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.