Choice of Words

October 30, 2008 at 7:50 am (Family, Friends, General, Memories, Relationships) (, )

Within the past few days I’ve had a lot on my mind. During the solitary drives to work and home again, I’ve wondered about the evolution of my family, especially on my dad’s side of the family.

My Grandpa Joe was a good man. He was jovial, kind, and loved irritating my mother. However, he wasn’t politically correct in the least. I never heard him call a black man, or African-American, by either of those names. He called them niggers. While the term “nigger” is seen as demeaning and derisive, my grandfather didn’t use it derisively and by that I mean he didn’t use it with malice. There was nothing, in his mind, wrong with saying, “Me ‘n’ Dave and that nigger Jim, we went…” and he would tell his story.

I figured out this wasn’t something nice to say by the way my mother’s back would straighten and her lips would purse and the porch swing would move a little faster. My father, more often than not, would continue to rock in the frayed lawn chair and stare out over the river.

I can only assume that at some point I heard my mother’s opinion of her father-in-law’s choice of words, probably as I lay prostrate outside the bathroom, eavesdropping through the crack at the bottom of the door. (This was one of my favorite eavesdropping spots as all important parental meetings took place in the bathroom, supposedly away from “little people with big ears.”)

Because our parents are our first and most important role models, I began wondering why my father did not adopt his father’s “choice of words.” Was it because his family was one of the few in his tiny community that had a television? Was it because during his high school years of 1956-1960 that the Civil Rights Movement had to have been on that television very prominently?

Was it because there were black families in our community who had children who attended high school with him without all of the racial tensions of the deep South? (His high school had two black school bus drivers and a black teacher.)

Was it because he served in the military with them? Was it because he went to college with them? Was it because he worked with them? Or was there some other incident or even person in his life that made him eschew his father’s “choice of words?”

I most certainly plan on asking him the next time I see him.

One of my other favorite eavesdropping spots was my bedroom window, which overlooked the neighbor’s driveway. If that wasn’t good enough, I could always drop down to my parents’ bedroom window, which was directly under mine, not only to get a better view, but a better earshot of what was going on. At some point my neighbors took in either his niece or her niece. Her name was Brandy and I’ll never forget her.

There were only two black families in our community at the time and everyone knew them. The boys of the “S” family were the sons of the same black teacher that had taught my father and mother at the high school and grandsons of one of the aforementioned bus drivers. I recognized one of them next door at my neighbors’ house. At that time, their back door opened into the driveway, right in eyeview and earshot. I heard my neighbor yelling at Brandy and the “S” man and telling them to get out. And, I heard the word, “nigger.”

I believe that was the first time I had ever heard the word used that way – with anger, disgust, and hate.

I went to the paragon of all things in my life at the time, which would mean my mother. It seems as though by standing in the kitchen washing dishes she was able to absorb via osmosis the fracas next door and was somewhat prepared to answer my questions. I knew the “S” men. One of the them, the younger, was a student teacher at my grade school. Why was my neighbor being so hateful? My mother tried to explain that our neighbor didn’t think that black and whites should date each other.

“But why?”

I would have felt sorry for my mother at this point. There isn’t an answer she could have given me that would have satisfied me. Perhaps it called into sharp focus her own prejudices, that while she may not have agreed with my neighbor’s methods, she did agree with her ideology. I found that out when Troy and I started seeing one another, probably about 20 years later. Now, 30 years later, my mother at least, is more open to inter-racial relationships and figures, hell, anything goes. My father, not so much so, or, do I even really know?

And what the hell did any of us know of “race relations” anyway? The “S” family had been in our community for two or three generations. The “F” family moved away and the “D” family, the father was a teacher at our high school, his wife and their seven children, moved there in the early 80’s. We found their seven children more intriquing than their color. The only other minorities in our community were the “B” family . Their mother was Vietnamese. Yet again, we found it more intriquing that they had five boys in the family and that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses than the fact their mother was from Vietnam.

Other families that had been in the community for a long time had Lebanese and Greek roots, but no one thought much about it other than it made a good story at the Lion’s Club meeting.

Not to say there weren’t racial remarks made in passing, but they were met with stony silence, disapproving looks, and most often a, “Shut the fuck up, asshole.”

Our tiny rural community was hardly a microcosm of America. Still today it isn’t a bustling hub of immigrants and minorities. But, in the turbulent late 50’s and early 60’s, it was progressive for its time and place in America. The principal did not stand on the steps of the high school and block the black children from attending. There were no riots or police dogs or firehoses. The Klan did not ride through the night and burn crosses.

While there are many things I could say about the rural town of my upbringing, the best I can say is that they taught their children to be racially tolerant. Whether it was because we had such a small number of minorities and they were well respected or just because we know what it felt like to be judged harshly and unfairly, not for the color of our skin, but for the location of our birth.

My neighbor was the exception rather than the rule and her son, who was the same age as myself, didn’t share her viewpoint of the world, just as my father did not share his father’s choice of words.

To be continued…

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