Part III of V
When I was in high school in the mid-1960’s, I had prejudices. (I may still have some, but nothing like the lack of awareness I had then.) I was brought up that way. I didn’t see a black person until I was five or six, but later had black friends whom I loved and respected, though there were not many black families in our rural California town. But it was quite clear to everyone that although we danced with the black boys at the school dances, and hung out with them talking at school, we didn’t date them. (I had a good friend who dated a black boy secretly after she graduated, until her older brother lambasted her with racial slurs about her friend. After she moved to a town with more black people many years later, she felt freer to date whom she pleased, away from of the eye of her family and others in our town.) And the black girls, who were all very quiet and kept to themselves, unlike their brothers, many of whom were sports stars, didn’t date the white boys. In fact, I’ve talked to non-white high school friends in the last few decades who told me that there was no one for them to date in Yuba City, CA. They had to go to college far out of town before they got to date. I was in a bubble believing we were not prejudiced. But we discriminated. That’s for sure.
My high school US history teacher paused on the day we started studying the Civil War. He looked up from the place in our text book where he’d started his lecture, and said, “This book was written by white people. If it had been written by black people, this section would be quite different. You really should check out some other books to get a full picture of what the Civil War was and what it really meant.” I had never thought before, at age 16, in 1964, that text books could be anything other than fact and truth. This was just prior to my dawning of political considerations when boys my age were drafted into the Vietnam war. After my teacher’s comments, I read everything with a realization that every author has a point of view, and that opinion creeps into all writing, even scientific writing. When I have mentioned this vignette to others, they’ve said that they never had a teacher who pointed out things like this. (So far, I have only heard differently from one woman raised in the Central Valley of California, who went to a Catholic girls’ school, where a nun had them sing “We Shall Overcome” in the 60’s.) I hope this has changed. I hope that text books tell more of the full truth today. I hope that young people demand to know the truth and points of view of many sides for every piece of history they encounter. The more we learn about other cultures, races, ages, religions, abilities and economic situations, the more likely that we will develop more compassion, and also, not only tolerance, but appreciation and even affection for differences.
The founding fathers mostly had slaves (except for some, like John and Abigail Adams, who saw the immorality of it from the start). The United States was in poverty even prior to its inception, and built itself up on an agrarian economy, before and after the industrial revolution, an economy which only improved because of the institution of slavery. Now we buy clothing, electronics and other “stuff,” inexpensive because they are made in sweatshops we never see where people we’ll never meet work in terrible conditions. The reason we white people have been able to prosper is based on a legacy of slavery. Yes, things have changed, but not enough, and not as much as some of us might think.
When doing my genealogy in the 1990’s, I learned that nearly two hundred years ago, my great-great-great grandparents Allen had had slaves, first in Tennessee (my g-g-g grandmother, born Dickinson, inherited the “rights” to them as property, legal at that time both here and in England), then at their home in Maryland, and then at their residence in Texas. I was appalled by this information, but then realized that given I had known my father, his grandfather, and my g-g grandfather lived in Texas, and that it was possible those before them may have lived in the South, I should not have been surprised.
It is hard to describe the guilt I felt at reading this piece of my ancestral history. Sitting at my computer in San Mateo, California, it was like a gut punch; the hair on my body stood on end. I felt nauseous. I knew that my mother was prejudiced; she didn’t believe in interracial marriage (I had the good fortune to see the wrong-headedness of this in the late 1960’s as a young adult) and I knew that my sister’s husband in the 1950’s was prejudiced, using offensive terms for black people (“The light’s green, chocolate drop,” muttered to himself when we rode in his Mercury). But there had not been outright criticism of black people and my parents never used slurs to describe anyone of any race. But there, deeply rooted in my background, was racism.
Next: More history, and Contrition