Thursday, February 4, 2010

Black History Month

"This month is black history month." Those words on the television caught my attention as I peddled furiously on my stationary bike a few days ago. They've stayed in my mind as I've viewed the horrendous pictures and stories coming out of Haiti and read emails from my nephew who is on the board of directors of an orphanage in that devastated country. I've been pleased to see people of every ethnic and religious grouping providing relief and working together there. And as I've watched both black and white rescuers working side by side and thought of the term "black history", I've thought about my own journey to awareness regarding race.

Growing up near an Indian reservation, thinning beats alongside Hispanics, and knowing the hospitality of wonderful Oriental neighbors, I never gave much thought to black people or racial differences. It just wasn't something that came up around our supper table. In fact, I never even saw a black person until I was in the fourth grade and two little black girls began school in our little three room schoolhouse. They only stayed a month or so, but in that time my friends and I, with the best of intentions, made their life miserable and scared them half to death. Their tiny braids sticking out all over their heads, their pink palms, and huge round eyes fascinated us. Besides we'd heard the stories on radio and the few televisions in our community about black people wanting to go to school with white kids and we thought our little backwater school had suddenly become as important as those in the news. We became very proprietary over those children. They were tiny and shy while the rest of us were tough, rowdy farm kids. In our quest to show how thrilled we were with the new status we thought their presence gave us, we gave them the most challenging roles in all of our games, pushed them far beyond their comfort zone, and made them the center of attention. We used the N-word freely because we didn't know better. Every chance they got they hid and we often found them crying. It never crossed our minds that they were afraid of us. To this day I wonder why we weren't better prepared to see those children's needs and what experiences had led them to think they had to accept our well-meant bullying. Were our parents and teachers, both black and white, as ill-prepared as we were for this experience?

A few years later, at another place, a train derailment resulted in the escape of a black prisoner. Soon pickup trucks filled with men bearing rifles or shotguns were slowly patrolling country roads. My father excused me from irrigating, told me to get my book and go sit on the corral fence in front of an old bunkhouse. I knew an elderly black man lived in the bunkhouse, though we seldom saw him. He stayed to himself most of the time and disappeared inside his house whenever I showed up at the nearby barn to help with the milking. It wasn't until years later while reading Faulkner that I realized why my father gave me that odd day off from my usual chores. He knew, just as Faulkner's character knew, no trigger happy bigot would shoot toward the bunkhouse if he caught a glimpse of the old man and mistook him for the escaped convict while a little blonde girl was sitting right in front of his house.

As a teenager I visited a large city with several friends. We boarded a bus one day and made our way to the back seats. The back seats were our privileged domain on the school buses we rode back home and smaller children knew better than to invade our highly esteemed territory. Imagine our shock when the bus driver ordered us out of those seats and informed us only colored people sat there. It just didn't make sense that though we got there first, we weren't allowed to sit in our choice of seats and when one of our parents later explained the rule to us, it still didn't make sense.

There were few students in the schools I attended who were black until I reached college. Even then there were only a handful. It wasn't until I entered the work force that I discovered petty instances of bigotry because of race. I was also shocked to discover some people used race as a trump card to avoid responsibility. Shopping with my future bi-racial daughter-in-law for her wedding dress and photos was another eye-opening experience that convinced me racial bigotry even in the Mountain-west with its low percentage of black people was alive and well.

Now I see my grandchildren play with children of other races seemingly oblivious to color. I smile at pictures of a grandson taking swimming lessons where he's the only white child in the class. I see five different races or ethnic groups represented in my LDS ward sacrament meeting. I eagerly open an e-mail from a dear black friend. There's a picture in the newspaper of a black fireman carrying a white child from a burning house and on TV there's a black doctor and a white nurse bending over an elderly Haitian woman with crushed legs.

I'm not sure how I feel about "black history" being segregated from American history or world history. Isn't it time to integrate the history of the black race into the history of mankind? It seems to me that no one race is responsible for human advancement, nor for the cruelty and failures of this world. We're really all in this together and just as all races are represented in bringing aid to Haitian suffering, it seems to me we've had enough time to get past this race thing and start being just people, just Americans, just part of the human race.



Anna Buttimore said...

I hadn't realised all the segregation was that recent. But how wonderful that it is being overcome so quickly. I get all the news from the radio rather than TV (I find TV pictures too distressing) so I was surprised when I heard criticisms that Obama was only helping Haiti because the people there were black. Until that point I hadn't known they were black. (I know I sound dim, but Haiti is quite a long way from here...)

What a wonderful man your father was!

Lynn Gardner said...

Brilliant blog, Jennie. You should send it to the letters to the editor. It needs to have more exposure than it may get here. Beautifully written!! Lynn