My backwoods view on race relations

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PA Dutch hex sign: Morning Birds (Health and Happiness)

Talking about racial issues is one of those touchy issues, where,  even if you choose your words carefully, you’re liable to offend someone.  I’ve been exploring Twitter for a couple weeks and frankly, it’s not me, or rather I think the format isn’t one where I’ll ever feel comfortable, that I’m presenting myself in a way that accurately expresses my views or who I am, and what I believe or think about issues.  What we think about race and race relations in America is a very serious matter, one that I don’t want to leave to 140 characters.

As regular readers know, I grew up in a large, blue-collar family in the Pocono Mountains, located in northeastern Pennsylvania.  I was born in 1960, a child during the Civil Rights era. This is no lie, I had heard about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but I didn’t read the entire speech until my “pasty white” son, was selected by his black first grade teacher to play Martin Luther King, Jr., in a play for parents (circa 1990).  We were living in Germany, so this was a DODDS school.  It was quite awkward sitting there watching my son recite that speech, with this angry black father behind me fussing about why there was this “pasty white” kid playing Martin Luther King (true story).  I didn’t know whether to apologize to that man or defend the teacher and my son.  She told me she picked my son, because he was the best reader in the class.

Growing up, my family lived in one half of a large two-family old house on the outskirts of a village (yes, PA has actual villages – the signs say “Village of XYZ”).  My paternal great-grandmother lived on the other side of the house and our house was filled with a lot of family drama with my great-grandmother and assorted relatives.  My father was illegitimate, his mother, being my great-grandmother’s only daughter, in a family with 8 sons.  My grandmother had the luck to get pregnant by a young man, who had two girls pregnant at the same time, and he married the other one.  My grandmother later married, but she left my father with her parents and he was raised by his grandparents.  In those days, people didn’t talk about stuff like this, they kept things hush hush.

When my great-grandfather was dying, he asked my father to look after my great-grandmother and my Pop kept his word.  My great-grandmother despised my mother, actually, perhaps despise is too mild of a word.  My mother wanted to buy a house, for as far back as I can remember, and move away from my great-grandmother, but my father said he gave his word to his grandfather, so that was that.

My great-grandmother adored me, she loved my brothers and sisters, but she hated my mother with a passion.  My mother always spoke to her respectfully and whenever my great-grandmother had one of her many heart attacks, a stroke, and then later as she was dying of cancer, my mother, being a registered nurse, organized her care at home.  She made my sisters and me help her with caring for my great-grandmother, until she died. Growing up, my mother made us clean my great-grandmother’s side of the house every week.  My mother had a strong sense of “duty” and her feelings played no role in doing right by family, even ones who hated her guts.

Against this backdrop, it’s fair to say that my great-grandmother could only be termed “a very difficult woman” (she was a tyrant, of sorts), but I loved her dearly.  Odd as that sounds, it’s true.   She always gave us change for the ice cream truck that came around in the summertime or to buy candy at the general store, she spent many hours teaching me needlework and gardening, she helped me learn to write my letters before I went to school, and well, she adored me.  She also, despite her third grade education, possessed the skills of a great storyteller.  I wish I had written down some of her stories.  She was a very good cook and baker, expert needlewoman and quilter, expert gardener, dedicated to her family, read the Bible daily, but she was also very bigoted and racist.  That’s the truth.  I am sure many people have family members like this, so even though they hold views and beliefs you abhor, you still love them.

In our end of the county (the backwoods end), there weren’t any black families until I was in Junior High.  I remember the first day my school bus stopped to pick up a small group of black children, who were part of a church group, that had moved out of Philadelphia.  We, being one of my brother, two of my sisters, two of my cousins next-door, and me were the first stop for our bus in the morning, so one of my sister’s and I always sat all the way in the back.

By the time the bus stopped for these black children, the bus had a lot of kids on it and all these kids, to include my brother, spread out to sit on every seat, right at the aisle.  These black kids got on the bus and they were scared.  That bullying tactic made me so furious that I stood up and ordered them to move over or give seats to these kids (true story).  It was a spontaneous response on my part, because I can’t stand bullies.  I told one little black girl that there was room by me and that little girl was shaking with fear.  Thus ended our racial incident and I became friends with those black kids.  Of course, for standing up, two brothers from a large farm family, called me many nasty names constantly, but I didn’t really care.  I knew I could beat the crap out of them, if it came to that (yes, I got into more than one fistfight on the school bus… with bullies).

We had many discussions on race at home too.  My brother and I went back and forth, my father, one of the kindest people imaginable, grew up with my great-grandmother, but he didn’t hold her views and my mother believed everyone must be treated with respect.  I know many of my relatives hold racist views, because it’s learned and at its heart it’s fear of outsiders and people who are different, I believe.

The thing about bigotry and racist views is it permeates, not only in some white areas in America, it permeates in black communities too.

We can toss in the anti-Semitism and here again, my great-grandmother, whom I loved dearly, hated Jewish people too.  Our church’s parsonage was right across the road from our house.   Our pastor was PA Dutch, not from our area of PA, but he fit right in.  His wife, however, was a Jewish lady from New York City.  My great-grandmother spoke politely to her, but she never treated her like a neighbor or a friend.  By the time I was a teenager, our pastor’s wife was elderly and I spent a great deal of time with her.  She needed help caring for her husband at home, because he was very difficult and the nursing home would not keep him.  She asked my mother for help and my mother sent me to help her.

For almost two years I helped get my great-grandmother settled in bed, then went across the road and helped our pastor’s wife with caring for her husband.  I slept at her house, because often her husband would get up during the night and wander.  He was blind, and had dementia, so it took both of us to get him back into bed and calmed down (Thorazine drops helped…)

I watched Roots with her and she had all sorts of interesting insights into race relations in America.   It was while watching Roots, that she told me that she didn’t know that my father was my great-grandmother’s grandson for many years.  She believed he was another son.  It seemed incredible that she could live across the road and have no idea.  She told me that my great-grandmother barely spoke to her for many years and that it wasn’t until my father wanted to enlist in the Air Force in WWII, that she learned that he was the grandson. She helped search the church records for my father’s baptismal records.

Did I ever doubt my pastor’s wife perception about my great-grandmother hating Jewish people?  Heck no, I remember watching TV with my great-grandmother, when I was around 10 or 11, and Henry Kissenger was on TV.  I told my great-grandmother that he sounded like a very smart man.  My great-grandmother launched into an anti-Semitic diatribe and that was my first experience with Antisemitism.  Later, I mentioned Henry Kissinger to my mother, because he had left such an impression on me.  I told my mother what my great-grandmother had said and she told me to ignore her.  She said, “Henry Kissinger is a brilliant man!”   I still believe my mother was right on that too.

Truthfully, I believe that racist and bigoted views, exist in most groups of people, to varying degrees.  I also believe that often in many families, you’ve got a wide variety of viewpoints on race, racial politics, politics, religion and just about every other topic, to include sports, TV personalities, you name it.

Now, here’s the truth, we all need to think about, each and every one of us has biases too, not just the out and out racists and bigots.  We need to learn to work to get to know people as INDIVIDUALS, rather than heaping them into groups – that’s the real key to moving beyond race.  Black people, who are locked into seeing everything in terms of race, have just as wide of a hurdle to move beyond the racial divide, as white people who hate black people. Luckily, I think most Americans aren’t at the farthest extremes on race, so we can find plenty of room to work on attitude adjustments.

It’s heartbreaking to see so much effort going into stirring up violent protests, but it’s alarming that the President of the United States has NOT condemned Black Lives Matter, an anarchist group, intent on overthrowing the police.  Watching the downward spiral on race relations, under President Obama’s endless racial grievance agitating, depresses me.  He fixates on cases to sensationalize, he lectures, he stereotypes white people, he jumps to conclusions before having facts, and most alarmingly he is trying to use the power of the executive branch to push his political agenda, by spreading fear, mayhem and encouraging these racial confrontations with police.  Al Sharpton and other racial agitators spend a lot of time working with the White House, to stir up racial controversy.

The mayor of Charlotte and the police department failed their citizens last night.  Another young black man was shot in Charlotte at that protest and tonight it was reported that he died.  There was thousands upon thousands of dollars in damage to businesses and private property last night too.  Looting and destruction of property has nothing to do with any valid political point – that’s criminal conduct.

Every leader in America should be condemning these violent mob actions, which are not about FREE speech or improving race relations.   The only way forward is to ditch the rage and commit to the hard road ahead of building trust in our communities.  It’s going to take, not only speaking out; it’s going to take the courage to sit down and listen to other viewpoints too.

The path forward isn’t going to come from rioting mobs in the street.

 

 

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