Date: Tue, 25 Oct 1994 16:30:49 CDT


Subject: Re: That word in the South

I have been trying to limit e-mail time because of other commitments, but

after reading the racial epithet exchange, I found myself composing a

contribution in my head, and I don't think it will be exorcised from my mind

until it gets said. So...

All my life I have been very sensitive to race issues. I grew up in a very

liberal home with parents who, at an earlier age, passionately defended the

cause of racial equality. As a kid, I was taken to meetings and marches.

I remember meeting Martin Luther King when I was about 9 or 10 and he was

just beginning to gain national prominence (I stood at his elbow and

listened while he was engaged in a conversation; he made a wide gesturing

motion and gave me a solid knock in the head; the apostle of non violence

turned to apologize profusely; I recall nothing of what Dr. King said but

recall well this little incident - such is the memory of a ten-year-old.)

My parents tried to live out their convictions by staying on in our

neighborhood after a black family moved in down the block and all other

whites fled in a panic (this was Maywood, a near west Chicago suburb). So

in the space of about a year, all my friends changed from white to black.

There was no racism among most of us kids. I remember black kids and white

kids (including me) having crushes on each other and this was not considered

strange by anyone. But I do remember the day I went cross town to visit a

white friend and he used the word _nigger_. I verbalized my shock. He said

that's what his dad used. Things changed as we got older. The little black

girl who I had a crush on (Sandra) and who was one of the brightest kids

in the class became morose and pessimistic. So did others. Later, one

kid, Fred Hampton, a year older than me, became president of the

Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers and was shot dead as he slept during

a raid by the Chicago police. However, we had left Maywood by then.

My parents idealism was sorely tried on the night that a rock came crashing

through the back window into my father's face. Having moved to an all white

neighborhood, Park Forest, my parents continued to work for integration of our

new community, however.

It is ironic that I now sit and write this message a stone's throw away

from the spot where Gov. Wallace made his famous "stand in the schoolhouse

door." I remember watching that scene with appropriate disgust when it was

being broadcast into our living room back in my youth. I also remember

my parents, and other liberals, attaching tremendous stigma to anyone or

anything Southern, including drawl. I even pointed out to them, I recall,

that this was inconsistent with their own views on ethnic prejudice.

However, it was with some trepidation, I confess, that I came to interview

at the University of Alabama. The ghosts of all that negative history would

not leave my mind alone. My very first encounter with an Alabamian

on Alabama soil just about reinforced all my fears and misgiving. This was

the chauffeur who picked me up at the airport to bring me on campus. He started

going on about "the niggers" and asking me if they were as bad elsewhere as

they were here. Fortunately, this individual (who doesn't work here anymore)

turned out to be very much the exception, not the rule.

Even so, I must concur with Bethany that the pejorative use of _nigger_ is

very much alive in the South. Sometimes it is couched in an expression:

like when my sweet, lovable, gentile and, yes, racist, neighbor lady (may her

soul rest in peace) reproved me for "working like a nigger" when I labored in

our yard under the hot midday sun.

I spend more time in the Louisiana boonies, with my Cajun friends, than I do

here in Alabama. There, _nigger_ is encountered with alarming frequency.

It is a paradox (but an easy one to resolve) that the one Cajun fellow who

could hardly open his mouth without uttering this word, was the same one

who took the greatest offense at the thought that anyone should call him a

_coonass_. In Cajun French (or Metropolitan for that matter) it is harder

to determine intent because the _negro_/_nigger_ dichotomy never existed.

In Louisiana it was always _neg'_ for both, though some now do say _les

noirs_. In France, too, _negre_ is ambivalent. It can be a very scholarly

adjective in the mouth of an Africanist, "la litterature negre," or a put-

down as in the derisive term for bad French, "le petit-negre." Most people

tend to avoid it. But anti-Black feeling among some French is strong, too.

Once, while living in Aix-en-Provence, my wife and I invited an African

friend over to our apartment. Our landlady lived across the hall. The next

day she rebuked me for inviting a Black man in, and she was especially

incensed about it because she was sure that I would never have dared so

such a thing back in America. She knew because `she had seen the movies'.

So the long and the short of it is that ethnic prejudice is ubiquitous. I

have encountered it everywhere I have gone (including former socialist

countries where it was supposed to have been wiped out but where gypsies

were kicked off the busses I rode; well, we all know now that socialism

in Eastern Europe only served to put ethnic hostility in the deep freeze).

No region has a monopoly on it. Not the South or anywhere else. Living

down here I am more sensitive than ever to the hypocrisy of a mass culture

that derides every type of prejudice except that which is directed against

Southerners (and I have gone on record against this in previous postings).

Well, I have rambled long enough. But sometimes, in my own darker moments,

I think of Kings trilogy of evils "racism, war and poverty" and wonder to

myself `When the last two have become things of the past, will the former

will continue to flourish?'

Mike Picone

University of Alabama