My Turn: Seeing through a different lens


Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Racism is in the heart, not in words or in statues. To condemn those who use archaic terms or are sentimentally attached to certain statues as “racist” is unfair to say the least. Certainly, those of us of a certain age grew up understanding that the word “colored” was a polite and softer word than “Negro,” itself a perfectly acceptable term. The “C.P.” in NAACP stands for “Colored People,” and the United Negro College Fund still solicits donations.

However, we who are white do well to try to understand how the words and statues, so lately controversial, sound and look to African-Americans. “Colored” was the word posted by oh-so-polite southerners over their segregated drinking fountains and rest rooms. And what did it refer to here in the North? To “colored” maids (in affluent circles and movies), bellhops, porters, and elevator operators. There were, of course, “colored” athletes, but not that many, and “colored” entertainers. “Colored” singer Harry Belafonte has written about being denied entry to a Las Vegas club where he was scheduled to perform! The “colored” professor who worked alongside my father could buy a house in our all-white university town only because the seller was angry with her neighbors! Is it any wonder the term “colored” rings differently in African-American ears than in ours?

Most Confederate statues were erected long after the Civil War, in part to honor and memorialize a generation that was dying out. Coincidentally, perhaps, they were erected around the same time that Jim Crow segregation laws were being enacted in the South and served as a powerful reminder that the morals and mores of the ante-bellum South still prevailed: blacks were a servant class, a ready source of cheap, intimidated, disenfranchised and virtually, when not literally, imprisoned labor. When, after WWI, southern blacks began to seek “the warmth of other suns,” as Isabel Wilkerson details in her book by that name, white southerners were outraged. How dare their exploited labor source up and move north? One writer to a southern newspaper at the time suggested it was because they were being lynched “for no reason.” (Chew on that for a minute.) Black migrants heading north had to sneak away for fear of being beaten or murdered.

No, statues honoring heroes of the Confederacy should not be destroyed, but their prominent place in town squares belongs in the past. What might seem cultural, historical, quaint, or merely antiquated to whites is a painful reminder to blacks of a past that is, in many ways, still too present.

Kathe Geist lives in Charlemont.