Monday, October 14, 2013

Race relations--and my personal education

In the venomous hate for President Obama that circulates on Facebook, at protests, etc. innuendoes and outward expressions of racial hatred are too often clear. I can't remember now what comment it was that sent me reeling back in time to examine my own education in race relations. I was raised in a liberal household where no hint of prejudice would have been tolerated, but I also grew up in Kenwood, a South Side Chicago neighborhood that by the '50s was ringed with poorer black neighborhoods. I was afraid. Yes, I'd been coddled by black nannies (one of whom proudly told my mother one morning that I'd eaten four eggs for breakfast!) but I heard at an early age that black men did bad things. This was reinforced by an aunt who lived two doors away and once, looking out the window to see a black man walking peacefully down the street, said to me, "Look how evil he looks!" (This is the same aunt who washed tomatoes with soap and water before peeling them, but I loved her.)
Al Knowlton was the first black man I really knew. He was a painter at the hospital where my father was administrator. Al came on Saturdays and some evenings to do the chores that my did couldn't or didn't want to do (Dad spent his weekends gardening and wasn't a particularly good handyman). Saturdays were a highlight for both of them--Mom would serve them lunch at the kitchen table, and they'd talk about the hospital and Al's days as a waiter on the trains (when trains had uniformed waiters and linen and fine china as well as fine food), and I remember they both enjoyed the visits. Al always called Dad "Dr. Mac."
Two incidents stand out in my mind. One night, when I was maybe eight or thereabouts, I was flitting about the house in my nightgown until my mother told me it wasn't fitting to be in my nightgown around a man who was not family. Period. No mention of race, but I made a subtle connection.
Another time Al surprised me somewhere in the house, and I cried "Oh, Al, I thought you were the bogey man." I got a severe lecture for that: black people, my mom explained, were particularly sensitive to being called the bogey man.
Of course there as the time Mom went to the hospital to pick Al up, having thrown on an old coat. She asked the switchboard operator to call him, and the operator asked, "Should I tell him his wife is waiting?" Even Al got a kick out of that one.
When my dad retired there was the usual hoopla, dinner, etc., and in all the pictures, Al was quite prominent, wearing the only suit I ever saw him in along with a broad grin. Theirs was truly a great friendship...and a lesson for me.

No comments: