CHAPTER 14. MORE REFLECTIONS ON RACE


ABOUT PASSING

There's a saying among our people about passing: "Everybody knows at least one black person who is passing." Well, I know at least three persons of color who have "jumped the fence" and gone over into the white race. In addition, I know others who, if they chose, would have no trouble at all in "passing." As a matter of fact, it has been for a number of years a sort of joke between myself and a very fair-skinned friend that he is black only because he wants to be.

What should our attitude be concerning those acquaintances who opt to "jump the fence?" How should we react to those passers when we meet them in a social setting that includes whites who assumed that the "passer" is white? How should we react if the passer ignores us in such a setting? Remember that you and the passer may formerly have had friendly relations, yet his greeting in mixed company is likely to be quite subdued, if he greets you at all. (I know some blacks who could not pass if they wanted, yet some of these will likewise ignore you when they are with their white friends. I'll bet you know some of these too!)

Sometimes those who pass remove themselves so far from their backgrounds that they have little likelihood of meeting or running into former friends who knew them as black. A childhood friend of mine opted to "jump the fence" and moved far from Philadelphia where he grew up. Another friend, passing through the state where the passer now lives, phoned him from the station. The passer offered to come down to the station to see his old friend, but his attitude made it clear that his old buddy was not to come to his home. I suppose he was determined not to allow his race to come into question by having an obviously black friend visit him in his home. After all, what would the neighbors say?

Most black Americans have some white blood coursing through their veins. A glance at any gathering of "black" people confirms this. Our colors range from the basic black to the blue-eyed, blonde, Nordic type. For the latter group, it is an easy matter to "jump the fence." And jump the fence we do. One social scientist estimated that not fewer than 25,000 blacks cross over each year. If we could call up all the blacks who passed over the many years since slavery (although even during slavery many light-skinned blacks who escaped passed themselves as white in their new environs), you could see that Adolph Hitler's contemptuous description of Americans as "negrified" would not be far off the mark. There are many more "white" Americans who have some black strains in their blood than will ever admit it.

There are some black people who are proud of their white blood. Apparently, they think themselves somehow better because of it. My father, writing of his genealogy, tells what he knows about his own ancestry. He claims German, Scotch, Irish, and African blood strains. (He did not claim Indian blood as so many black people do.) But he put things in proper perspective for the whites: "I am neither proud of nor ashamed of what I am. I am what I am through circumstances over which I had no control."

Some who pass never divorce themselves entirely from their own people, maintaining strong ties to their origins. Some others who pass never look back and for the rest of their lives have no contact with the race of their origin. But before we criticize and condemn the passers for abandoning their race, for spurning their own to join the majority race, let's look at motivation.

Why did he pass? Well, if one can pass, and if he chooses that route for the very obvious reasons that he can encounter as a white person far fewer obstacles to progress, a far better income, a greater degree of security, and the comforting knowledge that he is now a member of the majority race, how much blame can we attach to his decision? How many of us given the choice would remain black?

Suppose someone invented a magic pill. Let's call it "Grumpett's Overnight White." The pill with just one application would turn the taker white over night. The maker of Grumpetts would develop a catchy advertising jingle to promote their invention: "Goodbye thick lips and kinky hair; I'll soon be white so I don't care; Gonna take my Grumpetts Saturday night; Sunday morning I'll be white. Amen!"

And they would have Michael Jordan flashed on TV screens, proclaiming: "Better get your Grumpetts!" But you will hardly recognize him because his eyes are now cobalt blue, and instead of a bald head, he now sports a long, blonde mop.

Hordes of black people, clamoring for this magic remedy, overwhelm the manufacturer's ability to provide the pill fast enough to keep up with demand. I can see the headlines in the nation's newspapers:

"Police and National Guard Called out to Control Rioting Negroes Seeking Grumpetts!"

"Drug Store Looted and Burned by Hordes of Disgruntled Negroes Angered when Store Runs out of Grumpetts!"

"Black Muslims Disband Because of Declining Membership!"

"NAACP Refuses to Refund Membership Fees to Blacks Who Pass!"

"President Meets with Congress in Emergency Session! Negroes Disappearing in Record Numbers!"

"Husband Seeks Divorce; Claims Wife was Formerly Black!"

Imagine the following conversation between two friends:

"Hey, man. Did you get your Grumpetts?"

Reply, "No man, I didn't feel like fighting that mob down at the drug store, so my old lady went over to her sister's house to get some. Her sister has a couple of pills she can let us have for a hundred dollars a piece. But, I figure it's worth it. Did you get yours?"

"Yeah, man. I took mine yesterday and today by 4 p.m. I will be white. You understand I won't be able to have much contact with you people until you take your Grumpetts. Nothing personal, you know!"


ABOUT THOMAS JEFFERSON

By this time you must have read or heard about the conclusions of the scientists who sought to dispel or confirm the centuries old rumor that Thomas Jefferson had an illicit, long-term relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings.

The scientists and researchers, using the most up-to-date DNA techniques, concluded that there was only a one in a hundred chance that Jefferson was not the father of Sally Hemmings' illegitimate son. The offspring of this son have multiplied and proliferated to the point that today there seems to be several hundred Americans, both white and black, who can claim kinship to Thomas Jefferson.

I can't imagine that those black descendants who claim to be white received this information with anything but consternation. Think of it! All their lives they have considered themselves to be white. And now to find that they are descended from a black woman and are related by blood to dozens of black cousins must have been unsettling, to say the least.

Their situation reminds me of the words of J. C. Furnas, who wrote: "The longer your family has lived in this country, the greater the chances that you may have some black blood. Or to put it another way. If black genes were radioactive particles, much of white America would be scared to death of a Geiger count . . ."

I have some black friends in Charlottesville, Virginia who can trace their bloodlines back to Jefferson. Oddly enough, it was Vernon Johns who made me aware of the likelihood of a relationship between this family and Jefferson. He said: "Not only can this family trace their genealogy back to Jefferson through Hemmings, but also, if you will look at the picture of the mother (now deceased) of the present generation which hangs in the dining room of their home, you will see that she bore an uncanny resemblance to Jefferson." A great deal more race mixing took place all over the South during slavery than modern apologists for the period and modern historians are willing to concede. A glance at any gathering of black folks confirms this.

One is compelled to wonder if there are any black folks whose blood does not contain white genes. I have an interesting document written by a black man who tells us that some of his female antecedents during slavery were forced to spend the night with the winner of the card games the slave owner frequently held.

I have read accounts of Southern college boys who often brought home with them some of their college friends on holidays. They spent almost every night in the slave quarters taking advantage of which ever slave girl took their fancy.

Mary Boykin Chesnut in her Diary from Dixie (a description of life in the deep South during the Civil War) writes: "God forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system, a wrong and an iniquity! Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives and concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family partly resemble the white children. Any lady is ready to tell you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody's household but her own. Those, she seems to think, drop from the clouds."

So, Mr. Jefferson's peccadilloes are hardly surprising. He lived in an era when any white man could do, and frequently did with impunity, anything he wished to any black woman. She could only submit.


BUFFALO SOLDIERS

To Whom It May Concern:

The Buffalo Soldier comic book was developed as a means to inform black children (and indeed all children) about the extraordinary exploits of a group of black men who helped open the West. These men, for the most part ex-slaves, were invited to join the ranks of the United States Cavalry, to police and bring law and justice to the lawless western territories.

Their duties placed harsh requirements on them. Their posts of duty ranged from the hot, dry, desert-like Southwest to the frigid, often snow-bound Northwest. Often these men were despised and ill-treated by the very settlers for whom they risked their lives in the frequent encounters with marauding Indians, outlaw Americans, Mexican bandits, and cattle rustlers from both sides of the Mexican border.

These men were short-changed by the military authorities as well. They were given worn, sometimes worthless weapons, sick and spavined, diseased horses, left-overs and hand-me downs from the regular army. And yet, despite all the negatives of their existence, these "Buffalo Soldiers" (a name given them by the Indians, it is not clear whether the Indians named them so because their hair resembled that of the buffalo or whether the name was derived from the Indian's respect for their fighting prowess) left a proud record of accomplishments.

Unfortunately, the early Buffalo Soldiers, being ex-slaves, were illiterate. As a result, there is little documented, first-hand evidence of the exploits and adventures in the day-to-day experiences of these hardy men. So that, lacking documented hard facts, our research has necessarily been supplemented by our imagination, although we hew as close to the truth as possible. It has been for a number of years, this writer's great ambition to travel to the Western posts where the Buffalo Soldiers were stationed to get a clearer picture of the environs in which these heroic Americans lived and labored.

So far, I have not been able to realize this dream. The great lesson of the Buffalo Soldier is not merely to praise and laud the fortitude and determination of this hardy band, but rather to emphasize in the minds of America's children that this great nation achieved its greatness through the sacrifices and hard work of Americans of every ethnic group. We all helped build America!

Sincerely,

Henry W. Powell

Research and Story Development


BLACK BUSINESS

One subject of which I have written quite a bit is about blacks taking greater advantage of the business opportunities available to them. The purpose of these articles about black people in business has been to encourage black people to do business with blacks and to encourage black people to attempt to slow down the flow of black dollars out of the black communities by getting involved in black businesses.

Black People and Business

Black Americans have a combined total income that exceeds the income of Canada. Unfortunately, very little of the income totaling in the billions stays in the black communities.

In some of the larger urban areas where there may be many diverse ethnic groups, each living in its own neighborhood, one can observe that usually all the businesses and services in a given neighborhood are owned and operated by members of whatever ethnic group lives in that area.

In an Italian neighborhood for example, most of the stores and services are operated by Italians. The same is true of the Jewish, Irish, and Polish neighborhoods, and the Puerto Ricans have their share of groceries, restaurants, and service establishments. However, when we visit a black neighborhood it seems that the businesses there are operated by anyone but black people, so that most of what black people earn reverts to the hands of people of other races. Why have black people been so slow to respond to the business opportunities in our neighborhoods which are begging to be exploited?

The first and most obvious reason is the difficulty of raising the necessary capital to launch a business.

A second reason why we have failed to exploit business opportunities is fear of failure. Fear of failure is a very real fear and cannot be discounted. Government figures reveal that most small businesses fail in the first year or two of operation. The main reason for failures of this kind is usually under-capitalization.

Closely allied to the fear of failure is the conviction that black people will not support other blacks in business.

Supermarkets in Black Neighborhoods

There's a headline in the News and Advance for Wednesday, May 17, that reads: "Study: Poor suffer when supermarkets abandon inner cities."

You may recall that I have written at least twice on this subject, citing the additional burden imposed on poor people by the absence of supermarkets in the center city. This additional burden, I wrote, takes the form of requiring center city residents to pay for transportation to and from stores that may be a considerable distance from their homes. Those stores that operate in our neighborhoods, being small and offering only a limited selection, are compelled to charge considerably higher prices, since they purchase in smaller quantities than do the large chain supermarkets. . . .

I went to the grocery store a few weeks ago with some friends in Philadelphia. They drove not less than ten miles to Springfield, a shopping area on the outskirts of Philadelphia, to buy their groceries. Later that same day, I went with my brother to the grocery store and again traveled to the same shopping area to the same grocery store.

I asked my brother why he drove so far to do his grocery shopping and he told me that there were stores nearer, but his observation indicated that such neighborhood stores carried a cheaper selection of somewhat inferior products. The meats, he said, were definitely of poor quality.

I visited one of the few grocery stores in my brother's neighborhood and I have never seen anything like it. When you entered the store, you were required to pass through a gate in a six foot chain link fence. This gate locked after you had passed through it so that you could not go out of the store without passing the check-out. I suppose this arrangement was designed to combat shoplifting and perhaps it was effective. It made me feel, however, like a criminal, and if I lived nearby, I wouldn't' patronize that store except in an emergency.

It is from the slim resources of our people that the penalties of what I call the "Black Tax" or the "Grocery Store Tariff" are extracted. We spend thousands of dollars in transportation costs in addition to the cost of the groceries we consume. We lose thousands of hours and suffer great inconvenience traveling to and from stores that are, in many cases, far from our residences. In short, we are faced with a grossly unfair situation. What can be done about it?

As I see it, we have two choices. We can wring our hands, helplessly bemoaning and condemning the policies and practices of the chain grocery stores which locate their stores far from the neighborhoods of our people who spend thousands of dollars weekly in those stores in spite of the inconvenience and expense involved.

Or we can see the absence of grocery stores as opportunity.


RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES

Another area I have written about is that of rights and responsibilities. It burns me up to hear a black person using racism as an excuse for not trying harder or not doing the right thing or not acting the right way. The following article reflects this.

Have you ever thought what a paradox it is that we black people, who have had to expend so much of our energies to secure our rights in this country, have produced a segment of our population who care nothing about the rights of others?

Sometimes I think that we black people are the most inconsiderate, irresponsible people who exist. Of course, such thoughts occur only when I've been provoked by some unpleasantness and upon sober reflection I realize that we are neither better or worse than any other people. Let me explain.

Have you ever been held up in traffic by some black driver who is busily conversing with someone on the pavement? It does not matter how long the line of traffic behind him grows or how much inconvenience his conversation is causing other folks, he's going to finish his conversation at whatever the cost to other people's patience just as if he was saying damn the rights of the other people being inconvenienced.

Don't blow your horn or ask him to move on. Don't that is, unless you're prepared to fight or, at least, to get cursed out.

Has this ever happened to you? If not, you haven't been driving long.

I've been informed that when this happens, you should jot down the license number and report it to the police and they will take action. But I guess most of us don't want the hassle, so we've usually just put up with such inconsiderate drivers.

And these "Boom Boxes," "Ghetto Blasters," you know the huge radio-tape players that some of us lug around. They are often played at the maximum volume, treating us all to Top 40 tunes whether we want to hear them or not. . . .

All of which brings to mind the relationship between rights and responsibility. You can't have rights unless you are willing to assume the responsibilities that those rights demand. I can remember during the Civil Rights years I used to think that not enough was said about the reverse side of the rights coin and I remember wishing that those in the leadership of that great struggle would give equal attention to the responsibilities that must accompany rights.

All people need to know that, although they have rights, so has everyone else, and that you may have a right to a certain condition only insofar as it does not infringe on other people's rights to a different situation.



 

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