There may be a lot of disagreement on how far we still have to go with racism, in this country. But there should be no dispute about how far we’ve come. Jim Crow laws were still in effect in my lifetime. Today, that kind of open, institutionalized racism is unheard of. For many, the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. was the shocking event that began to change their thinking.
I grew up in a household where the word “nigger” was used without shame. It just wasn’t considered a very harsh insult; it was equivalent to calling someone a “redneck.” There was no particular hate toward black folk, just a general distaste that had as much to do with “classism” as it did skin color – and a “well, what do you expect” type of bigotry. Things began to change in my family when my aunt left the convent in the seventies and several years later married someone who turned out to be a Klan member.
That was a bad decade for the Catholic Church, as well as for everybody else, and her judgment was… impaired. But I think her poor judgment did the rest of the family a huge favor. The better we got to know Uncle Klukker, the more we got a good, unvarnished look at the ugliness of racism. None of the softening that society provides, no group excuses, no statistical arguments. Just one man’s forthright hate. It frightened and disgusted us, and we backed away from it and from our own racism. Thank God.
As a teenager I went to a high school that was about one-third white, one-third black, and the rest Asian or Latino. There was some genuine racism there but for the most part it was more like rival teams. Occasional fights, but for the most part, avoidance. That was our method of getting along, since we all had to be there.
My mother occasionally used the word at home up until the early nineties, and when someone objected, she’d explain, “I don’t mean all black people, I mean the trashy ones. It means the same as poor white trash.” There was no heat there, just a lifetime habit of using the word, and the group she to which she applied it had gradually shrunk to include only criminals who were also black. So she didn’t understand why, after my daughter was born in 1990, I told her that she would either stop using the word in front of us, or stop seeing her granddaughter. But she did stop, at least in our presence.
Finally Hurricane Katrina hit, and that changed everything. My mother’s house sustained minimal wind damage – my husband and I were able to get it back in shape in just a few weekends. Many of my mother’s coworkers homes were destroyed or damaged so badly that repair would take months. So she invited some co-workers to move in with her. Of the three that did, two were black; a testimony to how much my mother changed over the years. Her white co-worker bought a condo and moved out rather quickly. One of her black co-workers had been renting an apartment, and nearly a year after Katrina, finally moved into another apartment.
The last co-worker is a home owner whose home had been badly damaged. Complicating matters is the fact that L is terminally ill. All three of L’s grown children have legitimate reasons for not being able to take L in. They help as much as they can, as do my husband and I, but the primary burden is on my mother, who goes to the doctor with L, and has even learned how to give shots. It is no exaggeration to say that we have grown to love L and consider her and her family, part of our family.
We’ve had holidays together, and laughed about the cultural differences. The question “How can you put gravy on macaroni and cheese?” gets you a laugh and a “How can you NOT?” We’ve learned about not just food differences, but so many other cultural differences between American blacks and American whites. And there are a lot of cultural differences, just as many as you’d find living with people from another country. Perhaps because even today, society tends to be segregated. The fact that it’s voluntary and class based doesn’t change the fact of it. We think they’re weird, and they think the same about us, but the common bond of loving L holds us all together and makes it work.
My mother has changed. L can’t drive, so my mother takes her where she wants to go. Including events where she is often the only white person in the crowd. We tease her about being a grit in a bowl of raisins, but she says she’s getting used to being the outsider. Sometimes she gets strange looks, sometimes she gets ignored, and sometimes people act differently when they see her, as though they feel they can’t be themselves around her. The other night, she took L to Aaron Neville’s wife’s funeral because L knows the Nevilles well. It was my mother’s first black funeral and she was amazed at how different it was from white funerals. L has planned her own funeral – she and my mother went casket-shopping some time ago, and the service is planned down to the last detail. My mother is terrified of public speaking, but L has asked her to read at her funeral. And my mother agreed, because she loves L and can’t bear to disappoint her.
MLK’s death changed the face of racism in this country. People saw the hate and took a step back from it. It is taking another death to finally eradicate the last of the racism from my family, and where there was not racism but a cautious tolerance, to bring about openness. We are all being changed by this close, ongoing proximity with people that 35 years ago, I was taught to fear and despise. Love is widening our perspectives. As much as I grieve for the fact that we’re losing L, I’m equally grateful for the time we’re having with her. It is a gift that will continue on through generations. And it is part of making Martin Luther King’s dream come true.
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