Up From Prejudice

"I was born a slave on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia. I am not quite sure of the exact place or exact date of my birth, but at any rate I suspect I must have been born somewhere and at some time. As nearly as I have been able to learn, I was born near a cross-roads post-office called Hale’s Ford, and the year was 1858 or 1859. I do not know the month or the day. The earliest impressions I can now recall are of the plantation and the slave quarters—the latter being the part of the plantation where the slaves had their cabins." - The opening of Up From Slavery (Image source: Wikipedia)

“I was born a slave on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia. I am not quite sure of the exact place or exact date of my birth, but at any rate I suspect I must have been born somewhere and at some time. As nearly as I have been able to learn, I was born near a cross-roads post-office called Hale’s Ford, and the year was 1858 or 1859.” – The opening of “Up From Slavery,” by Booker T. Washington. (Image source: Wikipedia)

Everybody loses it when racism is brought up, and the ones who get extremely calm and ultra-rational are often the most freaked out of all.

To make matters worse, history then complicates everything when we want to talk about it in the here and now.

There isn’t much we can do about history except try to see it as it really was and see how it has made us what we are.  However, I think something can be done about that gut reaction.

That’s rooted in racial prejudice – one of the most common human emotions – but it also extends quite far into the inexpressible depths of the human soul.  Everything down there is all tangled up in  some atavistic conglomerate of hatred, sex, violence and sense of self, without which the human race would never have survived over millions of year.

However, if that were all there was to us, we’d still be out in the jungle with the rest of the apes.

Instead, there is also something unfathomable inside that makes us human.  I just used the thesaurus to find the right word for it – the closest I could come was “tempering.” 

This other atavistic complex of love, sex, violence and sense of empathy both toughens us and moderates our darker instincts. However, sometimes the tempering process goes amiss, and our attitudes, prejudices and hatreds turn into cold steel that we then sharpen and use hurtfully.

Gah!  All I wanted to do is mention Booker T. Washington, the author of last week’s whodunit, and it was necessary to get into all that first because slavery, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil War, social justice, race relations in the American South/the US/the world, the Tuskegee airmen, the Tuskegee experiment, etc., etc., etc.

Everybody does lose it when race is brought up, including me.  It’s therefore not brought up very much, except here in America – not so much because of American history but because that history has been very much shaped, for better and for worse, by those words we all take so seriously: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

Bringing equality/racial prejudice up – as Booker T. Washington most definitely did with Up From Slavery – always causes distress and sometimes trouble, but it has led to progress, too, as this video shows (its joyous ending will be famous long after the unsettling vibes those of us from Jackson’s era feel are forgotten):

Aesop had the right idea, but in reality the nettle still stings even when some necessity forces you to grasp it.

Respect for the American South

To deal with a gut reaction requires individual effort, and this is probably the main reason why racial prejudice is still around today despite legislation and well-meaning pop videos. It’s awfully hard to do.

Higher education in Tuskegee, Alabama - then and now.  (Wikipedia)

Higher education in Tuskegee, Alabama – then and now. (Wikipedia)

You may have noticed that I’m not talking about the details Booker T. Washington wrote about in this 1901 book. There are two reason for that. First and most importantly, a lengthy stay in the South convinced me that no outsider has anything to contribute to the issue of race relations there.

Recall Shelby Foote, in that difficult interview, saying, “Everybody in the Mississippi Delta was a racist.”

Outsiders might not understand that. They might see a wheezy old racist white Southerner making us all uncomfortable because the interviewer is black. The guy even has the nerve to use the “N” word during the interview! That’s all outsiders would be able to see.

To those who are from the South, or even someone like me who has lived there for a while, the interview is quite a different thing – a complex tapestry of overt statements and undercurrents of multiple meanings. Of course the interviewer is also from the South – you can hear it if you listen closely enough later on, when Mister Foote’s courageous struggle has moved us all. (As an aside, I don’t believe he lost most of those fifty fights he once said he was in over his lifetime.)

The interviewer understands, just as we do, that this writer isn’t a bad man. He’s just an ordinary man who is still, in the face of enormous difficulty, trying to do his job of expressing as accurately as he can with words the utterly inexpressible.

Too, the interview resonates with our own personal experiences and memories.

An outsider can’t see how heartbreaking it is when your parent or some other beloved figure suddenly says, in the privacy of your home, something incredibly harsh and ugly about another race.

Maybe you agree, even knowing it’s wrong, and something in you dies. That’s sad, but it’s how racisim is perpetuated.


(Image: Steven Depolo)

Perhaps instead you feel a terrible internal struggle over it because it clashes with your own rather more enlightened beliefs.

Only then can you really see what Martin Luther King, Jr., and others understood – the only way to heal such a soul sore is with love and patience.

So you keep your mouth shut and just try to apply the medicine and see if it will work over time.

But of course you can’t take that out into public life.

The South today is a strange place. You go into a convenience store, say, and the clerk’s skin is a different color from yours.

If it’s just you and them, and if you’re at all open-minded, there often is a strange sense of an unspoken “please tell me it’s Christmas and you’re going to be the exception to the rule of hate.”

In a nutshell, this sort of curiosity about the human nature of the Other is the hope of the modern South.

But then other customers come in, and they’re all either your color or the clerk’s color. Those doors of empathy don’t just shut, they disappear. Suddenly it’s just the usual awkward social situation that most people handle with an informal “separate but really equal this time” mentality; just another uncomfortable encounter in modern daily life, 99.9% of the time – that other 0.1%, though, is awful.

All that is the ongoing predicament of America, as well as the South. There is something positive to be said about black pride as well as white pride, but both sure do get in the way of progress at times.

Anyway, these things are part of the hidden undercurrents of Southern life. All Southerners are aware of it – now, that is – and they are at least willing to recognize at some level that racial prejudice exists, which is more than many other Americans wish to do.

I respect that and so am just going to keep my mouth shut about Booker T. Washington other than to recommend that you really check him and his book out.

This Southern man’s messages of self-respect and self-help, while not the only positive ones out there, are much more powerful medicine for sores of the soul than anything I’ve got.

For the children

The second reason I’m not going much into the subject matter of Up From Slavery stems from the fact that somebody who routinely experienced the following as a child went on to accomplish something that the world has acknowledged is great:

During the period that I spent in slavery I was not large enough to be of much service, still I was occupied most of the time in cleaning the yards, carrying water to the men in the fields, or going to the mill, to which I used to take the corn, once a week, to be ground. The mill was about three miles from the plantation. This work I always dreaded. The heavy bag of corn would be thrown across the back of the horse, and the corn divided about evenly on each side; but in some way, almost without exception, on these trips, the corn would so shift as to become unbalanced and would fall off the horse, and often I would fall with it. As I was not strong enough to reload the corn upon the horse, I would have to wait, sometimes for many hours, till a chance passer-by came along who would help me out of my trouble. The hours while waiting for some one were usually spent in crying. The time consumed in this way made me late in reaching the mill, and by the time I got my corn ground and reached home it would be far into the night. The road was a lonely one, and often led through dense forests. I was always frightened. The woods were said to be full of soldiers who had deserted from the army, and I had been told that the first thing a deserter did to a Negro boy when he found him alone was to cut off his ears. Besides, when I was late in getting home I knew I would always get a severe scolding or a flogging.

Don’t weep too hard for that kid. He went on to found Tuskegee University.

He also married and had a family.  (Image:  Wikipedia)

He also married and had a family. (Image: Wikipedia)

It’s the pure embodiment of the American experience.

Of course, the struggle still continues, and in some ways is more difficult today because it isn’t anywhere nearly as direct as the challenges Washington and others endured.

For some reason, Morgan Freeman comes to mind. There was that wonderful moment during the Mike Wallace interview:

But then in another interview, he described Barack Obama as America’s first mixed-race president, being very careful to point out that “Barack had a mama and she was white, very white American Kansas middle of America.”

It’s true what Shelby Foote said: “Everybody in the Mississippi Delta was a racist.” Racism is a poison that immediately sickens everyone it touches.

Ann Dunham and her son Barack Obama.  He went on to accomplish a very great thing.  (Image source)

Her name is Ann Dunham and this is her son one Halloween evening back in the 1960s. (Image source)

I did not vote for Barack Obama in 2008 because he was a Chicago pol, an insider, without executive experience, and – because racism has touched me, too (only the newborn are free of it) – also because he wasn’t the “right one” to break the White House color barrier.

I was thoroughly wrong about that last one. Jackie Robinson probably wasn’t the “right one” to break the color barrier in baseball, either – he was just publicized that way. Mister Obama has shown, over the past six years, that he indeed was the right one. The “right one” is anyone tough enough to do it.

Now I don’t believe I was wrong about the other stuff, but I do see now that it doesn’t matter.

There’s something about that job of being an American president. It isn’t so much about being the most powerful individual in the world, leader of the Free World, or anything like that. While there’s some truth in such titles at the moment, it’s evanescent. The oath of the presidency is a better job description, but it doesn’t address greatness.

Greatness comes from sitting at the focus of a prism made out of E pluribus unum, day in, day out for four years at a minimum. It’s a terrible but necessary thing.

It also happens to be the great thing that little kid in a pirate costume is accomplishing today before our very eyes.

The same sort of dream that Booker T. Washington and many others have had, and the chance for some to translate their dreams into reality, goes on here in America. We are all the beneficiaries.

Categories: Thursday Lit

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