My father, who was always tinkering on some machine that needed fixing, put down his wrench and turned to her.
“Well, are you?” he said.
“No, I am not,” my sister said without hesitation.
“Then forget about it.”
He picked up the wrench again and got back to work. That was the end of the discussion.
Years later, my sister who is now a successful educator and therapist, still tells that story. My Dad did not have an easy life. He worked as a shoe-shine boy before landing a job as a waiter with the Southern Railroad, which he held onto for the rest of his life. For nearly thirty years, he was routinely called “boy," “George,” or "nigger," and I used to wonder how he accepted that without fighting back. Without allowing it to touch him—at least on the outside.
The first time I heard my sister tell her called-me-a-nigger-story, I began to understand. My father had learned the essential truth behind: “Sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words will never hurt me.” He knew what a nigger was and understood that he was not that negative thing, regardless of what anyone else said. In this, he had the support of other black railroad men who created among themselves a cadre based on personal pride and respect. They dressed well, bought homes in white-flight neighborhoods, and raised their children to become participants in the world that was just beginning to open up for them.
I’m thinking of this now because the latest version of he called me a nigger has now gotten as far as the BBC. If you don’t know about the storm over this year's poster for the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival, here’s a link.
Am I saying that the solution to controversies like this is to stop thinking about it? Not exactly. If I were a middle class Caucasian, and someone called me white trash, it would not faze me in the least because it would not touch my sense of identity. But if I were Irish-American, Chinese-American, or Puerto Rican, and someone called a Mick, Chink, or Spic, it might. That’s because these terms are attempts to put you in a historically based category in which your people were looked down upon and considered less than worthy. You can’t grow up in scenarios like this without it impacting your sense of self. It took an entire generation and a set of favorable life experiences for my father’s wisdom to make it into the lives of his children and grandchildren.
And yet, we must be concerned about any proliferation of negative stereotypes—whether they are promulgated consciously or not—because there are people among us who are ignorant of history. The immunity I enjoyed as a television news anchor in San Francisco disappeared whenever I traveled beyond the limits of the Bay Area broadcast signal. Fame shielded me from insults and other degrading experiences. I would not care much if anyone called me a nigger today. But it would it bother me a great deal if someone shot me because they noticed my black skin and decided that I looked “suspicious.”
It is interesting that the much-talked about controversy regarding the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival poster comes to us during the 50-year anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March. In a Charlie Rose video clip posted on previous blog here, Vernon Jordan warns that the bad-old days appear to be coming back to us. He is speaking primarily about efforts to weaken the Voting Rights Act. But his words remind us to remain vigilant where human rights are concerned—and to go on remembering who we really are.