Racism Knows No Logic

§   This post originally appeared on January 18, 2018, as a continuation of previous posts, and was titled, “And Speaking of Prejudice…”  With all that has so painfully happened in our country in recent days, it seemed an appropriate time to revisit it.  §

Marie Gregory
Marie Ruggiere Gregory’s High School  Graduation Photo

My paternal grandmother, Marie, was a full-blooded Italian American and Roman Catholic. Those two traits define her, in my mind, more than anything else.  “Grandma Gregory” was a grand old matriarch who laughed as easily at herself as at others and whose humor was often mildly bawdy, peppered with Italian phrases that I (at least as a child) rarely understood.  She taught me most of what I know about cooking, and was perfectly comfortable when I left the Catholic church because, as she explained, “I don’t care where you go to church as long as you go.”

But the very traits which most define her in my mind meant that Marie Ruggiere Gregory’s early life was not always comfortable or easy. Few people today remember, or even know, that Roman Catholicism was a reviled religion in America as late as the 1960’s.  Bias against the faith did not fade until the 1980s.  I feel sure that (knowing how unpleasant facets of  history are glossed over or rewritten in schoolbooks) young people today have never learned the truth about how great a detriment his religion was during the election of John F. Kennedy.  Being a Roman Catholic in America wasn’t at all an easy thing in the first three-quarters of the 20th century.

Nor was being an Italian American. Ask anyone about the largest mass lynching in the more sordid chapters of America’s history, and they will no doubt surmise someplace in the deep south—something probably involving the KKK.  They would not guess eleven Italian Americans in New Orleans in 1891 to have been the victims of this atrocity—nor that the man who orchestrated the lynching later became governor.

My Grandma Marie was born just 14 years later, in 1905.

Indiana was not, thank heavens, New Orleans, but, as she told me many years later when I was a woman in my 20s, that didn’t mean that the Italian American community in Indy escaped prejudice completely unscathed. She had more than a few sad examples of anti-Italian bias.  It was in that light that Grandma narrated a story that has stayed with me for all the intervening decades as the most telling demonstration of the complete illogic of racial prejudice.

In Grandma’s era, children did not attend preschool or nursery school or usually even kindergarten. At age 6, a child began first grade.  And so, clothed in a frilly little dress, ankle socks and Mary Janes, perhaps bows tied into her hair (or so I have always pictured her since hearing this tale), clutching her little sack lunch, Marie Ruggiere trooped off to her first day at a parochial school in Indianapolis, to be taught by Roman Catholic nuns.

The convents of that time were full and bustling places, and the majority of nuns were trained either to teach or as nursing staff. I’m uncertain of the religious order running the school to which my Grandmother was sent—Benedictine? Franciscan?—but the most of the nuns running her school were of Irish American descent.

And so my then-six-year-old Grandmother entered her first grade classroom and took her assigned seat, eager to begin the new adventure of school.

And was yanked aside by her Irish American nun first-grade teacher to be told hatefully, “We don’t want you Wops in our school!”

Wops. Dagos.  Italian Americans.

This Irish Catholic nun owed her spiritual allegiance to a religion whose titular leader, the Pope, was (and at that time, had been for centuries) an Italian.  Yet she told the little six-year-old Italian American child that she didn’t want Wops in her school.

There was nothing the nun could actually do to expel Marie from the school, but her point had been made: You are the outsider. The other.  Unwanted.  Because of your racial heritage, I (a supposedly spiritual person, as demonstrated by my veil and rosary and the vows I made) hatefully reject you.

I’ve wondered, sometimes, how that selfsame nun would have behaved had the Pope—the Wop Pope, the Dago Pope, the very Italian Pope Pius X–arrived for a visit. But in that era, Popes did not leave the Vatican.  That Irish Catholic nun never had to run smack into the glass that was the illogic of her racism.

As I say, Grandma’s story has stayed with me in all the intervening years as a telling demonstration of the complete insanity of racial prejudice, and of the harm it does. As a 70-something-year-old woman, my Grandma Marie had not forgotten the cruel bias of the Irish Catholic nun.  It still bothered her.

It still bothers me.

And it should.

Postscript:  On April 12, 2019, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, a woman of color, did the next right thing, making an effort to heal this century-old wound by formally apologizing for the mass lynching of these innocent Italian Americans.  “At this late date, we cannot give justice, but we can be intentional and deliberate about what we do going forward,” she said.  I believe it brought peace to my Grandmother ‘s spirit that this conciliatory gesture was made, coincidentally, on the birthday of my daughter, her great-grandaughter.

Reindeer and Bullies

Since my earliest childhood, I have hated the Christmas song, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”.

I associate my distaste for the carol with the fact that I am now and always have been sensitive to the effects of bullying. Bullying was a culturally accepted child-rearing and social practice during my childhood, and, while still extremely common (and if you doubt that, just glance at the comments bandied about at the end of news stories!), is slowly being recognized as the abuse that it is. Nevertheless, when I was a child, no one, neither other children nor adults, thought a thing of verbal bullying.  Parents who did not hesitate to label their own children “dumbass”, “blockhead”, “idiot” or far worse things paid lip service to the ideal that “name calling is not nice”. Those same verbally abusive parents scolded their children when the kids mirrored adult behavior and mocked their playmates. This dichotomy probably resulted in many a psychologically screwed-up adult.

Perhaps it was because I was labeled “skinny” by adults that I felt such a distaste for verbal bullying. (Ah, to have that problem now!)    In the late 1950s, when my adult relatives and my parents’ friends felt perfectly comfortable discussing my physical defects, thoughtlessly and loudly, right in front of me, it was not considered a good thing to be “skinny”.  Like Anne of Green Gables, I had “not a pick on my bones”, and was consequently humiliated in a world of plump, dimpled girls.

But on to Rudolph. I encountered the carol in my first-grade classroom, and I to this day I remember my distress on hearing the lyrics sung so cheerfully by Miss Markey, my teacher.  “All of the other reindeer/used to laugh and call him names…”  The shock I felt at hearing those words echoed right to my bones, but I (always the well-behaved little student) bit my tongue.  At home, I’d been known to occasionally use a word or phrase picked up from my adult male relatives, and, had I been a few years older, I might not have restrained myself.  I’d have burst out with my Pop-Pop’s well known phrase, “The hell you say!”

Uh…if we laughed and called someone names on the school playground, we got at least a token scolding.  So exactly why were we singing about it?

Bewildered, I listened to the rest of the words of the song, feeling even more confused. Mind you, this was 1960.  Civil rights were but a glimmer in the eye of Dr. Martin Luther King, and racial prejudice, even in the nominally-northern state of Indiana, was rife.  But, due to early encounters (see the post of 06/01/2018, “Amosandra”), I, although fish-belly white, was personally familiar with racial prejudice.  And it seemed to me quite clear that  this was what the song was about. Rudolph’s nose was a different color. That made him fair game for exclusion and humiliation.  To reach the status of any other reindeer he had, in fact, to prove that he was better than they were–sort of like Jesse Owens winning the Olympics.

To me, a six-year-old child attempting to make sense of the lyrics, this song was not about his eventual triumph over humiliation and abuse…because the humiliation and abuse should never have happened at all in the first place. Why, my child-mind demanded to know, didn’t anyone protect poor Rudolph?  What was Santa thinking?!

It was a rotten song, a song that glorified rudeness and humiliation and prejudice, and I just didn’t like it. I didn’t like it at all.  After that, I mouthed the words, but I refused to sing along.

And in my heart, I’m still that astounded six-year-old, sitting in my classroom, shocked to my core about a song which laughingly portrays bullying and bias. To this day, as each holiday season rolls around, I refuse to watch the classic Claymation show, and I switch off the radio the minute “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” begins to play. My heart will always ache for poor Rudolph, bullied and shunned and rejected for nothing but a physical characteristic.  For me, that pathetic little Christmas carol will never be about Rudolph’s eventual triumph over adversity, for he should never, never ever, have had to prove himself in the first place.

Nigerian Princes and Dingbats

I was once acquainted with a woman who, although not unintelligent, was somehow still not the brightest bulb in the shed. It was not just that she was lacking in common sense, although that comprised a great deal of the problem; tact was also absent in her makeup, as were diplomacy, tolerance, and objectivity.  Most of the time, though, she simply failed to use the completely adequate brain God had put in her head.  “Dingbat” was probably the most courteous description of the lady, whom we shall, for the purposes of this essay, call “Lorene”.  I added a number of other, less-complimentary labels to my assessment of her character before I finally stopped associating with her, but the Dingbat label still stands out.

Lorene had an on-going feud with her step-daughter, of which she complained bitterly and at great length whenever we were together. I personally witnessed the interaction between the two of them just one time, when invited to a backyard barbecue.  Her step-daughter leaned down, smiling, to Lorene, who was sitting on the back porch steps, to offer her an appetizer from the tray she had carried out.  The look Lorene gave her would have melted steel. The step-daughter quickly lifted the tray out of range and stepped back.  A few days later, I mentioned my perspective on this interaction to Lorene, suggesting gently that she might possibly be contributing to their on-going misunderstanding.  Lorene was genuinely confused.  She hadn’t said anything nasty to her step-daughter, she protested.

After having gotten to know Lorene better, though, I came to realize that the real fault she found with her step-daughter was the fact that the young woman was in an interracial marriage. Lorene was a closet racist, but her mask of “good manners about black people” slipped askew on more than one occasion.  Perhaps the worst of these was when Lorene became the victim of a purse snatching in a mall parking lot.  Her attacker had been black; the detective sent to the site to interview her was African American, also.  As the detective probed for any information Lorene could provide him about the appearance of the mugger, she exclaimed vehemently, “I don’t know what he looked like!  You people all look alike to me!”

When she recounted this conversation to me, I nearly had a stroke. “Lorene, you didn’t!” I exclaimed, and she looked at me in total bewilderment.  After all, she explained, she was merely stating the truth.  Why on earth would the detective get upset at that?

Associating with Lorene, I learned, required frequent infusions of headache tablets.

But never was the Dingbat label more justifiably hung upon Lorene’s brow than when she was taken in by an e-mail scam. This was during the “Nigerian Prince” era of email scams, and one would think that nobody, nobody at all, could have been stupid enough to fall for those badly-written, misspelled missives that circulated so endlessly. One would think…unless one knew Lorene.

One afternoon Lorene proudly told me that she was assisting a woman in a third-world nation to escape a brutal husband. She’d received an e-mail from an overseas support network for just such women, and of course, she’d immediately responded.  They’d asked her to set up an account under her own name, with money they would wire to her.  When the brutalized spouse arrived in the U.S., she would be directed to Lorene, who would then turn over the account to her so that she could have a fresh start .

The whole “massive stroke/fatal heart attack” scenario flitted once more through my body as I choked out the information that, “For God’s sake, Lorene! This is either a terrorist organization or  money laundering scheme!  And soon they’ll have ALL your personal information! They can steal your identity! They can take everything you have!”  As I spun all the other likely consequences of her actions, Lorene’s face went from disbelief to bewilderment to, finally, dismay.

I quickly located a number for a federal agency to which Lorene could report the scam. But now Dingbat was too frightened to take action, so I suggested she tell her husband what she’d done and let him contact the feds.

Accustomed to his wife’s vagaries, her husband thought the whole affair was hugely hilarious. He did, however, contact the reporting agency, who managed to get the account shut down and somehow protect Lorene from identity theft.

These days I think of Lorene each time I read of the newest, more sophisticated way that scammers have developed to separate people from their money. I wonder if she’s ever wired money to a grandchild stranded in another country, or if she’s answered, “Yes, I can hear you” to the unknown caller, or allowed a “Microsoft Representative” to remote into her computer to “remove a worldwide virus”.

If it happened to anyone, I’m sure it happened to Lorene.

Amosandra

My mother grew up in a neighborhood that was well below the poverty line and (in an era in which only poor neighborhoods were so) racially mixed. At the time, the phrase “colored” was in popular use; citizens would not be either “black” or “people of color” or “African American”  for another forty to sixty years.

Because of her family’s financial situation, if she wanted pocket money, Mom had to work. And so it was that, as a very young adolescent, she began babysitting for a “colored” family up the street, watching their infant after school and on Saturdays, so that the lady of the household could go out to work herself, doing washing or ironing for more affluent families.  Years later, Mom would explain to me that it was because of this experience of caring for a black infant that she came to understand that we are all, no matter our color, simply people.  Our “race” is human.

Determined to bequeath that lesson to me, when I was about four years old, my mother sought out and gave me the gift of a black baby doll—an “Amos and Andy Amosandra” doll. The soft rubber doll, perhaps 8 or 10 inches long, was a rich chocolate brown, with painted black hair and eyes.  It was just the right size for cuddling into a little girl’s willing arms.  Amosandra—yes, that’s what my Dad told me to call her after reading it stamped on the back of the doll—was dressed in a little yellow knit cap and jacket, and my Mom made several little cloth diapers for her, triangle-style, gathered with a little gold safety pin.

Amosandra
Amosandra: The Sun Rubber Company Amos and Andy Doll.

Along with Lisa, my much larger white baby doll, Amosandra was laid to rest every evening in the little wooden doll crib that had been passed down to me from Mom’s own childhood.

Years later, when I was in my 50s, my father found Amosandra stored in the attic. Being made of rubber, she had hardened and melted in that unforgiving environment; she was too far gone to be repaired.  But how I wish I had her still, not because of her probable value, but because she was dear to me, and adorable, and because it was through Amosandra that I experienced first-hand the vile cruelty and wrongness of racial prejudice.  It was a lesson that would stay with me my entire life.

Most of the children in the neighborhood where we lived in the little suburb of Beech Grove were older than I by two or three years—not a large gap when one is grown, but an impassable chasm for a little child. Still, occasionally I was invited to play with Connie and Linda, girls who lived in nearby houses.  On that particular day, I recall, they decided we should play on Connie’s front porch, pretending to be moms and neighbors.  Each of us ran home to get a doll or two to be our play children.

I came back with Amosandra and all her accoutrements—diapers, dolly bottles, clothes. We each chose a corner of the porch to be our home, and I busied myself with setting up my area.  But, after a few minutes, I noticed that Linda and Connie were giggling, looking at me over their shoulders and whispering together.  My five-year-old self recognized that something was wrong, but I was totally at a loss to explain it.  Finally one of the girls spoke up, saying, “I guess Becky is a nigger momma!” and they burst out laughing, pointing at Amosandra and sniggering.

I didn’t quite know what “nigger” meant, but I knew from their attitudes that it wasn’t good. I grabbed up my toys and stormed off the porch, hurrying home in tears to tell my mother the whole upsetting story.

She comforted me as I wept and tried to explain. I don’t recall much of that conversation except a sense of bewilderment.  Amosandra was my favorite baby doll, and I loved her.  Why was it wrong that she was brown?  It made no sense.

In giving me Amosandra, my mother taught me a much larger lesson than she had actually planned, for I learned not only what she had intended—that we are all merely human—but the additional cruel lessons that Connie and Linda forced upon me that sad day about the evils of prejudice and bullying.

I never dared bring my beloved Amosandra outside my house again.  Forever after that, she stayed loved and well-cared for but played with only in my bedroom.

But there was one thing that I could do to mend the sad memory of that day, and when I was a young mother, I actually did: When my own daughter was just three,  following the heart of that long-ago lesson, I  gave her a black baby doll.