Wednesday, 5 September 2012

"Owing to the Extreme Laziness of the Negro in the Cotton-fields of the Southern United States"

The Maine I grew up in was as white as the snow that blanketed the state in the winter months. If there was a colored person within two hundred miles I never saw them although my father tells me there were indeed negros in our town in the summer time - the servants, butlers, chauffeurs, and cooks, of the rich people who spent the summer in their palatial summer 'cottages.' I simply never saw them, I suppose.

The only people of another race I knew as a kid were Tommy and his mom and dad. Tommy and his family were Passamaquoddy Indians but as Indians they were an extreme disappointment to me. They looked and acted just like everyone else and nothing like the Indians on television and at the movies.

Race was never mentioned when I was a kid and the only thing I ever heard that came close to racism was the phrase someone would spout from time to time about being free, white, and twenty-one and I missed the significance of that until I was much older.

I was probably five or six before I saw my first black person and while that was a memorial experience it is more remembered for the circumstances surrounding it then the shock of seeing someone whose skin was a different color.

My mother and I were travelling by train from Portland, Maine to Pittsburgh and had to change trains in New York City. That was over fifty years ago but some of the memories of that day are still sharp in my mind. This was my first time in a city and my prevailing memory is of the smell of New York as opposed to the crisp, cool, summer breeze of Maine. I also have sharp memories of how everything was gray: gray roads, gray sidewalks, gray buildings, and gray dirt blowing in the wind. Even the sky and air was gray. It was a stark contrast to the deep blue skies, brilliant white clouds, green trees and grass, and frothy blue ocean waves of Maine. My head was on a pivot trying to take in what seemed to me to be very bleak and stark.

Then came the second shock as a colored porter came to take our baggage from one train to another. I am sure my chin must have dropped to my chest in astonishment.

"Be quiet."
"But, Mom ..."
"I said be quiet, Kenneth."
"Yea, but Mom, he ..."
"Kenneth Merrill I told you to be quiet. We will talk later."

I had missed the warning sign of being called "Kenneth" but I was wise enough even at that tender age to know that when my mother dropped into the southern vernacular of using my complete first and middle name I had better do what she said or I would get my arm yanked out of it's socket.

Red in the face and biting her lip by mother pulled me along behind the black porter carrying our luggage. It wasn't until we were on the train and another black porter had shown us where we would be sleeping and then showed us to our seats, and a black conductor had taken our tickets, and we had eaten in the dining car where a black waiter took our order and served our food that quietly and under the covering noise of train wheels clattering on the tracks that my mother explained that some people had skin that was a different color and that didn't make them any different than we were and I had never seen them before because they didn't live in Maine where we lived. And if I ever stared like that again she would beat me into a pile of greasy snot!

Well, of course by then the novelty had worn off anyway. There were black people everywhere on that train doing whatever job was theirs to do and the only real astonishment left was that there was anyone, black, white, or purple, who waited on people as poor as we were. I had never seen such luxury.

My grandfather, my mother's father, was Jewish and when I became a teen my grandfather made sure I understood his history and his culture and I was taught about and came to understand anti-semitism and in my adult life have spent years as part of a group that combats, exposes, and confronts racial hatred on the Internet.

I truly do not think I have any racist inclinations in me. Yes, I know a few racist jokes and have told a few in my life but only to people who I know are not themselves racists and who see the humor for what it is and would laugh just as heartedly at jokes that were at a white person's expense. (Most of my best jokes are Jewish and were told to me by my grandfather.) Xenophobia? Sure. I am positive there is Xenophobia within me. I wouldn't be real comfortable walking down certain streets in some of our major cities but no racism.

The small community I live in is a melting pot of cultures and races. There are, obviously, us white folk but also large populations of First Nations (Native Americans), Indians (as in from India), Latinos, Asians (Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Thais) but, oddly, except for Winston, the millwright from Trinidad who I worked with until he won the lottery and immediately retired, and a hand full of Nigerian refugees who were strangely settled here to freeze their asses off by the Canadian government,  and one other family of blacks. I guess black people don't like British Columbia any more than they liked Maine.

I confess that even though I have worked for anti-racism campaigns all my life that being 'free, white, and twenty-one' has shielded me from any racism directed at myself (except for being called race traitor for defending Blacks and Jews against discrimination). The truth is that all the education in the world, all the experience in combating and confronting racism, will not allow me to ever understand what it is to be on the receiving end of racism. I don't understand people who are bigots and I do not understand what it is to be on the receiving end of racism. I cannot and will not ever understand the black experience and it would be foolish to think I ever will.

In the community I live in I just do not ever see racism at all. Years ago there was some as the first waves of Indian immigrants settled into the community but as they worked and bought houses and raised children that all went away. Racism here is as scarce as black people in Maine.

So, it shocks me when I see or hear overt racism. My wind wobbles as I try to get my head around what I am seeing or hearing.

In the photos I posted today was a picture of one of the old magazines that Ace has collected, a copy of the British magazine Chamber's Journal, Part 4, dated April 1, 1911, a little less than one hundred years ago.

On page 269 there is a story titled "Cotton-Picking By Machinery."

It reads:

"Owing to the extreme laziness of the negro in the cotton-fields of the Southern United States, inventive effort has been centered for many years on the perfection of a method of picking cotton by mechanical agency.. It has been a puzzling search, since the conditions to be fulfilled are exceedingly difficult. The inventor of the book-typewriter, however, has apparently achieved some success, and from the present trend of development it would appear that the doom of the coloured cotton-picker is sealed,"

The article goes on to say:

" machine drawn by two mules and driven by one man accomplishing as much in a single day as has hitherto been done by forty niggers."

My chin has dropped as surely as it did when I was five or six. Of course I know what such sentiments were prevalent in those days but to actually hear or see it expressed? Well, frankly, I am shocked. Now I know there will be money who might read this who will be shocked that I shocked, who will be shocked at my naivety but ... I can't help it. If I live to be a hundred I will never understand racism, I will never understand hate. I don't get it. I simply do not get it, I do not understand it when it is directed against Blacks or Jews or Asians or against nationalities, Pakistanis, Israelis, Chinese. I just don't get it. 'Some' people doing something I don't think is right doesn't taint everyone in that division.

(Originally posted to Multipy January 12, 2009)

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