Monday, January 21, 2019

The Plate

So here's a fairly terrible story about my family.

My maternal grandparents were not what you'd call progressive people. My grandfather, particularly, tended to be quite conservative. They weren't blatantly racist and they weren't cruel, at least in any obvious sense -- they were old-school Presbyterian churchgoers and I'm sure they tried, in their way, to treat people with the kindness that Jesus preached. But they also definitely believed that black people had their place. (This was illustrated in the language my grandfather used in a cache of letters to my mother from the '60s and '70s -- I wrote about them years ago, though not that troubling language. My mom later destroyed the letters.)

I remember having a discussion with my grandmother in the '80s in which she made some mildly derogatory reference to black people, and I argued that blacks were equal to whites in every way. She turned to my mother and said, "He's been brainwashed too, hasn't he?"

To be fair, I think their views were fairly typical for older, middle-class whites -- even educated ones -- in mid-20th Century America. And amid the tumult of the '60s, neither of them viewed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a particularly positive light.

At some point in that decade, my grandfather was given an aluminum plate, a cheap commemorative souvenir, featuring a portrait of King. I don't know where he got it, but it was the kind of thing that might have been given away free at the supermarket or at a gas station or with a newspaper subscription. (I believe this was before King's assassination, but I'm not sure.) As a joke, he hung it in the basement, in a cold concrete corner furnished with a couple of old armchairs and the television. (Yes, to watch TV at their house you had to sit in the unfinished, unheated basement -- but that's another story.)

I can remember being a kid years later, in the '70s and '80s, and watching TV in that corner, with Dr. King gazing down on me.

Anyway, one day, a meter reader from a utility company -- a black man -- came to their house. He went down to the basement to check the meter (or the fuel oil level, or whatever he was there for) and when he came upstairs soon afterwards he was practically glowing. He shook my grandfather's hand and said, "You good people. You good people."

My grandfather was completely mystified until he later realized that the guy had seen the Dr. King commemorative plate -- the plate he'd hung in the basement as a joke.

I'd like to say that this was a transformational experience for my grandparents, but I'm not sure it was. The story became family folklore, and when I was old enough to understand it, I found it incredibly sad.

After my grandmother died in 1989, the plate went who-knows-where. It might have been sold with the house, or maybe some other relative has it now. I have no idea. But I got to thinking about it some time last year, and I went on eBay and found one that is virtually identical. (They're quite inexpensive, by the way -- again, I think tons of them were made.)

I bought it and hung it in our house, in a prominent place in the front hallway. Of course I don't pretend that this in any way makes up for the actions of my ancestors, who -- several generations before my grandparents' time -- fought for the Confederacy and even owned slaves. (I try to put my money where my mouth is by donating to charities fighting racism, like the Southern Poverty Law Center.) But I hope it helps demonstrate the arduous and slow changes in our still-racist society. I truly do believe we are gradually bending toward justice.

"Together we must learn to live as brothers or together we will be forced to perish as fools."
-- Martin Luther King, 1967
A plaque at Maygrove Peace Park, West Hampstead


David said...

One of your most moving posts.

gz said...

So sad and moving. Thankyou

Yorkshire Pudding said...

In 2002,when I took my family to Martin Luther King's grave and then across the road to The Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta - we were the only white people paying homage. That spoke volumes to me - like a racism barometer. Where were the white Americans?

jenikya said...

I think this is a common thing I find with Presbyterian - tendency to be opinionated and think highly of themselves. This post resonates. I do wish the bullying would stop.

Ms. Moon said...

Steve, I think that I can relate to this as much or more than any of your readers. There are far more layers here than meet the eye and I know that.
This white-bread covert racism was probably far more prevalent than the overt angry type and of the two, I doubt anyone could say which was the more damaging.
Brave post.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this story. My family arrived in the US in 1921, so I always forget that so many people have histories that go back into a time of our country when there were slaves and slave owners. We have come far from those days, but not far enough. Not far enough.

Red said...

Many people do not recognize themselves as racists and would argue that they are not racist.

Sharon said...

What a very moving post you have today. Although I don't recall any specific racist situations from my childhood, I do know there was a distinct separation of the races. I think any negative feelings my father would have felt disappeared when he began servicing a black customer who had similar tastes in music. (My father repaired electronic equipment like TV's radios and stereos.) He enjoyed the man's company so much that he would go to his house to service his stereo record player and then spend another hour or two listening to music with him. I remember my father's outward change in attitude toward race relations very well and I feel a certain pride in his ability to change his perspective and communicate those positive feelings. Many years later when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, I remember my father being moved to tears when he heard the news. Given that the news came from a country my father knew very little about, his reaction surprised and impacted me greatly. Thanks for spurring these memories. There is no better day to recall these images from the past.

The Bug said...

Thanks for sharing this story. I feel like there are still so many people who feel like black folks "have their place" - and where I live now that extends to Hispanic folks (and their place is Mexico, whether that's where they're from or not). It's so frustrating!

Allison said...

My Mom's people were from Bessemer, Alabama. My grandfather actually considered joining the KKK. He asked my Mom what she thought about it, and she said it was a bad idea, so he didn't. Despite that, her casual racism ran deep. Things like segregated swimming pools, dressing rooms and etc. were just fine with her. White people have a lot to answer for.

Catalyst said...

My father used to use the N word and it always mystified me because he lived in North Dakota all of his life and there were very few African Americans in the STATE, let alone our small town. The only one in our town was a junk dealer who was referred to by that epithet, though not to his face. Incidentally, my wife cured the use of the word when he used it in front of her and she told him we didn't use that term in our house. He liked her very much and I don't think I ever heard him use that term again.

Sabine said...

Thank you for searching for and finding the replacement plate and hanging it up.

ellen abbott said...

excellent post. some of my forebears also owned slaves, the last to do so freed them with her death. we had a black maid/cook and a black gardener and my parents taught us to treat them with respect, that they were there to do a job and we were not to order them around. but we were not to mingle with black people in a social situation. my mother took me aside when I reached 15 (1965), the age they would let me start to date, to tell me that if one of the two black boys at my high school asked me out, I was to decline. I'm happy to say that my own children and my grandchildren have black friends. you strip off the skin and no one knows what color your are, the insides are all the same. skin does not have a bearing on ability or intelligence.

Tara said...

I'm currently reading Michelle Obama's book, "Becoming." In it there is a photo of Nelson Mandela and Michelle, on his first visit to the states. She said meeting him reminded her of the very long journey towards justice. It doesn't come fast, it comes over decades, lifetimes.

The other striking story of hers is witnessing the white flight out of Chicago to the suburbs in the 1960s. It was slow, and could go unnoticed for awhile, but between her first year of school and her fifth, the school pictures tell the story.

Wonderful post, and perfect for this day. Thank you.

jenny_o said...

This makes me ponder, not for the first time, the role that environment plays in many attitudes, including racism. I mean environment as the conditions in which a person grows up, including family, social circle, community, etc. So much of what any person learns is tied to what they see in their immediate circles as they grow up. And yet there are many folks who reject that and think for themselves. I don't know what makes the difference - is it intellect? is it self-confidence? is it empathy? I do think that it must be very hard for someone from a background of a certain attitude to swim against the current and adopt a different one - they risk losing the love and support of their family, friends, church, community if they do. And yet some people find the strength to do it anyway.

Sometimes - often, these days, actually - I wonder if we really are making any progress in so many areas, racism being one. Or, with cameras everywhere, are we just able to more easily see that the progress we supposedly made is less than we hoped?

Stillwaterrunsdeep said...

Powerful post, Steve. Now let’s look forward, and speed up the advances we are making as a society, one by one, in the streets of every town, as we begin to understand that we ARE all one. Let us change the paradigm and turn things around, and stop the racism and oppression and injustice. My ancestors also were of similar mindset and now I know I have the power to change that. Thank you for hanging the MLK plate!

Alphie Soup said...

I've read your post and the comments twice. Your grandparents were people who held strong personal beliefs. There are people today who still hold these beliefs. It is a big task to turn things around; it is a long row to hoe and the row encircles the world, not only the USA. Anyone who feels the task is overwhelming and they want to throw their hoe to the ground should pause and consider that each time the hoe swings it's a move in the right direction.
A huge task but one that will always be with us and we can all do our bit to bring about change.

Steve Reed said...

David: Thanks!

GZ: Thanks!

YP: Actually, I'm surprised there weren't any white people there. I wonder if that's typical?

Jenikya: LOL -- well, I'd be hesitant to ascribe those characteristics to ALL Presbyterians! But my grandparents, as much as I love them, definitely did think highly of themselves.

Ms Moon: My grandparents lived in Washington, D.C. Apparently MLK himself said that "northern" racism was actually more damaging than the southern, in-your-face variety, because it was harder to see and thus harder to fight. (That's my paraphrase but I think that was the essence of his argument.)

Robin: It must be interesting to look back at the earlier history of the country, knowing that those weren't "your people." In a way, it would be freeing!

Red: Definitely. I'm not sure my grandparents thought of themselves as racist, because they weren't marching and wearing hoods and burning crosses. But they definitely held racist views -- as I said, I think many people did in that time period.

Sharon: What a great story! Sometimes all it takes for people to overcome their prejudices is personal contact with someone from another background. I think that's why racism is often more prevalent in places were people are more insular -- small towns, segregated neighborhoods, that kind of thing.

Bug: Yeah, as much progress as we've made, there are definitely still a lot of people who have retrograde views. It makes you wonder what people are learning at home.

Allison: Well, thank goodness for your mom's common sense on that one! It's easy to condemn southerners for their racist views but, on balance, that WAS the culture and it's what they were raised with. You know? In some ways I can't fault my grandmother because that viewpoint is all she knew. In other respects she was quite open-minded -- more so, I think, than my grandfather.

Catalyst: Good for your wife! Sometimes all it takes is someone to say STOP -- that at least halts the outward casual racism. I'm not sure it really changed your dad's thinking, but maybe it gave him pause.

Sabine: This story has bothered me for years, and it seemed one way to atone.

Ellen: It is remarkable how hung up we all are on external appearances.

Tara: I have to read that book!

Jenny-O: Change is very gradual. I have no idea what the discussions around race were like in the homes where my grandparents grew up -- I can only imagine -- but I think my grandparents were probably "softer" in their racism than their forebears, and I think my mom is more open-minded than they were. I like to think I'm more open-minded than my mom, but of course I have my hangups too. So, over each generation, there's a progression. You know?

StillWater: Amen! I do think it takes effort on all our parts to recognize what's backward in our thinking and try to change it.

Alphie: Absolutely. It's a Sisyphean task. But I do think every strike of the hoe, as you put it, makes a difference.

Elizabeth said...

This is such an intense post, and as someone who grew up part of my life in the south and whose maternal relatives are from the deep south, it resonates. Thank you for hanging that tin plate, for breaking in your own small way what runs for generations.

37paddington said...

Thank you for doing your part to help bend the arc toward justice. I like to think of that plate hanging in a prominent place in your home.