My first black friend was in high school. We teamed up because, like me, irreverence surfaced to her tongue and she hurled some pretty funny commentary about school and life. Our skin wasn’t an issue. More important was our shared teenage angst—you know, boys, make up, zits, bras, and cars.
Last names and skin tones made no difference in my youth. I wasn’t raised that way. The person who influenced me most was my godfather, a tap dancer with deep Irish roots. Of course he adored Donald O’Connor, but the Nicholas Brothers were his dancing style muse. He never used derogatory language about the duo or any of their black entertainment contemporaries who my godfather also followed.
Different cultures appealed to him. He especially loved the different foods—which is now my waistline’s demise. Before I was five I tasted every available cultural food. “You’ll love the pastrami at Canter’s,” my godfather promised as we parked near the famous Hollywood Jewish delicatessen. “The best burritos come from East LA. Are you hungry for one?”
My vocabulary lacked discriminatory words. Sure, I heard racial slurs by others around me, but a soap bar would have made a distasteful visit to my mouth if I ever repeated such language.
I first encountered purebred racism during a visit by a third cousin, Harold, from Mississippi. We sat around my godparent’s dining table and Harold stretched his legs, lit a cigarette, and said to my godfather, “You Californians sure do love your (n word), don’t ya? You need to come back to Mississippi and see how these folks really are.” And then he used about every nasty phrase and comparison possible.
My godfather wasn’t the fighting type. He lit his cigarette, blew the smoke right at Harold and said, “You know, Harold, we’re all God’s people. I think when it comes down to it, the good Lord doesn’t care about your skin. He just cares if you’re a good human. I don’t think the soul has a color—it’s either a good one or a bad one.”
When Harold left, my godfather shook his head and apologized, “I’m sorry you had to hear that. But I’d guess some people just don’t know any better.”
For clarification, my godfather was not a “liberal elitist.” He never went beyond 8th grade.
The next bout of racial hate came with a summer job. Mr. Barnet hired me to type and mail letters to his business associates. Within two weeks I discovered that his “business associates” were clandestine white supremacists who espoused that people of color were of Satan. Mr. Barnet used Biblical quotes to justify his hate. Instead of smashing the typewriter into his bespectacled face, my sassy self rose to the surface. After twelve years of parochial school fraught with history, theology and philosophy, I took Mr. Barnet’s statements to task. Oh, they were awful statements—awful enough to turn my stomach. But there was no winning this battle. He called me names and I told him how and where he could put his typewriter and stormed far away from the seething lunatic—without pay.
Naturally, I gravitated towards people who thought more like I did and shut out those who lived like Harold and Mr. Barnet.
When then Senator Barak Obama delivered his keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, I sat mesmerized. It felt good. It felt right. Then when he announced his candidacy for President I knew he’d get my vote, but I wasn’t so sure that the Harolds and Mr. Barnets of our democracy would let him get past the primaries. But he won and is now the 44th President of the United States.
I cried watching the handsome Obama family displayed during his inauguration. America did itself proud and unshackled the chains of racial discrimination, I believed.
Well, that lasted about ten minutes. Harold and Mr. Barnet’s cohorts and offshoots flushed polite down the toilet, raised assorted flags (errantly including Old Glory), and revived good old-fashioned hate. It’s been cloaked in about every synonym possible. Even “nice” people told me, “I like Obama, but I could never vote for a black man.”
The rest of the story is well chronicled in a gazillion other blogs and commentaries.
But what flabbergasted me is when a high-profile businessman jumped on the no-I’m-not-a-racist-I-just-care-about-America-train and made headline news questioning Obama’s birth certificate. And then he soared in the polls. Seriously? Furthermore, this week when he plunged right into more Obama credibility innuendos with, “I heard that at Columbia (University), he wasn’t a very good student, he then gets to Harvard. How do you get into Harvard if you’re not a good student? … I don’t know why he doesn’t release his records,” I understood that Harold and Mr. Barnet did their job and did it well.
It’s clear to me that our country still wallows in the swamps of hate. It’s clear to me that intolerance of color is as vicious and as nonpreventable as the tornadoes ravishing the Southeast.
My godfather is long in the grave, but I can hear him say, “I don’t think the soul has any color.” I imagine that the Lord nods his head.