My father, a Texan born in 1909, used to say he was a bigot and proud of it. He used the N-word freely, and he had a pejorative for every race, ethnicity, and nationality on the planet.
He had a bizarre cosmology of race, a hierarchy in which Asians ranked highest as most evolved among the human family, followed by whites (in his time, Latinos were regarded as white, more or less: highly sexualized whites who liked bright colors, so my mother said), American Indians, Blacks, and, at the bottom of the ladder, hybrids of all sorts. The Arabs among whom we lived were scarcely better than monkeys, he believed, because they were the product of intermarriage between African slaves and light-skinned Semitic slave-owners, and so inherited the worst of both breeds.
Even as a child, I used to marvel at the strangeness of this construct, its basic metaphysical weirdness. It wasn’t until we came back to the United States and I was halfway through junior high school that the vicious wrongness of his thinking revealed itself to me.
In San Francisco, I attended an urban school that was about a third white and Asian, a third black, and a third Latino. At the start of the seventh or eighth grade, I don’t recall which, the school assigned an African American girl to share a P.E. locker with me. I was put out not because of who she was but because I had zero desire to share anything with anyone. But when my parents found out that the sharee was black, they charged down to the school and demanded that I be assigned a white lockermate. The principal, to his lasting credit, said “thank you very much” and ignored them.
Before long, the young girl stopped coming to school, so in effect I had our locker to myself. Two or three months later, she resurfaced, with a horrifying story. Her clothing had caught fire in a kitchen accident. In her terror, she ran through a glass sliding door before anyone could catch her. She had been in the hospital for weeks.
So it was brought home to me, forcefully, that this was not some sort of subhuman creature but another early-teen girl, just like me. A living, breathing, feeling, fragile human being.
Not until I was in my twenties did it cross my mind that my father’s fierce bigotry toward everyone not like him—a broad, inclusive bigotry that took in women and homosexuals as well as people of different races and nationalities—was rooted in fear. He feared the Other, and that fear, being unmanly in a time when men were men or else, manifested itself as hatred. He feared the Other more than he hated the Other. What I couldn’t figure out, didn’t understand for many, many years, was why? What was he so afraid of? What about a 13-year-old black girl is frightening?
A great deal of time passed.
Toward the end of his life, he admitted to something profoundly ironic: his grandmother was a Plains Indian. His mother, whom I never met, was half-Indian. His brother had made noises to this effect over the years, but my father vehemently denied it, said Ed was full of beans. This interesting revelation took on more poignancy when one day a young man rang his doorbell and said he’d noticed my father’s name on the front door. The visitor was working on the roof at the retirement home where my father and his current wife were living and, since the name was a little unusual, he worked up the nerve to introduce himself, because his last name was the same. He came from a whole tribe by that name. And he was a full-blooded Choctaw.
Well, helle’s belles. My father was outed. I have no idea what his father was or what he looked like (though my father was distinctly Indian in appearance, with high cheekbones and black hair that stayed dark until after he was 80). My grandfather ran off when my father was born and before long was found dead by the side of a road, an apparent suicide. But whatever the details, ultimately the truth was that he—my father—himself was the Other. What I do know is that the family was passing as white and that my father clung to that identity. He clung to it with some desperation.
But still I didn’t know why was he so afraid? Why was he possessed of such fear that it invaded his soul, curdled into hatred, and took up permanent residence in his heart and mind?
One’s children are slow on the uptake, no? It takes a long time to grasp a parent’s humanity. Sometimes it takes the odd intervention.
Yesterday I was editing a forthcoming book by novelist Donis Casey, Crying Blood, due out in February 2011 from Poisoned Pen Press, and very much enjoying it. The characters live in Texas during the 1910s, the time when my father was a boy. They arrived there from the same part of the Deep South that my father’s family came from, and they behave and sound much like my father’s family—though a bit more enlightened, given their author’s immersion in the culture of the twenty-first century. Casey has a real gift for character and voice: her people sound exactly like my father and uncle did.
Along about the end of the book, we learn that the protagonist, rancher Shaw Tucker, has a great deal of Indian in him, having come from a family “woven through with Choctaw and Cherokee ancestry from as early as anyone could remember.” His mother was the daughter of a full-blooded Cherokee woman.
But he was raised to be White. In fact, even though he was an enrolled tribal member, he was White enough in blood and looks and way of life that the U.S. Government never bothered him. No one had ever come to take his children away and put them in boarding school. No one had ever proscribed his movements or told him where he had to live, or how. Shaw Tucker was White and he viewed the world in the way of a White man.
Well, now. There’s something to be afraid of! Your children kidnapped and hauled off to boarding school, there to be assimilated into an alien culture. Your way of life extinguished and your people forcibly removed from their homelands. That would have been the experience of my father’s parents and grandparents.
Why did I never see this? It seems so obvious. He wasn’t afraid of all the people he’d taught himself to hate. He was afraid of what he wanted to be.
He wanted to be white, whiter than the whites who were his forefathers’ mortal enemies and exploiters. More precisely, he needed to be white, so that he could have a shot at decent jobs and the same kind of freedom the majority of Americans took as their born right. The contradiction must have twisted around and around inside him and finally come out as hate. Bizarrely metamorphosed hate.
The present discourse on immigration rings of my father’s language. I can hear his voice in every pejorative: “illegals,” “Mexicants,” “beaners,” and in every random news story that commenters turn into a racist tirade. The new N-word is “illegals,” and the new “greaser” is “Mexican.” It’s as dreary as it is disturbing.
So what are we, as Americans, afraid of? What terror inside the American soul writhes around and comes out as hatred? My Muslim students tell me of experiences when they personally have been the targets of hate and threats. Latinos and Indians, citizens of the United States of America, say they dread being stopped by the police, hassled, and made to show papers.
Whatever it is, we need to get over it. The current fear and loathing of the Other, to the point where citizens express distaste for small brown-skinned children, is dragging our polity and our people back to the 1950s, when it was OK to utter the N-word in polite company and grown men and women thought it made sense to raise hell when a white kid and a black kid were assigned to share a locker for 40 minutes a day.
We have met the Other, and he is us.
Image: Choctaw woman. Public domain.