Hearing stories recently from so many young black men and women picked at emotional scabs from invisible wounds accrued over the years. We — meaning black Americans — are remarkably adept at rising above slights and insults, deliberate and unintended. Over 400 years resilience has been built into our DNA.
We’ve become adept at seeing bigotry for what is, navigating it, and moving on.
Like the time my brother was taken to an expensive dinner by three New York Times hotshots who were interested in him as a staff photographer. Fred enjoyed the hospitality, ate with all the right utensils, said all the right things, and parted amicably from the power trio.
Fred, who was already a photo editor with Associated Press, had driven up to The Big Apple from D.C. for the interview. He was waiting for the valet to bring his car around when a smartly dressed male Caucasian pulled up to the valet station in a BMW, tossed Fred the keys and asked that his sassy car be parked carefully, noting the probability of a generous tip.
Fred assured the man that he would tend to it right away and put the keys — there were several — in his pocket. Fred’s car came around, and he and the keys were soon off on his return to the nation’s capital. We laughed bittersweet laughter. Fred too had been nattily attired, right down to Italian loafers with tassels.
Among too many personal experiences in my time at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, one incident stands out in particular.
As an accommodation to White Flight in the late 1950s, rapacious developers built houses 90 miles a minute in South St. Louis County where blacks were historically excluded.
What they didn’t tell all-too-willing buyers was the fact that the houses were built in a 100-year flood plain. Unfortunately no one checked to see where new residents were in that crucial century.
Turns out it was the bad part.
When the rains came they were merciless. Skinny rivulets became mighty streams; lazy streams roared to life; the Mississippi’s banks overflowed. Cars were swept away. People drowned.
One of them was the son and only child of a couple who had bought one of those houses. The boy had wandered down to the stream he knew so well to see what it was doing. What it did was snatch him up in an unanticipated torrent and deposit him in a treetop a half-mile down. When the flood subsided firefighters found his body tucked among the branches. I was dispatched to write the story.
“Cars were swept away.
Nothing like a double shot of vodka with orange juice, toast, and scrambled eggs to calm pre-interview jitters. The parents were understandably distraught. I sat in the kitchen with the mother as she peeled carrots, then potatoes. When the father came home he joined us.
He talked about how his son loved that spot by the stream. At last the father buried his face in his hands and sobbed. “If I’d known something like this would happen I’d have stayed with the niggers,” he said. His wife continued peeling potatoes.
I closed my notebook, declined the invitation to stay for dinner, expressed condolences and thanked them for their time. Once in the car, I burst out laughing. I figured right about the time I got to the highway, the wife was turning to her husband and asking “What did you just say to that reporter?”
Chastising a father who is mourning the death of his only child, a son, would have been out of place; he’d already been through enough. My job was to get a story. I did. But when the laughter subsided, the wound remained.
So don’t ever, ever ask a black person whether he or she is angry, unless you really want the answer. The Ivy League, Seven Sisters; the PhD, the DDS, the MFA — none of it matters to still too many out in the real world.
I’ve heard passengers say that if they’d known the flight captain was black they’d have taken a different flight.
I once met a black female navigator on another flight who said she’s always the last off because some passengers assume she’s somehow less competent.
Unless we capture the moment now, the time for honest conversation about race might not come again peaceably. And it’s only meaningful if we’re honest with ourselves. No big convocations need be called. Make a lunch date with someone of color — not necessarily to talk race relations, but to have a conversation with another human being who is not like you.
Don’t tell me you were raised by a black housekeeper who was just like a member of the family unless you never called her by her first name; unless the kids played together; unless you shared Thanksgiving; went to Six Flags together. Unless you can have a conversation about race without apology, brace yourself. It’s a learning curve for all of us.
I share these tales not to guilt anyone, but to ask for awareness that our congeniality often masks a lifetime of sleights that are unique to us. The Irish and Africans are the only ones whose ancestors came to America involuntarily. Know American history. All of it. I often refer to White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg. Learn about Irish slaves brought to America by Brits.
We grow up knowing about great white scientists, authors, statesmen and composers, but how many know of Grant Still, Crispus Attucks, Ethel Payne, Percy Julian, Mamie Phipps Clark, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor?
We’ve come a long way from being denied education to being, as some like to say, over-educated — whatever that’s supposed to mean. Meanwhile, we’re at a tipping point.
Jesse Jackson used to say that we might have come over on different ships, but that we’re in same boat now.
So do we sink or swim?