Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Disappointing Personal Lessons in Racism

The arrival of Black History Month (also known as African American History Month in the US) is a time to discuss and celebrate the achievements and lives of many brave souls who came before us. On a personal level, my thoughts turn to a dichotomy of experiences: pride that historically, New Yorkers in general have stood on the side of civil rights and equality for all, but dismay at several personal recollections when racism unexpectedly reared its head right before my eyes.

In northern New York, our legacy is one of standing up against racism — not uniformly, but in general, that has been our stance. This is memorialized by historic sites like the North Star Underground Railroad Museum, operated by the North Country Underground Railroad Association (NCUGRHA), both of which are located at Ausable Chasm in Clinton County. After helping escaped slaves remain free, our forebears also fought in the Union Army to eradicate slavery. Our more-recent ancestors ultimately rejected a strong recruiting effort by the KKK during the 1920s, which disturbingly attracted thousands of North Country residents to their rallies.

From a young age, I was exposed to civil rights supporters — our teachers, the Catholic school nuns at St. Mary’s Academy in Champlain (in northeastern Clinton County). We studied oppression based on race, and at a time when nightly news on television featured German shepherds and fire hoses unleashed on black protestors, we examined how media presented the civil rights movement. Among our assignments was to watch the national news (there were only three options during those Cro-Magnon times: ABC, CBS, and NBC) and make note of the order in which top stories played on competing channels. Almost nobody had more than one TV, so we were assigned a network and compared notes in class the next day. It was a great learning experience that, among other things, helped alert us to hidden agendas behind story choices.

There was a downside, too, especially during the 1960s. As the newest medium to become common in households, television was often presented live and unfiltered. (For instance, I happened to witness the live televised murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, JFK’s assassin.) For young children, the nightly news reports featuring gore in Vietnam and mayhem in America could be deeply disturbing. Knowing our subject in depth helped lessen our fears of viewing the terrible images, which often prompted empathy and even outrage. We wondered — even considering our nation’s at-times-regretful past — how could people do such things to their fellow Americans? The solution seemed simple then, and it still does now: don’t do anything to someone if you wouldn’t want it done to you. That’s certainly not original — just a rewording of the Golden Rule — but if everyone paused to consider it just before acting, a lot of nasty actions might never have happened.

We weren’t privy to the details of our regional demographics back then, which haven’t changed much during the past half-century, but far northern New York was almost lily-white in terms of ethnicity. Today, across New York’s five northernmost counties — Clinton, Essex, Franklin, St. Lawrence, and Jefferson — home to just under 394,000 people, the ethnic breakdown averages 90 percent white and 5 percent black. In Clinton County, where I was raised, the numbers hold up: the population of 80,980 is 91.9 percent white and 4.6 percent black.

But we don’t need to live among African Americans to know that racism is wrong, just as our ancestors, without being slaveholders, knew it was wrong to own people. Again, it seems so simple: just ask yourself— would you like to be owned? If the vast majority of people would answer no, then it’s a safe bet that owning people is wrong. Ask yourself: before speaking or self-identifying in any way, would I prefer to be diminished at a glance because of my skin color? If the answer is no, then it is just plain wrong.

But life is somehow more complex than that, and I refer now to my earlier mention of personal incidents involving racism, but better described as exercises in disappointment. Among many, four of them stand out in my memory as if they happened yesterday.

1) I was about 10 years old, and deeply fond of an elderly relative who shared my love and passion for nature, fishing, and the outdoors in general. I loved him, admired him, and even did week-long summer visits (remarkable, because overnight stays were a rarity in our family). During a discussion one day, he used the N word, followed by “those dirty, greasy,…” before my mother cut him off. But it was too late. I had heard it. My disappointment in knowing his true beliefs changed forever how I felt about him.

2) In my twenties, several “work friends” (not close intimates, but friends on the job) and I were on break when the lone African American among us left the table and returned to duty. Moments later, a racist joke was told. Disgusted with the joke-teller and those who laughed, I asked how they could do such a thing at all, let alone just after our supposed “friend” had left the table. It was deeply disappointing.

3) In my thirties, while coaching youth baseball (my two sons were on the team), I was having some fun with a pre-game pep talk to all 15 boys seated on the bench. Games were a family event, and among those who had become a fixture was a player’s younger sister — about age seven, blond, sweet, a “princess” of sorts, always in dresses, and usually accompanied by her mom, who sang each Sunday in church. It was their third year following the team, and during my talk, the little girl sauntered along the bench, stopping in front of our lone black ballplayer. Looking directly at him, she enunciated slowly (and I could only hope, innocently): “My mommie says you’re a [N word].” I was stunned and mortified. After dealing with it—the girl, her mom (a church singer!), the player, his teammates — I couldn’t help but think that no child is born knowing how to talk, spell, multiply, or be a bigot. It is all taught to them by adults.

4) In my forties, I worked a late shift with a small crew, including a guy who was among my brother’s best friends for more than 20 years. He hung around my work area a lot and seemed like an all-round nice fellow, except when his penchant for telling hateful racist jokes was revealed. I asked him to stop. Things were a bit tense after that, but he did stop, knowing that I would not serve as his audience.

Each of the four instances was a major disappointment. A close relative, several work friends, a young child (her mother’s proxy, of course) — each presented themselves as nice, normal folks until their racism was unmasked — by themselves, voluntarily! It doesn’t at all fit with our past as North Country folks, descended from those who rejected laws making criminals of escaped slaves, who fought the Civil War to guarantee freedom for all, who in some cases physically drove KKK recruiters from the region, and who supported modern civil-rights actions.

Honor that legacy against racism. If you witness it, stand up against it, even if it comes from family members. Otherwise, your silence may be taken as approval, and the poison lives on. It has been a blight on this “Great Experiment” in democracy since its founding.

Illustration from the African-American History Month website hosted by the Library of Congress.

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

12 Responses

  1. James E. Reagen says:

    Dear Lawrence,
    A wonderful article and an important lesson to all of us.
    I will never forget in the late 1960s, my father took me aside and told me that as I got older, I would hear people say that African Americans were not as good as white people. He told me I should not believe them because they were wrong. He said that in the 1950s, he had served in the U.S. Army with black soldiers and he wanted me to know that he personally felt they were some of the finest people he’d ever met.
    I was always very proud of him for giving me that advice. A few years ago, before my mother died, she told me that he had always been upset over something my grandmother had done. My father, who had served as a corporal in the Army, had worked for a Colonel who was an African American. My mother told me my father had been very impressed by him and always appreciated all that he had done for him while my father served under his command.
    My father had told him that if he ever happened to come to upstate New York that he should make it a point to come and visit our family. One day the colonel came to visit, but when he knocked on the door, my grandmother answered the door.
    My grandmother was a wonderful Irish lady who went to church every day. My father loved her dearly.
    When she saw a black man at her door and he introduced himself to her as a friend of my father’s who had served with him in the Army, my sweet grandmother ordered him to go away and slammed the door in his face.
    When my father came home from work, my grandmother told him she had sent the man away. She told my father that she had been worried what the neighbors might think if they saw a black man come into our home. My father was shocked, furious and personally humiliated that someone he had revered had been so shabbily treated after being invited to his home.
    My mother told me that my father had a hard time forgiving his mother for her terrible behavior. He later told my mother he wanted to make sure that he raised his sons to understand that racism and bigotry toward anyone was wrong.
    Like you, when ever I think of my grandmother, I can’t help but think of her terrible actions that day. But I remember that my father was able to overcome his upbringing and did his best to make sure the next generations of his family did not repeat the mistakes of the those who had gone before them.
    James E. Reagen

  2. Ellie says:

    Great personal narrative that allows us to reflect, and provides readers with a model to stop racism, should it come our way. Thank you. What licenses people to say such things except the silence of others? In my own life, (fair skinned, blue-eyed, light hair, and thus not at all what the stereotype “looks like” from my grandparents’ mediterranean homeland), I have been witness to much prejudice from those in my circle – friends, neighbors, co-workers, acquaintances, who did not know, nor would ever guess my ancestral background. Seems to be fair-play to make derogatory comments about others when you think they’re out of ear shot or not amongst your presence. Cowardly acts, each and every one of them. I used to remain silent, well into my 40’s but for the last decade or so, no more. Letting someone know you find their comments degrading and insulting is what I see as the only way to respond. Thanks for realizing it at such a young age, and for passing it on.

  3. David Gibson says:

    Thank you, Lawrence, for your detailed memory of the racist insults, the degree of lasting impact they’ve had on you, and their recounting. None of that could be easy to dredge up. I would hope, but am not assured that I could remember similar insults masquerading as “jokes” as vividly as you.

  4. Westernedge says:

    Thank you, Lawrence, for the effort and time it took to write this thoughtful reflection. Let us hope our young do not hear, and therefore harbor, racist thoughts like that anymore. And thank you for reminding us all of the Golden Rule!

  5. Kathy says:

    The nuns at our all white Catholic grammar school in Rochester (50s&60s) made it very clear to us that all people were created by God and we never were to make fun of any race,or non English speaking people and even those of our classmates who were overweight,poor or otherwise stood out. In my home racist topics were never raised even during the race riots. I never knew prejudice, racism or any type ofdiscrimination existed till high school and later in medical training profession. I still am shocked and offended to hear any type of these comments from people today who feel obliged to just hide it better unless they think they have a receptive audience…
    Still alive, better hidden or disguised and definitely “learned “from home or as a process to be accepted by an envied group .

  6. Balian the Cat says:

    I have come back to this article four times now. So much to think about and reflect upon – I was at the head of the ignorance parade in 2016, prior to the election. I had convinced myself that we were making progress as a people. My own life has seen an evolution of sorts where hateful and intolerant thinking is concerned – it was the social norm to be racist/homophobic where I grew up. I have covered all of that up with surface level growth in my adult life, but this is such a deeply rooted issue for so many of us. I try every day to be a better person, but like rust these issues cannot be cured with a coat of paint. I usually read Larry essays to escape, but there can be no relief for me on this subject if I hope to affect real change within and around me. What an important topic, whether we like it or not.

  7. Wendy Taylor says:

    Thank you for your article on racism. It’s very much appreciated!

  8. Thomas G Philo says:

    Spot on, Lawrence ~ Excellent column! ~ While we have made great progress in terms of racism, bigotry and tolerance we, unfortunately, are not there yet and in the words of Robert Frost we have still “..]miles to go before I sleep,”

    Racism is taught it is not inborn to quote Dennis Leary “Racism isn’t born, folks. It’s taught. I have a 2 yr old son. Know what he hates? Naps. End of list.” –

  9. Randy says:

    I grew up in a white, upper-middle class environment, spending my early days in Jackson Heights, NY. I came home from school having learned a new sing-song rhyme on the playground: “Eenie Meenie, Miney Moe, Catch a N—– by the Toe”. I was joyfully singing it when I got home. My mom took me aside and told me the hurtful and hateful word I used had stunned our housekeeper, Rose, who I remember as gentle, caring and kind. I was directed to apologize to Rose, which I tearfully did. She smiled at me and told me everyone was entitled to make a mistake as long as they learned from it. Nearly 70 years have passed since that time. I served and worked with many African Americans both in the Air Force, in Viet Nam, and at GE. And yes, some of them were my friends, to echo a white, privileged about racism. I cringe every time I hear a racist comment, and realize that it’s a learned condition, taught by parents, the schoolyard and the workplace….like the little girl in your story. But, it can also be un-taught at an early age by intervention, exposure, and acceptance, as it did for me.

  10. CommunityGuy says:

    Good article, taking us through the years and common experiences. The racism of today is somewhat different. My current experience with racism is anti-immigrant (Brown People) and anti-Native American.

    The North Country desperately needs more people and we all need to work together in order to make the most of what we have. Racism hurts us where we can least afford it.

    Thanks for the thoughtful discussion.

  11. Bellota says:

    Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish sociologist, published The American Dilemma in 1944 in which he examined American democracy and race relations well before the civil rights movement. Seventy-five years later it is still instructive.

  12. Rose Anne says:

    Awesome article, worthy of a nationwide audience! I appreciate the thoughtful responses, too. Thank you all.

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