Sunday, June 23, 2013

My Family's Racist Past . . . We All Have One

[Editor's Note: As I usually do with posts that touch upon what many consider to be "controversial" topics, comments will be closely monitored and moderated. This post is opinion and based on my personal observations and experience. If you don't have anything constructive to add, then move along - there's nothing here for you to see.]

I've thought quite a bit about the Paula Deen controversy this past week and Deen's use of the n-word in her past. I've come to realize that there are many facets involved - which is usual with anything that the press "whips up" and "serves up" for public dissection. It sounds almost as if the media has "cooked up" a controversy where there isn't one; however, in my eyes the controversy is not where the media is telling us to look.

And as I try to do with most of these situations, I look for the learning opportunity and the chance to reflect and see what my own family's history might be in relation to the overarching issue in this case - racism and slavery.

Racism, Bigotry and Power

I'm not about to give a mea culpa here for something in my past or related to if and how I've used terms that are bigoted or racist. In addition, let me preface my remarks with a view of the word "racist" since it means different things to different people. I do believe that the terms racist and bigot are often confused; I tend to confuse them myself. Many equate racism with the ability to deny a person or group of persons something based on their race. That means the person practicing the act must have the power to "deny" or "block" the action. What I often see is that many of us have more power than we realize, even in day-to-day acts. I know this could be a whole other discussion, but I wanted to try and clarify my use of the terms racism and bigotry. I tend to use them interchangeably, but I respect those who see a marked difference.

My Own Use of the N-Word

My first encounter with the N-Word was as a young child. I guess I was about five years old and I was a handful for my poor mother. I was precocious, always curious, and always saying or singing something. That's right, singing.

I had this game where I would make up words to songs and sing them at the top of my lungs, usually at inappropriate times and in public, much to my mother's embarrassment. Many times, if I didn't do my own creative rewrites on lyrics, I learned the new words at school.

And that is how I came to sing a version of the theme song from the television show Daniel Boone in the grocery store one afternoon while in the shopping cart that my mother pushed. And I used the N-word in the song as a substitute for a word in the original lyrics.  All the kids at school giggled at that part, so my juvenile mind thought it was funny as well.

My mother wasn't the type of parent to wait until we got home to admonish her children. This was done in public and when needed. I give Mom lots of credit for that. Also, the fact that there weren't any African-American people around when I so proudly sang my song didn't matter.  She knew it was wrong and she also knew and acknowledged the racism she herself had grown up with.

The N-word was very common in my family in upstate New York. So were other versions which I don't need to lay out here.  Also terms for Jews, Hispanics, and other ethnic groups. My mother made a conscious decision to break with that behavior and she wasn't going to have her children using those words.

The first time I realized this was when she slapped me across the face just as I finished my song. This was back before on-lookers would run to call DFS or some child services bureau about some crazy lady beating the crap out of her kids. Mom needed to get my attention and she did. And with tears streaming down my face, she educated me on what exactly that word meant, how it was used and what it did to someone on the receiving end. It is a lesson I will never forget nor should I.

I Admit My Own and My Family's Past

Once I got involved in genealogy and family history, I was actually stunned - naively - that my New York family had owned slaves.  My 9th great-grandfather Hugo Freer and his family owned slaves in New Paltz, New York. The evidence is there in the inventories of "property" and such evidence is now incorporated in my research.

I make it a rule that whenever I find evidence of my family's involvement with enslaved ancestors, I have a duty to make the evidence publicly available. No matter if it is a diary entry, a letter, an inventory or other type of record. It goes up here at this blog or some other platform so that it is freely accessible for research. This is not an act of contrition for my family's past.  It's just the right thing to do.

Acknowledging all of my family's past means acknowledging the racism, the bigotry, and the misdeeds and well as the accomplishments and the good. It also means I have to examine the "how and why" of my family behaving the way it did and the use of certain terms. And, of course, to do so without the influence of "presentism." I need to understand the times and context in which these actions took place; doing so does not excuse them, it helps to understand them.

Where Paula Deen Went Wrong

From my perspective, as it is in most cases when a celebrity has lots of "yes" people and handlers around them, Deen came across as needing to control the situation and as just plain insincere.  I've always felt that Paula was "phoney baloney" by the way, and that her "├╝ber-Southern" schtick was an act. She cancelled a live television interview with the Today show where she could have had a sincere heart-to-heart with Matt Lauer and the public about her own use of racist words. Instead she opted for a choreographed video with many edits which is obvious from watching the clip. If you are really committed to understanding your mistakes and a hurtful past, then you don't need a big production filled with edits to make a five sentence statement.

I also don't buy the fact that Paula Deen made these prior statements because she is an "old Southern white woman." As you can see above, there is plenty of racism above the Mason-Dixon line and the South doesn't have a lock on bigotry.

Paula Deen had an opportunity here in coming clean and she took what she felt was the safe road. Coming to grips with your family's racist past is never an easy route nor is acknowledging your own racism and bigotry. But by forcing yourself to examine how you and your ancestors treated other ethnic groups, you can break with any past practices and leave a new legacy for your children, grandchildren and future generations. This is what I see as the therapeutic value of genealogy and family history.

Image: Runaway Slave Advertisement, New York, 1774, via Wikimedia Commons.

© 2013, copyright Thomas MacEntee


Kathy Reed said...

I am so in agreement will all that you have to say here. I, too, was sure that there was no such history in my family until I found a deed that had the price paid for a house. Part of the payment was a Negro boy named Harry. And as you said, in no way did the problem stop at the Mason-Dixon border. Just read Kristin Williams blog Finding Eliza and see what happened in Detroit! I am also not naive about what took place in my beloved city, Cincinnati.

Craig Manson said...

Thomas, you have written the most cogent commentary that I've seen on the whole affair. Thank you.

Marcie Garnett said...

Thank you, Thomas, for such an honest, well-written post. By the way, your mother sounds just like mine--determined that the nonsense would stop with her children. We were so fortunate to have these wonderful ladies raise us.