Thursday, July 1, 2010
Are They Called Negroes?
She was by far the oldest person at the family reunion. She shuffled around and everyone stooped down to explain, help, and give reverence to the reigning matriarch of the occasion. I’m not really sure how we are related, great aunt, great cousin in-law, I have never been all that close with this side of the family.
I found myself sitting next to her at a banquet table one evening. “what nationality is she?” she asked me, referring to my daughter, who was sitting near us.
“Her Mom is African-American.”
“Afro what? African? Amrination?” she struggled.
“Her Mom, my wife, is black,” I simplified.
“Oh. Well ya never know. Sometimes they adopt ya know. Now where exactly is Philadelphia? What is it near?”
I thought about how to answer her question and took the easy way out. “Its near New York.” I was not prepared for what she asked next.
“Now, there’s lots of Negroes in New York right?”
I don’t recall exactly how I answered. I think I stammered some sort of affirmation trying to be respectful to both an old lady and a whole race of people.
“Nancy says I’m not supposed to say Negro. Is it Colored? I just don’t know what to say. What was it you said earlier? AfreeMerin?”
She doesn’t hear all that well, so I thought it best to just stay simple, “just say black.”
“They used to be really mean to them I think. Wouldn’t let them sit on the busses, go to school. I just don’t know, but I think that wasn’t right. I just think it was mean. But it’s better now, right? That’s all done now isn’t it.”
I could have answered her a million ways. I could have been upset, could have just dismissed her entirely, or climbed high up on my horse and lectured my senior. I imagined what my wife’s face would have looked like had she been here to hear the whole exchange; mouth open, one eyebrow arched higher than the other, head slightly to the side.
“It was worse than mean. It was more than wrong. Things can still get better.” Is all I said.
I should explain something about this woman.
Earlier that same day the whole family had taken a trip to not only where this woman grew up, but where she has spent nearly all her life; Lyman Wyoming. I stood in front of a small wood home, looked right, looked left, turned all the way around and saw nothing but that house. Not a tree, not a building, nothing. Nothing all the way to the horizon in all directions. For most of her life she had to travel just to see another person. I think she may have met a total of 2.5 black people in her whole life. It has been a long life. Lest one think this isolation would amplify the affects of media, I should mention that for most of this woman’s life, they had no power. They had no power, as in influence, but mostly just in that they had no electricity. They lived “off the grid” as the hipsters would say today, but they did it in the 60’s.
What should I expect from a woman who lived in Wyoming with no TV during the 60’s? She is the equivalent of the average American today and our awareness of the state of indigenous tribes in Central America.
She is the generation of my grandmother. What should I expect her to have taught her children about race? Should I have expected her to address such an abstract in her world at all? We learn what we know through teaching and experience. On this subject she neither had, nor could give either.