn’t there - I don’t know why, but I was the only one staying with her. She had to go to Indianapolis to get her teeth worked on, so we took the Greyhound bus. I remember we were sitting at the back of the bus, surrounded by several black people - men and women. (Back then, I believe the preferred term was Negro.)
Now, I can tell you, my great-grandmother was generous with her family to a fault. She used to give us kids money. Not just a nickel or a dime at a time, but handfuls of change - or better yet - dollar bills! If I had to lose a tooth, I definitely wanted to have it come out while I was staying with her. No quarter for a tooth at her house… the tooth fairy would leave us a couple dollars worth of change. As a 5 year old in 1961, that was awesome. A dollar could buy 100 pieces of Bazooka bubble gum. Or 20 candy bars. Or I could go to the Five and Dime stores in my hometown and buy cheap little bottles of cologne… to a little girl, that was the ultimate.
Now, up until that point, I had never seen any person of color. Everyone in our hometown was white. Everyone. Diversity in our town was composed of whether or not someone was Catholic or Methodist. So I had never seen a black person in my life. My eyes must have been as big as saucers, looking at these people who were dark complected… and, yes, I did wonder if it came off. I wanted to touch them to see if they felt any different, to see if I would be brown after touching them.
They all smiled at me. They all seemed to be kind… and I’m sure they understood my stares. I really wanted to talk with them…. but kept quiet. I was incredibly shy and didn’t know how to open up. Plus I’d had it drilled into my head that you don’t talk to strangers… so as a “good girl” I didn’t open my mouth for anything. Just before we got to our stop in Indy, Mama gave me a dollar bill.
I can’t describe to you why I loved getting dollars instead of change. I know a big part of it was the smell of the money. I loved the smell… and holding that dollar in my hands, I put it up to my nose and breathed it in deeply, savoring it. Then, as any child would, I started to put it in my mouth. (Smells good, it should taste good!) That’s when Mama tapped my hands down away from my mouth and said, “No, no, honey. Don’t put it in your mouth. Some nigger may have handled it.”
Now, I had never up to this point ever heard the word nigger. I had no idea what that was. I don’t remember if I asked her what a “nigger” was or not… but I do know that when I had looked up, the smiles I saw on the faces of those around us had turn to scowls of anger. I may not have known what the word meant, but I clearly understood that it was something that made these people mad. And that scared me.
We got off the bus just shortly after that.
This one incident sticks in my mind today. As a child, I had thought Mama was a kind and generous woman. She always was polite to everyone I saw her speak to… and yet, here she was, for whatever reason, making these people mad because of something she said. I am shocked to think back today how she used the word with impugnity while sitting among the very people she was disparaging. And yet, I don’t even think she realized that what she said was hurtful or mean or degrading. She said it as though she was talking about any other object (”A plant may have touched it.” “A cat may have licked it” “A car may have run over it.”) Then again, since I was only a child, I really didn’t know much about her. She could have said it as the slur she meant it to be… and being white and elderly, was unafraid that she would be harmed in any way.
I’ll never know.