I don't recall any particular instruction in my home on the subject of race. However it was done as my parents often did, so covertly and so successfully, I never even noticed it. My parents were very clever that way and they taught me a great many things in a very subtle way. Of course, it was a time of significant changes in attitudes about race and Arkansas, where they had been raised was hardly the most progressive in this regard in the 60s. They were not perfect, but overall they were slightly better than most in that time and in that place.
Sometimes, however, my liberal sensibilities were shaken by a remark that I deemed unforgivable. It is easy to be condescending and judgmental of parents when you are a teenager, especially a sheltered child of the shopping malls and subdivisions and well-funded education. It was easy to turn up my nose at some spare remark my mother might make about “niggers.” When I called her on it, she would say,”No.. now. Not all blacks are niggers. Only the ones that think they are better than the whites.” This was enough to confuse me for I hadn't worked out all the details of my opinions.. I still haven't.
On this subject, my father was less conservative than my mother and his feelings had been shaped by practical experience. He had fought in Korean alongside of black Americans. “Listen, when people are shooting at you, you don't got a lot of time to decide who you want on your side firing back.” My father had a few black co-workers as friends at the plant. His co-worker was married to a white woman and my mother took her stand, “I have nothing against it in theory. But I just feel sorry for the poor children.” (Satisfyingly ironic at this moment in history, isn't it? Too bad my mother didn't live long enough to see this day.)
I recall sitting in her mother's kitchen and my grandfather, Sam, was teasing my grandmother because she refused to take free eggs off a black man. “Sam, Sam. Don't tell that.” Still, at her funereal, I learned that, to my astonishment, she privately tutored black children when she was a teacher. This was one reason that she was popular with the black families although some irrational notions trapped in her mind were hard to dispel.
On the furthest extreme was my uncle. My uncle would regularly tell me when I visited his farm in Arkansas, “They're no better than monkeys.” He would have a disgusted look on his face. “Why, have you ever looked at a black man's hand? Well, have you? Looks just like a monkey's.” This was something I heard just about every time I was there. The first times it struck me as a joke and that he was surely pretending to believe this. And then, it began to annoy me because it appeared- and this is true for all bigotry- that he would not be happy until I appeared to share his convictions. I can say, I never did but this meant having to hear the same rubbish over and over. “Have you ever seen a black man's hands? The palm of his hands?”
Finally, I told my father how much this disturbed me and that I was having trouble even listening to him if he had to keep repeating these things. I was taught, you see, as a guest in somebody's home, you must treat them with respect and courtesy but this was becoming harder and harder.
My father, hewing his pocket knife on the whetstone, listened and smiled to himself. “Oh that's just Ernest. You have to remember he never fought in Korean. He fought in World War II.”
“Eisenhower brought black and whites together in Korean for the first time.”
I was not convinced. “But still.. is it right? Is that an excuse?”
My father sighed. “No. But you got to look at it this way. When do you think was the last time he looked at a black man's hand?”
“I wouldn't know.”
“I do. Never. I would bet he has never been been within a mile of a black man.” And that was perfectly correct. This kind of bigotry is based on ignorance and an extreme lack of experience with the larger world we must share with other peoples. Whether they are aware of it or not, these people live in a shrinking world, looking and finding negative examples to support their underdeveloped ideas. It isn't an excuse by any means, and there are certain things that thinking people must not tolerate. However, that could be a reason, at least, one reason. And armed with the reason for a problem, we may be able to find a solution.
My father slowly folded his knife and smiled at me “How the hell would he know what a black man's hand looked like?”
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