Once upon a time, someone I had trusted as a friend back-stabbed me. Since then, the places where I had encountered that friend became cues for remembering the pain of betrayal. I avoid those places and keep my face forward, disallowing those memories.
But what if your cue for betrayal is your whole nation?
I say this in reference to African Americans, but it surely applies in any location where a group has been singled out as the one to demean with impunity.
Almost two weeks ago, the archivist at the Nassau County Historical Society pulled out a scrapbook for me. It contained a series of articles published in the 1930s by the Nassau Daily Review-Star. The author was Birdsall Johnson, a distinguished Long Island resident who was previewing his book of Long Island history. Because I am trying to find historical evidence of the lives of African Americans on Long Island, the archivist had bookmarked a segment that Mr. Johnson had written about memories of Long Island black people . . . only he didn't call them "black people" or even "Negro," but "darky."
His attitude toward black people probably seemed charitable to him, but to me, Mr. Johnson displayed the racist vitriol that was revelatory of the racially damaged society we are still trying to heal. He spoke of "the darkies" as a group who lived peaceably in their own cheery community, fulfilling their daily needs with as little work as possible, often via mild deception. He described an old black man's clever trickery obtaining a bucket of half-diluted rum for free from a grocer. Johnson recounted that incident with affectionate indulgence, as one might laugh at an old hound sneaking a scrap of meat while the owner's back was turned. Johnson's self-superior attitude toward the old man was sickening in itself, but the poison didn't stop there. Johnson went on to opine that the darkies were like that -- satisfied with half what a white person would require to feel the same life satisfaction.
How does a man (as Sherlock Holmes put it) see, but not observe? How could Johnson overlook the horror of black U.S. citizens adapting to half (or less) of what any human needs to construct a good life, as a coping device for surviving where their needs were so unjustly denied? How could Johnson, educated as he was, fail to notice the famous black achievers of his own time -- W.E.B. DuBois, Hall Johnson, Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Paul Robeson, to name a very few? His memories were those from his own pre-1900 rural Long Island childhood, but he was writing in the 1930s as a middle-aged adult. How could he perpetuate the evil of seeing half-humans where full humans walked?
No wonder there were black Americans wanting to leave this continent and find a place where they didn't have to endure attitudes like Johnson's -- attitudes that eschewed brutality toward black people, but treated them as dead even while they lived. I could endure brutal, violent behavior from someone as long as I knew that that person viewed me as an equal to be reckoned with. But realizing that I was viewed as a subspecies would make me want to leave and never return.