Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Old Times There Are Not Forgotten

this past weekend, my wife and i decided we should pay a visit to my uncle, my dad's only surviving sibling.  uncle is a few months shy of his hundredth birthday, still lives alone, and still drives, though he probably should give up driving because of his failing eyesight.  as he reminisced about his boyhood, i was reminded of the terrible legacy of that blight on the great american experiment that was, and is, the institution of slavery.  in his conversation, uncle spoke of the camaraderie he and my dad, who was less than two years younger than uncle, had with the boys in the neighborhood, which included both black and white youngsters.

my parents were fortunate to have grown up in situations where they had many contacts with the black community--my father because his father employed many black men in his business and my mother because most of the customers of the small business her parents owned were black.  both families lived in neighborhoods that were bi-racial, and like uncle and my dad, my mother's brothers'  playmates included black youth who lived nearby.  this was not true for many white families in the south in those days between the two world wars, where racial separation was strictly enforced and where most whites and blacks lived in different worlds that rarely interacted.  when they did interact, one world always benefited at the expense of the other.

yet even for my parents, there was this implied sense of separation.  in the innocence of youth, skin color made little difference when it came to playing in the neighborhood, but both black and white playmates knew that a day would come when the easy relationships would end.  the black children with which my dad and his brother played would grow up to be employees of people like my grandfather most likely, and the black peers of my mother's brothers knew that they would grow up to become that debtors of people like my maternal grandparents.  i am sure this rigidly observed difference in social status influenced their play.  a black playmate dare not strike a white one or insist too loudly on his right to take his turn in the game if a white wanted to steal it.  even in subtle ways on the playing fields, white entitlement was certainly evident.

my great-grandmother--the matriarch of my mother's family, my mother's mother's mother--was old enough to remember the last vestiges of slavery in the old south, having been born just before the outbreak of the civil war.  she lived until i was a young teenager, and we were never sure of her real age because there were no accurate written records of her birth.  but it amazes me that i am still connected to the awful institution by this link.  the civil war seems long ago, but i have only to recall my great-grandmother's stores of her young childhood to be transported back to that era when slavery was accepted as normal.

slavery casts a long shadow over this country, and especially over the south.  uncle and many of his generation still fail to see that awful legacy.  he sees nothing wrong with speaking in ways that subtly disparage people of color, including the president.  though he recalls his black friends who later became his and my grandfather's employees with fondness, he will never see those dark-skinned former playmates as his equal.  he will always believe that his light skin entitled him to be the boss, and that any other arrangement of the social order would be unnatural and morally wrong.  for all his wonderful qualities, uncle is a racist, and those of us who are of my generation must be vigilant lest we be racists, too.

those who had little or no contact with black culture in their formative years are unfortunate.  they have not seen this cancer on our national body up close.  they have not experienced this awful caste system in our country by watching almost-equals become something far different as buddies/playmates/friends matured.  those who grew up in a white world with little or no contact with the parallel black world cannot understand what havoc slavery has inflicted on the united states.  it is all to easy for those whose lives were not bound up with the fortunes of members of the black community to fail to recognize the social forces at play, to see the preponderance of our prison population as a monolithic sea of black that deserves to be incarcerated, to believe that black families fare less well economically because of some innate traits that pass from generation to generation.  those who have experienced life in close contact with members of the other race know, even though they may force themselves to ignore it, that these inequities have nothing to do with whether one has dark or light skin and everything to do with the forced immigration and forced labor of dark-skinned humans by light-skinned humans.

may we constantly strive to wipe out the vestiges of slavery that loom over us.  may we recognize that the debt that whites owe to blacks in this country can never be repaid.  may we open our hearts to the truth that the promise of freedom and equality can never be realized until the inequities in our social fabric are acknowledged and addressed.  shalom.

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