I’ve often said that I grew up in a racist culture in Kentucky in the 1950’s, never realizing that this statement seems to mean that racism is confined to the south, or to a long-ago period of time. This was wishful thinking on my part, as the events in Ferguson prove yet once again, if any proof was needed.
It’s awkward, to say the least, for a privileged white woman like me to even attempt to touch the subject of racism; yet we are sometimes the women who knows its effects most intimately. Many of us were raised by black women and realized the limits put on their love for us when our mothers told them to stop kissing us and to add “Miss” to our first names. For me, that strange change marked my entrance into adolescence.
Or perhaps our mothers never needed to say it.
This example may seem mild compared to the shooting of an unarmed eighteen-year-old black man in the streets of Ferguson by a white police officer, but it seems to be these two events are closely connected by the question of who in our culture is allowed to have power.
In his own way, this young black man was the living embodiment of power: young and male, with the enormous energy those two nouns imply. He may have felt in the moments before his death that he was still in charge of his life, that the fact of his youth and his maleness provided an impenetrable shield against a policeman’s bullet.
So, too, the black women who raised me may have felt, if they dared to, some intimation of power from my total dependence and love. Could they ever have imagined using my devotion as a way to ask their white employers for more—more money, more time off?
Probably such a use would never have occurred to them, and yet, a privileged child’s affection is potent in its possible uses.
Did I ever imagine asking my parents to grant these women some power over their own lives? I had uneasy feelings, always, about the way they lived, anxiety about their pay, which came out every Friday from my father’s office in a big envelope, anxiety about their children, who were never discussed and never appeared, anxiety about how trapped they were in the family house, unable to leave—there was no public transportation and they didn’t own cars—except when some white person would drive them to town on the Thursday or the Sunday of their weekly days-off, anxiety, later, about their old age, their inevitable decline, and where in the world they were buried.
William Faulkner dedicated Absalom, Absalom! to the black people of his youth with the single sentence, “They endured.”
Ferguson shows us the other side of that silent endurance, black people running, shouting, taunting the policemen armed like SWAT teams, looting stores, staying out past the curfew the white authorities imposed. Their elders, terrified, have tried to restrain them, and the great black leaders who recognize Ferguson as the blazing signal of all that is wrong in our culture have come to try to talk out a resolution for the crisis.
The black people I grew up with, who loved me as I loved them, came of an earlier generation and would have been terrified and appalled by what is happening not so far away in the St. Louis suburb. They would know that more blood was likely to be spilled, that more parents were living in anguish, fearful for the survival of their young men.
But this is, in fact, ordinary, although news stories may make it seem extreme. In every city in this country, in every town and suburb, the same battle is joined, although it may be invisible: the battle of those we have attempted to make powerless to reverse their imposed victimhood.
Is it likely that speeches will do that? Or peaceful demonstrations?
I’m not sure that anything can teach us white onlookers; we do not even recognize our prejudice. But if anything can get our distracted attention, it is these furious young men, running through the streets of Ferguson, demanding the respect they have never been accorded, forty years after the Civil Rights legislation that was supposed somehow to repress our own violence as white people determined to put these “others” down.
And still the subject of the love between black women and white children is seldom mentioned. “The Help” gave powerful proof of its existence and its consequences, as did my first play, Milk of Paradise, performed in a tiny theatre off-off-Broadway with a cast of five black actors, two white children, and the white parents on a balcony from which they never descended.
White audiences had difficulty with the play. One man objected to seeing black actors in the roles of servants, to which the majestic woman who played the family cook replied, “I don’t act in no Tom plays.”
That was one of my proudest moments.
[Images from Twitter — #Ferguson]