Wednesday, January 25, 2017

A Nice White Lady's History With Racism

Sign posted on Facebook after the Women's March on Washington. 
"I'll see you nice white ladies at the next Black Lives Matter March. Right?"

I saw the posting on Facebook and thought back to the 1950s when I was in high school. I noticed for the first time that we had one African American in our small western town. I'm sure he had a family, but I never saw them or any other black in our town. We had some Mexicans and once I innocently accepted a date with a really good looking Mexican boy. He showed up at our front door in a suit and tie to take me on a double date with friends. When he met my parents, they were shocked, but thankfully hid it. When I got home from our date, I got a lecture about what would happen to the family name if word got out that their daughter was seen with a Mexican boy.

Our one African American was a high school football star. Everybody liked him, he was active in student government and we elected him student body president. He had no one to date and I remember seeing him standing around on the sidelines talking to the guys at school dances. If I look back through my 1955 Tiger Annual and remember that our football team was called the Tigers, I shudder at the sight of cartoons depicting Black Sambo chasing a tiger around a palm tree.

The next time I noticed Negroes (the proper word at the time) was on a family trip to Chicago. Unlike home, everywhere I went I saw Negroes. They didn't seem so well off as our football hero back home. To me they looked tired and poor. Maybe I stared and averted my eyes when caught. I felt sad for them and puzzled. My sheltered life had quite literally blocked me from seeing the poor, white or black. The only poor person I knew was our white housekeeper. Later in our trip, I saw the crowded slums of Chicago where the poor lived in dilapidated tenement houses. Slum was a new word, but I understood the connection between the slums and how I had perceived the black people I'd seen there.

During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, I was a young married woman living in Charleston, West Virginia. My husband worked for the Associated Press and until our baby boy arrived, I wrote a column for the Charleston Daily Mail. Images in the newspaper and on TV made me aware of the struggle for civil rights going on around the nation. I was horrified by what I saw: water hoses knocking blacks off their feet, a little girl escorted through the school door by a U.S. Marshal, murders of black and white civil rights workers, governors of southern states defying federal orders, and the riots and biting dogs.

I didn't find a civil rights march to attend in Charleston, so I decided I would see if the black community wanted my help. I was put on a committee of concerned blacks and whites. We had frequent meetings and talked about what we could do to help the ghetto children. I worked with a black community organizer and he and I, along with others, became allies. Hoping to expand the black children's world view we took them on field trips. I remember our wide eyes as we toured the State House--none of us had ever been inside. I put my young son in a black preschool program and with him in my arms, wept in the little black church on the Sunday following Martin Luther King's assassination.

The time came when our community organizer, appeared discouraged. He told me that he finally realized that his black brothers and sisters must move forward by themselves. Whites were detrimental to the cause. His words were kind and I understood and withdrew. We remained friends.

When we moved to Spokane, Washington in the early '70s, whites were involved in consciousness raising groups with blacks. Because of segregation we were isolated from the black community and they from us. These gatherings of blacks and whites made it possible for us to talk to one another, and, of course, our conversation was about race. My husband and I invited a number of progressive white friends and held a consciousness raising group with blacks who had been imported into our neighborhood. As complete strangers we sat down together in our living room and tried to talk to one another. Whenever I look back on that night I have to laugh at our naivete. We started out cordially and ended up yelling at each other. The blacks said that we were racist and we argued that we were not. How on earth could we possibly be racists? Through all those arguing voices I tried to tell them about my work in West Virginia. If I had thought to bring out the Bible I would have sworn on it that I WAS NOT RACIST. I remember saying, "You don't know ME!" That night became an exercise in futility. It took thirty some years before I understood what they meant about me being racist--it took that long to raise my consciousness.

From my nice white lady point of view, the rest is easy to explain. Over the next thirty years the world changed. Segregation ended, the integration of blacks was a done deal, it was the law of the land. I saw blacks in TV commercials advertising toothpaste and insurance companies, I wasn't alone among white women in thinking OJ was the handsomest man on the planet, I enjoyed black entertainers and comedians, blacks attended college and ran for office like never before. Then we elected a black President. American racism no longer existed--even in the modern south!

I rejoiced!

Well, as we know now, racism and every other hateful ism didn't go away. It went into hiding. Now we are back to the '60s or, if I'm magnanimous, to the '70s.

Now, you ask, how is it that I finally understood that I, like every other American, have racist tendencies. Racism is part of being an American. Study history and you will know why--go back to the landing of the Pilgrims. The only way you or I, white or black, can come to that realization is to look inside. Look honestly, humbly inside and you will find it. Still, I beg to differ with the person who so cynically scribbled those words on that sign. If we are willing, all of us, white and black, are able to overcome our hidden racism. We do that by noticing it and letting it go every time it rears its ugly head. I don't know what overt racists can do to heal themselves.

But the greatest cure for racism or any other ism happens the moment you take a black person into your family as a son or daughter-in law. That happened in my family and our closeness and the love that grew between us erased everything else. And when you become a close friend with someone of a different race, religion, or orientation (as in sexual or gender), in time, you see only the essence of who they are and prejudice falls away. Unlike the young me, my grandchildren are free to date people of other races and religions.

"We shall overcome." I believe it is possible.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The End of a Sweet Pleasure

For years a man and woman, a couple, walked by my house every morning at just about the same time. Strangely, when they appeared I’d think, there they are again—almost a surprise, because they were insignificant enough in my life that I didn’t look out for or expect them. About late middle age, both were frail looking in the sense that they were small people and slim. They dressed in cheap clothes and holding hands walked at a good pace, talking together. Later, I’d see them pass again. This time in the opposite direction—toward home—with a Dunkin’ Donuts bag in hand. I haven’t seen them in a long time. Now when I catch the sight of someone walking by at that time in the morning, I look to see if it’s the little couple. I do think of them and wonder if one is sick or dead and the other doesn’t want to take that walk alone. Maybe walking alone would be a lonely reminder, too painful to bear, the end of a sweet pleasure.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Modern Myths about New World Witchcraft

This witch photograph is of unknown origin and date.

It’s almost Halloween and in honor of the release of the second edition of My Enemy’s Tears: The Witch of Northampton I’ll dispel some myths about 17th century New World witchcraft and tip you off to a few facts about the ancient belief in witches.

Witches were burned at the stake in early America.
FACT: Never, in what would become the United States of America, were witches burned. Burning at the stake happened in medieval Europe. Here witches were almost always hanged.

A witch is a woman.
FACT: Both men and women were executed for witchcraft and men were called witches too.

People who believed in witchcraft were superstitious, ignorant peasants.
FACT: The most highly-educated, literate, well-trained elites conducted most of the witch hunts. The governors of Massachusetts Bay Colony and Connecticut, the president of Harvard College, the minister at Old North Church, the King himself, believed in the power of witches. All were instrumental in getting suspected witches hanged. The belief in witchcraft wasn’t a superstition, witches were real and to question their existence was heretical.

During the time of the Witch Hunts, witches actually existed and worked magic.
FACT: While some people have claimed to be able to work witchcraft, there is no scientific, reasonable proof that witches actually existed or that the magic the believers claimed they performed did what the accusers said. Modern witches are most usually pagans who worship nature and seek to heal and do good.

Salem was the only place where witches were killed.
FACT: Mention witchcraft and people today automatically think of the Salem witch trials of 1692. But, the first witch was executed in New England in 1647. There were some forty-five years between the first and the last to die as a convicted witch. According to John Putnam Demos’s book Entertaining Satan sixteen people were executed before Salem.  Add all these to the people who died as a result of the Salem Witch Trials and you have a total of forty executions. There were many more who were accused and acquitted at trials. Some convicted of witchcraft escaped or died before they could be executed. 

My ancestor Mary Bliss Parsons whose life is fictionalized in my book was accused twice, once in 1654 and again in 1674. 

Every culture on earth, including the Native American, once believed in witchcraft. The belief is as old as mankind. The Witch of Endor is mentioned in the First Book of Samuel, chapter 28:3-25. Anything this old has it's own structure, concepts, and terminology. 

Here are some words you don't run into very much anymore:
Familiar or familiar spirit: a creature (sometimes invisible) who watched or interfered with the victim and reported back to the witch. Common familiars were creatures like birds, mice, and cats.
Imp:  a small unnatural creature who depended upon the witch for daily sustenance.
Witches teat: This was a small protrusion on a suspected witch’s body. We might call it a pendulous mole. These growths, especially on old women, were thought to be a source of nutrition for an imp or familiar spirit—like nursing a baby at the breast. If you are of a certain age you will see these things on your own skin. My dermatologist politely calls them “wisdom spots.”
Cunning folk: were people who knew herbs, practiced a little benign magic, and were able to heal the sick—they were also frequently known as "wizards," "wise men" or "wise women." Certain Christian theologians and church authorities believed that the cunning folk’s “magic” put them in league with the devil. But there was no widespread persecution of cunning folk—no witch hunts—most common people firmly distinguished between the two: witches were seen as being harmful and cunning folk as useful.

The early modern people who came to these shores had no science to speak of. Because they could not explain the things happening around them through scientific knowledge they believed that both God and Satan with the help of witches interfered with their lives for both good and bad. 

I tried not to compare these early modern people with us and our knowledge. We can disagree with and be astonished by their beliefs, but they were doing the best they could at the time with what they knew. While researching and writing this book, I actually began to love my Puritan heroes and villains. I hope you will too.