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I Am Not a Black Woman: One White Woman’s Perspective on the Progress We Have Made Regarding Racism and Seeing Color

I wrote a book called “Red Clay and Roses” and in the dedication for this book you will find these words:

While visiting my grandparent’s farm in my youth, an elderly African American man told me,

“If your children can look at my grandchildren and not see color, then we have made progress.”

This book is dedicated to him, the progress that we have made,

and to my loving and supportive husband, Greg.

We are, each of us angels with only one wing, and we can only fly by embracing one another.

~Luciano de Crescenzo

EXCERPT FROM MY BOOK:

            “As a very small child, I recalled being raised by someone else.  That is to say, regardless of having a mother or not, there was always a maid or a nanny.  June of 1965, while staying at my maternal Grandma’s house after my baby sister had been born, my older sister and I were playing with our dolls on the big screened porch.  A summer storm rolled in suddenly.  I had never been afraid of thunderstorms. The wind was whipping up.  Gusts sent broken tree limbs crashing across the roof.  Lightening cracked in the darkened sky and our nanny, Wylene, a great big buxom black woman who smelled of baby powder, sweat and peppermint came charging onto the porch.  I was only four years old.  She bellowed at us, “You young’uns better get into this here house, ifin you don’t, you gwan t’be struck by lightenin, and be black as I is!”  For more years than I am ashamed to admit, I seriously believed that black people had become black by being struck by lightning. I loved my nannies as much as I could love my own mother.”

I want to tell you the whole story behind that dedication.  As my mother had died when I was eight years old, my grandparents became my rock in society.  Even after we siblings had left my father and his many wives we had our grandparents for stability.  They owned a large farm on the West side of GA near the Chattahoochee River close to Pine Mountain and worked very hard there from sunup til after sunset, as most farmers do.  They became our role models, as did the people who worked for them.  We spent our weekends and summers with them.  After we had entered the foster care system, we were still allowed to return “home” to the farm for summer break and weekends.  Later, when we became residents of The Ethel Harpst Home for Children and Youth in the North GA Mountains, we were still permitted to come “home” for summer breaks and Holidays.

There were thirteen of us grandchildren and we worked on the farm alongside of the hired hands, who were mostly black people, African Americans in the rural community.  My grandmother had started a horticulture business because she had a green thumb.  My uncle had built her greenhouses and our jobs were to root cuttings, re-pot plants, pull weeds, water the shrubs, greenhouse plants, and vegetable garden.  Kate and Isabelle, two black women (I say “black” because that is what they called themselves at that time.) who worked with us, taught us all that we needed to know about how to work the business.  Of course, being a working farm, there were animals that we were taught to tend and slaughter and even though the men did most of that work, we were taught how to process these plants and animals into food.

I recall the big dinners my Grandmother prepared.  Dinner was the noontime meal and supper was the evening meal.  At dinner, grandmother would spread out large platters of fried meats,  bowls of fresh vegetables, trays of biscuits, and cornbread onto two old wooden doors tabled across saw horses that had been set outside in the orchard.  Big trays of freshly baked cupcakes and other goodies would be brought out for dessert.

Everybody dined together, but the black people had their own dipper in the water bucket and the white people had their own dipper in the same bucket.  Even as a child I recognized the nonsense in this practice, as the two dippers went into the same water bucket.  What was the point?  Also, the black people had their own silverware and plates that were collected, washed and kept separate from the white people’s dinnerware.  These were tiny indoctrinations, but pertinent in a young formative mind.

As we grew up in the foster care system and the children’s group home we had so much more exposure.  Finally, long overdue, the schools integrated in our community in 1971, 106 years AFTER the Civil War ended.  Yes people, just forty two short years ago we were allowed to mix at school.  In our foster care, we had one family with black house-parents, and there were fourteen of us every color of the rainbow.  We were Korean, Vietnamese, white, and black children all living happily under one roof.  The couple was old and we had started tending to them more than they were tending to us.  Then one day, something disgusting happened.  We were all out waiting for the school bus.  A convertible car came whizzing past, did a u-turn and came back by.  The white teen-aged boys in the car threw paint filled balloons in our direction, called out racial insults, and sped away.  We were all splattered with multi-colors of gooey paint.  It was my first experience of being on the receiving side of racism.  The social workers came and moved us to other homes.

When I arrived at The Ethel Harpst Home in Cedartown, GA, the place was all white, but shortly after my arrival The Sarah Murphy Home (a black children’s home) integrated with our home.  We did not think about skin color.  We had missionaries from all over the world coming to talk to us about their faith (whether Buddhist or Christian), sharing their artifacts from other countries and speaking to us about other cultures.  They taught us to appreciate each other.  I value those experiences.  They taught us how to paint in watercolors and oils, throw on a pottery wheel and work all manner of arts and crafts.  I tutored younger children in writing, reading and math, so I got out of kitchen detail in the afternoons after school.  We assisted and cared for each other, regardless of skin color.  These troubled children became closer than family to me.

As I matured into a teenager and young adult, I became more and more involved in the Civil Rights Movement.  I lived briefly on a commune where folk from all races gathered with their babies, made flower leis, baked bread, lived off the land, smoked pot and listened to rock and roll and soul music.  We protested with signs that read “Flower Power”, “Make Love not War”, and “Black Power” long after it was no longer fashionable to do so.  I married, had a child, got divorced and went back “home” to my grandparent’s house.

A friend from Cedartown had come to visit with me.  We all sat around the dinner table and we heard a vehicle drive up.  The dogs began to bark and my grandfather rose from the table and went to the front door.  My grandmother was expecting a man to bring a rototiller to work her garden.  My grandfather called out from the front porch, “Ma!  Your nigger is here to plow your field,” and slammed the door!

My girlfriend and I sat at the table, and our mouths dropped opened.  My grandmother went to the bedroom to fetch her purse to pay the man.  My grandfather came back to the dinner table and sat down.  I got up and went out onto the front porch.  A tall, older black man was standing there with his hat in his hand. “Sir, I am terribly sorry my grandfather spoke to you in that manner and slammed the door in your face,” I said.

“Young lady,” he calmly stated, “I ain’t nothin but a nigger, I been a nigger all my life and your grandfather, well, he ain’t never known me as nothin but a nigger.”

“Yes, well, I would still like to offer you an apology on his behalf.  He was simply rude and I am embarrassed for his behavior,” I said.

“Look here little lady,” the man said, “If your children can look at my grandchildren and not see color, then we have made progress.”

That man’s comment has stayed with me for the remainder of my fifty three years.  I will never forget it or the look of resignation on his face.  I did not ask his name and don’t suppose I will ever know it.  But he was a worthy man deserving of a dedication.

I married again and had two more children.  Much to their grandparent’s dismay, we sang songs with our children like Ray Steven’s, “Everything is Beautiful”.  They had sleep overs with children of all races and the Church we attended with them was fully integrated in a section of society where that just wasn’t the norm.  When they left the integrated parochial school that they attended, and started into the public school system, they were still appalled at the racism they witnessed.  I am proud of my children for being appalled.  My stepson, a young white man whose father was a military brat, is also not inhibited by race.  He has begun to date and race has never been an issue.409246_4211954171447_1408324814_n

This is Tiffany Lemieux McKissic and her husband Marcus, their two lovely children, Aurora and Xavier.  They live in Michigan.  My daughter met Tiffany when she attended MSU.  They became best friends.  They are a beautiful colorblind family.  Most of my children’s friends are colorblind, and that, in my opinion, is a good thing.  That is progress.  It has been slow and it is not without some pain in growth, but it is a good thing.

303342_564472456919678_1884902535_nThis is my granddaughter, Jalina.  I am not going to tell you what race she is because it does not matter to her, and we really don’t know. Her father was adopted by the same woman who raised Geraldo Rivera.  Her father’s adopted mother was Geraldo’s nanny.  We were at Mc Donald’s a few weeks ago and there was a young blonde white lady with two small dark skinned children playing at her feet.  My granddaughter was sitting across from me.  An elderly woman, perhaps 70+ years old happened by.  The elderly woman looked at the young lady and said, “Are you babysitting?”

The young woman replied, “No they are mine, both of them.”

The older woman said, “Oh, that’s so sweet, you adopted.”

The younger woman, with a look of frustration, as she has probably heard this before, snapped, “No, I had sex with their father and he happens to be a black man of African American descent.”

It wasn’t really funny, but I could not resist the temptation to smile.  I thought, “Well said,” because it was really none of the elderly lady’s business, but having made it publicly her business, the younger woman had a right to set her straight with any words that she chose.  I don’t think anything else was said between them….except something like…, “…beautiful children.”

People ask me all of the time if my grandchildren are, “Mixed.”  “Mixed what?” I wonder out loud, but I know.

I always respond, “Yes we all are.”  I truly don’t know how mixed I am.  I have blonde hair and green eyes, but my grandfather’s mother was Cherokee Indian.  I am English, Irish and Cherokee.  My daughter’s father is German.  What would you call Jalina if you had a word for it?”  Does it matter?”  It doesn’t matter to her.  I do wish that people here in Orlando would stop speaking to her in Spanish because she, nor her father, speaks any Spanish.  It is another assumption that someone in this area with dark skin and hair and white features should speak Spanish.  People do that to her father also.

With the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case right on our doorstep, we have heard many arguments on racial progress.  Here in Orlando we have a large cultural diversity.  There are mixed neighborhoods and then there are enclaves of predominately black, white, Japanese, Vietnamese, Spanish, Indian and other races, religions or nationalities.  I suppose for some it is preferable to stay with “Their own kind,” as that is how I have heard it put.  Many simply do not want to mix.  That is fine with me also, if that is what makes them feel more comfortable, and safer perhaps.  I still think that it does lead to the perpetuation of more racism to separate like that, into little enclaves of race, nationality and/or religion.  I have heard arguments from all sides for a need to keep the races “pure” and I think that is not only ridiculous but impossible eventually.  There are still whole communities and counties throughout America where mixing just isn’t acceptable even in 2013.  Here is one example:

Rejecting Racism: Georgia High Schoolers Demand Their First Ever Integrated Prom (VIDEO)www.addictinginfo.orgLast year a biracial student had the audacity to try to attend an “all white” prom; the parents in charge called the police. This year, the students have had enough.

I am not a black woman.  I cannot know the oppression of a black woman.  Black women have suffered under oppression and racism perhaps more than any other population on the planet.  I say black women because it doesn’t matter if it is African American, Haitian, Trinidadian, African, Caribbean Islander, or Puerto Rican….it really does not.  Dark skinned women have had a struggle that no other people can know.  I can’t promise that it is over or will be over soon.  It may take more generations than I will live through.  All I can promise is progress.

~S.K. Nicholls

Women’s Rights to Equal Pay

Lilly Ledbetter was recently honored on her birthday by the National Women’s Law Center.  She is an equal pay advocate who championed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act for which she is the namesake.  I applaud her.

I am currently reading a book called, “The Psychopath Test”, by Jon Ronson.  This read, coupled with Lilly Ledbetter’s kudos brought to mind a particular incident that occurred while I was employed as an RN Charge Nurse at West Central Georgia Regional Hospital, a State Mental Hospital known by locals as simply, Shataulga Road.  If someone tells you that you need to go to Shataulga Rd, they are inferring that you are somehow “crazy”.

There was a Director of Nursing there by the name of Joyce Morelock.  I admired her.  She was tough and like a mentor to me in that she had an air of professionalism, seriously required in that environment, despite the fact that she was always overdressed for that type of work in her heels, stockings and suit-skirts.  Although I did not dress like her, I was called J.J. for Joyce Junior, in part, because I was Charge Nurse and had the charge of maintaining order in her absence.  We worked the forensic unit, Unit 6, where the craziest of the crazies were located.  These were often patients from the jails and we were expected to determine if they were actually sane or actually insane.

On one particular night, we had a male patient who stripped naked and proceeded to jump around on the furniture with his penis stretched out strumming it like a guitar.  He was screaming something about Donkey Kong, various obscenities, and displaying his martial arts moves as he bounded from furniture to furniture to the top of the nursing station where an L.P.N. named Donna and I sat in a state of shock.  We called a Code Stress, which was supposed to bring assistance to deal with just such crises, and it was a crisis.  Five strapping young men arrived and lined against the wall refusing to help to get this man under control.  One actually said it was against his religion to put his hands on another man.  When asked, “Why did you bother showing up?”  He responded, “I use the ‘talk down’ approach.”  Well, it was obvious that Donkey Kong was not about to be talked down. So these big tall strong men stood against the wall and did nothing.  The patient ran into the bathroom and jumped in the shower.  He knew exactly what he was doing.  He lathered himself up with soap to make himself impossible (he thought) to grasp.  I sent Donna to the med room to fill a syringe and told her to meet me at the bathroom door.  I ran and grabbed a blanket off of a patient’s bed and tossed it over Donkey Kong’s head as he exited the bathroom.  Donna and I took him down and shot him with enough emergency narcotic to adequately sedate him.  Once sedated, the men placed him into an ambulance to carry him to the VA hospital. This former marine, trained in martial arts, broke out of four point leather restraints and fled the scene in a hurry, running past the men who thought they had him detained, jumped the fence and was gone.

I later learned that Donna, an L.P.N. was paid less than these Psychiatric Technicians who lined the wall on that night.  J.J. strengthened her tough reputation, but also found out that there were four male Nurses on duty that night at the hospital that had not responded to the Code Stress.  She also found out that they were all paid significantly more than her.  I was sorely disappointed.

Later, while working on a med-surg. unit in another hospital, I learned that the male nurses at that hospital received 30% more pay than the female nurses.  When us ladies asked the Unit. Manager why that was so, she said that male nurses functioned both as nurses and as orderlies, doing a lot of the heavy lifting and transport.  I wasn’t buying that.  We female nurses functioned as Nursing assistants also, giving baths, doing heavy lifting, transport and diapering adults.  It was something we just had to accept.

Tremendous strides have been made in the workforce of woman over the past fifty years.  There was a time, except during times of war, when women did not work outside the home unless they had been abandoned by their spouses, divorced or widowed.  They took menial jobs for little pay.  A few respectable women were teachers, nurses and secretaries. Happy Birthday Lilly Ledbetter,  I am glad you were born. We have come a long way, but it is social progress, not social perfection.