Note: We don’t talk about cultural assumptions. We just know things, or think we do. No one ever had to sit me down and tell me that some people’s lives didn’t have as much value as my own. I just knew.
As I wrote the draft, I used the N- word because that was the word embedded in my childhood thoughts. In rewriting, I find that the politically correct but nevertheless alienating them is even more chilling than that old raw contemptuous word. Woven into those childhood thoughts are some amazingly appalling words and phrases that I barely associated with race, if at all. They were just words. Or not. People would say, “That’s mighty white of you,” in response to a favor. I was fully grown up when it dawned on me that it had anything at all to do with race. It was just a saying. White was synonymous with good, wasn’t it?
There were Nigger Chasers, bottle rockets that careened around a space at knee-level, scaring the socks off anyone, regardless of skin hue, who happened to be in its path. At Christmas we found NiggerToes, a colloquial term for Brazil nuts, in our stockings. It was no Tiger that we caught by the toe and if he hollered made him pay fifty dollars every day when we chanted “Eeny, meeny, miney, moe.” We loved stories of Little Black Sambo and his stacks of pancakes, Topsy with her “wooly hair braided into little tails which stuck out in every direction,” and the tales of kind old Uncle Remus. My family didn’t hate them. I didn’t know anyone who hated them. At Vacation Bible School we would sing:
Jesus loves the little children/ All the children of the world/ Red and yellow, black and white/ They are precious in His sight
We mostly believed it too. We watched slides of white missionaries among half-naked Africans and dug tearfully into coin purses to help those poor Africans find Jesus and get some clothes. We trekked across town to teach children in the Projects about Jesus. Warsh, whose real name was George Washington Carver Scott, made us laugh with his antics. Natalie, whose braids were so tight they made her big brown eyes look Chinese, used to cuddle on my lap and tell me I was so pretty as she reached up to stroke my silky brown hair
We didn’t hate them. Sam Cook’s “Darling, You Send Me” was my favorite song in high school. I didn’t even think about Sam’s blackness any more than I contemplated Elvis’s whiteness. Sam, Johnny Mathis, and Nat King Cole crooned in the background as I fell in and out of high-school love. I wept with Mama as we watched An Imitation of Life about Susan Kohner in the role of a light-skinned Negro who passed herself off as white at school and was mean to Juanita Moore, who played Susan’s dark-skinned Mammy and Lana Turner’s maid and best friend in the movie.
We didn’t hate them, and we didn’t mean any harm when we laughed at funny dumb things they said, or that we were told they said. When they were scared, their big eyes were funny, and the way they talked was a hoot. Amos ‘n’ Andy and Jack Benny’s sidekick, Rochester made us laugh until our bellies ached. We smiled affectionately at Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen in Gone With the Wind.
We didn’t hate them. We liked their music and their style. In elementary school, every year we would paint our little white faces with burnt cork and sing Negro songs in the annual Minstrel Show. We sang “Swanee” along with Asa Yoelsen, son of a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant rabbi and cantor. Asa, whose stage name was Al Jolson, wore white gloves and a tuxedo, painted his face black and crooned about how he longed to back with his Mammy among the folks in D-I-X-I-E. In the 1930’s he was called “The World’s Greatest Entertainer.”
We didn’t hate them, but we did feel mighty sorry for them. I was thankful to the Lord that I had been born white in America, and I wondered how He, in His infinite wisdom, had deemed that Warsh and Natalie would be dark and destined to live on that side of town, while I would be white and allowed to live wherever I could afford. I wondered why those little children in the missionary’s slides had been born in Africa and had to run around half-naked, while I was born in America and had plenty of clothes and shoes.
We most certainly didn’t hate them.
Afterword: The racism of people who came of age before 1964 is much deeper and darker than you who have been born since can imagine. We didn’t hate dark people. We felt sorry for them, which, though kinder in intention, is far more destructive than hate. Perhaps one of the ugliest phrases ever uttered among us “kind and Christian” Southern “whites” was this: “…but I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one.”