Date: Tue, 25 Oct 1994 16:30:49 CDT
From: Mike Picone MPICONE[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]UA1VM.BITNET
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?'
University of Alabama
MPICONE[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]UA1VM.UA.EDU