Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Shades of Black


A few weeks ago, I wrote a little essay called "I hate my book," and I read it at the open mic I go to every month at Molly Malone's. In that essay, I gave multiple reasons why I hate my book. One thing I like about my book though is that it seems to give people a lot to talk about, especially regarding the subject of race. At a book event the other night, a couple of people were very forthcoming. 
     One African-American woman, who grew up in Natchez, Mississippi--let's call her J--spoke of generational differences--from her grandmother, to her mother, to herself. Her grandmother always "yes, ma'am" and "no, ma'am" (shortened to yes'm and no'm) when speaking to white women. J's mother had taught her, however, to say "yes" and "no"--in other words, drop the 'm. This was shocking to J's grandmother. Also, J told about being with her grandmother and mother one day when J was young and being offered a ride home from the grocery store by a Jewish woman. Without thinking, J got in the front seat with the driver, while J's mother and grandmother got in the back. J's grandmother was shocked by J's behavior (getting in the front seat), but J's mother thought it was fine. J did not even think about it as good or bad or anything. She just did it.
     Later in the evening at the book event, my husband went over to speak with J. Several years ago, he had an African-American secretary who was also from Mississippi, but from a more rural part. Let's call this woman B. B told my husband that when she was growing up, she had been taught not even to look at white people. When my husband told this story to J, she said she thought the difference between her own experience and B's might be that Natchez was a cosmopolitan place, whereas B came from a rural part of Mississippi.
     Another thing from that night. There was a man there who is dark skinned, but he is from Puerto Rico. Let's call him R. R (probably now in his 40s or 50s) told me that he came to Chicago from Puerto Rico with his family when he was 10 or 11. They moved into a predominantly white area--among people of Polish and German descent--and that being in this country was his first encounter with racism. People would call him names. People would avoid him. He especially found it shocking and dangerous trying to learn to negotiate through gang territories. His mother, he said, never learned to speak English but developed negative attitudes about African Americans, even though if you or I saw her walking down the street, we might think that she herself was African American.
     These are confusing and interesting and amazing stories. And something about my book seems to allow people to tell them. For this reason, I like (or perhaps even love) my book.

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