Oprah’s Brown Satin Gown

§ Perhaps it’s not always about race. §

In a recent casual conversation with a friend, we discussed the many over-the-top gowns worn by celebrities at various award ceremonies through the decades. I mentioned that I seemed to recall a dress worn by Oprah, perhaps in the 1990s: the most stunning, classic, utterly gorgeous gown I had ever seen. It was a confection of satin and chiffon reminiscent of a bygone era; sophisticated and elegant. Although I couldn’t be certain,

Brown Satin

I also thought I recalled this to have been the year that the news rags, reporting on the award ceremony the following day, had savaged Oprah’s gown in their descriptions. They disparaged the elegant simplicity of the dress, which stood out in such direct contrast to the exaggerated, ridiculous apparel being worn by other female celebrities that year. Oprah’s superb gown was described contemptuously.

“Well, of course they were rude,” my friend commented. “Oprah’s black.”

I didn’t respond, but I thought to myself, “No, I really don’t think that was the reason.”

You see, in the early 1970s, I’d become heavily invested in reading women’s magazines. I was young and perhaps trying to define a style for myself while overcoming debilitating shyness. Reading articles about dress, hair, makeup and women’s issues became my passion.

Unfortunately, the 1970s, although a turbulent time for societal changes, was also the decade of books such as The Total Woman (yes, after discovering magazine articles about it, I read the absolutely-dreadful book itself. It should have been titled: How to Reverse 100 Years of Women’s Progress in Six Easy Steps). Consequently, looking back now, I can’t say that all the periodicals I read actually did me much good toward my defined goals! But they did, conversely, give me a bit of instruction in critical thinking. During the five or so years that I read these publications, I began to note a relentless trend: the very advice, recommendations, and endorsements from one season or year were totally invalidated in subsequent issues.

I recall precisely when I first noticed this conundrum. I’d read an essay enthusiastically endorsing heavy, kohl-style eyeliner in dark colors of navy blue and black. The accompanying photos were striking, but I, not being skilled at all with eyeliner in any case, and particularly not with heavy liquid eyeliners, quickly dismissed the idea. But in the next seasonal issue of the very same magazine, I was astonished to read a makeup article stating that “thank heaven”, the kohl-lined, Egyptian-style eyes had gone the way of the dodo. Since I had a habit of keeping old editions, I rooted around and lay hands upon the earlier issue. Yep, there it was: praise and approval, advocating thick, dark eyeliner. Yep, there it was again: a whole article devoted to whisper-thin, lightly lined eyes.

Huh.

I began to read my periodicals with a far more critical eye, realizing that, be it fashion, marriage, makeup, dating, hemlines, children, work, or any other aspect of life and behavior that the articles might address, this repetitive conflict appeared. A bold reversal of everything stated one year cropped up the next. Sometimes the instruction changed even between spring and fall!

Of course, in one aspect this made sense: How could the fashion houses keep women buying new clothes and makeup if everything didn’t constantly change? But advice on marriage, children, dating? How could that alter so rapidly? There was, I realized, no logic to the stuff I was reading. Right then and there, I gave up on turning for life advice to whatever nonsense popular journalism was spouting at any particular time. I read for entertainment, not instruction.

I carried this knowledge regarding editorial inconsistency away with me and thereafter applied it critically to every advice book or magazine article I read. So it was in this light that I now considered my memory of Oprah’s gorgeous-but-maligned brown satin gown. For you see, as much as I remembered the articles lambasting her dress, I also clearly recalled what the periodicals said the very next year following that same annual award ceremony. “A Return to Classic Elegance and Timeless Grace!” the reviews trumpeted, one after another, ad infinitum.

Oprah, it seemed, had actually been a trendsetter; a woman ahead of her time. Now every celebrity was jumping on the bandwagon of good taste and sophistication, rather than attempting to discover who could rack up the most points for appearing in a garish, vulgar outfit.

Decades later, not wanting to turn our lighthearted conversation into a deep discussion, I remembered all of this but said nothing about it to my friend.  But I thought at the time, and still think, that it’s not always about race.  Often, yes; even, sad to say, commonly–but not always.  Sometimes it’s just about the way life and the world and the news media machine functions.  Sometimes it’s just about fashion houses trying to palm off new styles in dress and makeup and hair on a foolish public which embraces such nonsense–because if no one buys anything new, they are out of business.

But no matter what the truth of it all, I will never forget Oprah’s perfectly stunning brown satin gown.

(If you enjoyed this post, you might also like these posts in the Archives: “The Slave Cabin”,  on 02/28/18;  “Amosandra”, from 06/01/2018; “You Dirty Wop!” , 02/01/2018; “A Bra of a Different Color”, posted 10/02/2019, or “Racism Knows No Logic”, from 06/10/2020 )

The Many Faces of Hate

§  To wear the mask of a stranger is to see merely unimportant specks on the rim of the mask’s limited vision.  §

While a young woman, I had a coworker—let’s call her Angela–who endured troubling memories of her paternal grandmother. At the time I knew Angela, I’d just begun re-establishing a close relationship with my own paternal grandmother; years of family squabbles had kept us apart. So I was shocked to hear of the treatment this likeable woman had received from her grandmother.

Angela explained that Grandmother absolutely despised Angela’s mother—had hated her from the very day Mom and Dad began dating. It’s been 40-odd years since our conversation, but I still recall the troubled expression on Angela’s face as she told me that her mother and father tried countless times to heal the sorry situation. Sadly, nothing had ever worked.

But Grandmother’s hatred extended to, when they arrived, the children of the marriage. She never put aside her contempt for her daughter-in-law for the sake of her grandchildren, who were, after all, her son’s children. No, in ways both overt and subtle, Grandmother made certain that those youngsters knew that they did not measure up to her other grandchildren.  Her favored offspring were not “contaminated” by a birth relationship to the despised daughter-in-law.

Angela recounted Grandmother’s worst insult, which centered on the kids’ school photos. One wall of Grandmother’s house displayed her grandchildren’s school pictures.  But the photos of Angela and her siblings were not flaunted among the rest. Instead, they were hung in the bathroom, facing the toilet.

Hearing the ache and indignation in Angela’s voice as she described this stinging memory, I felt heartsick on her behalf. To be the victim of such spite and cruelty from a person who should have loved her unconditionally—well, it stunned me.

The memory of that conversation has never left me. Many times after our discussion I daydreamed, inventing scenarios to bring resolution and revenge to my coworker’s bitter experience: Of all the Grandmother’s children, only the marriage of  her son and despised daughter-in-law thrived. The marriages of all her other children failed, and bitter divorces meant that she was separated from her favorite grandchildren.   Or:  Mean Grandmother lived out her final days quite alone and helpless in a substandard nursing home, visited by no one except the despised daughter-in-law.  Or, best of all:   Those other, favored grandkids all grew up to be ungrateful little wastrels who scammed Grandmother for money, became drug addicts and alcoholics, and were jailed for multiple crimes. Meanwhile, Angela and her siblings lived quietly successful, happy lives, but obviously never bothered with the Mean Grandmother who had treated them so badly.

That’s not the way life works, of course. Mean Grandmother probably wound down her life warmly surrounded by the love and attention of the children, in-laws and grandkids she preferred, smugly self-satisfied with her contemptible treatment of her reviled daughter-in-law and unloved grandchildren.

Hatred can wear so many faces! It can be disguised as the face of a grandparent or an in-law; someone who should be both loving and beloved, but is instead malevolent. It can wear the face of an abusive spouse or parent, or even a job supervisor.  It can focus on skin color, or ethnic origin. It can manifest as religious or even generational intolerance. It can be masked in passive aggression, calling itself teasing when it is in fact intentional torment and insults.

Or it can wear the face of a total stranger.

This last really struck me, and is the reason I recalled my former coworker’s sad little tale, as I sat one recent morning watching a video examining the causes and motives behind the many mass shootings of recent times. Unlike the malicious Grandmother, these cases so often involve total strangers who go on a rampage, wounding and murdering innocents with whom they have absolutely no connection. Is it easier, I wondered, to do so? To harm those with whom a person has absolutely no relationship? To wear the mask of a stranger, and see, not other human beings with lives and loves of their own, but merely unimportant specks on the rim of the mask’s limited vision? Is exterminating unknown strangers guilt-free?

Or does it all—murdering strangers or murdering the spirit of those who should be loved ones—come with consequence?

I have no answers. I only know that I clicked off that video, and sat, remembering Angela’s long-lasting emotional wounds. Then I sighed and selected some financial work I needed to do on my computer. But as I tapped the mouse, I noticed in surprise that my face was wet, and that tears had splashed onto my keyboard.

I had not even realized that I was crying.

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.

A Bra of a Different Color

§  This column is sure to offend someone, somewhere. But, even if you begin to think it offensive or even racist, please give it the benefit of the doubt and read all the way to the end!  §

Although my personal skin color might best be described as a very pale peach-tone, my casual race description is “white”. Now, I am no more the color of typing paper than a black person is the color of the night sky. But, there you have it. I’m “white”; others are “black”, while those of Asian descent are “yellow”, despite the fact that their skin tones have nothing to do with a daffodil. Native Americans aren’t the color of stoplights, either. “Yellow” and “red” are ridiculous descriptions of skin tones, as are white and black.

Perhaps that’s why I found it difficult to understand an article I read several years ago complaining about the dearth of appropriately-tinted brassieres for women of color; an article that claimed this lack was due to racism. My reaction to this was my oft-repeated, “Huh?” Being Vintage myself, I’d grown up in an era when all bras were white.Bra of a different color Stark white. Typing paper white. Bleach white. That’s it. Period. No other choices. And those stark-paper-bleach white bras no more closely matched my pale peachy pale skin tone than they matched the flesh of any woman of any race. When lingerie departments finally began to stock bras in a shade they titled “nude”—now that was racist!–I bought one, and found that it, too, came nowhere near to resembling my skin tone. It was nothing at all like my nude “white” skin.

Confusing me even more was the fact that, at the time I read this article (about a decade ago), I didn’t possess a single bra that resembled any skin color. I owned a bras in bright red, ink black, pale blue, steel grey, and a final one in pale pink. Some might think that last shade came in somewhere close to my skin tone, but, no, not even close. When I dressed in the morning, I matched my bra to my clothing, not my skin. I’d never in my lifetime had a bra that matched my skin tone, and I thought nothing of it.

But from the tenor of the article, I could see that this lack mattered a lot to many women of color, since they were resorting to dying their underwear with tea and coffee. As this problem was genuinely important to so many women of color, I wondered, why was the author not presenting it as a fantastic business opportunity? Rather than broadcasting suspicions of covert racism, she could, should, have been suggesting that the manufacturing community jump on the solution like a Venus fly trap snapping up an insect.

But complaints like those of that long-ago editorial are why (although I try my utmost to identify and divest myself of any behaviors associated with racial prejudice) I sometimes find myself bewildered by seemingly minor situations escalating into accusations of racism. Back in the days when Crayola named its peach tinted crayon “Flesh”—that was racist! Calling a beige bra “nude”—definitely racist! But when every woman in the Western world, be she black, white, brown, red, yellow or Martian green, had to wear a bleach white bra, that wasn’t racism; it was sheer idiocy on the part of the (probably male) manufacturers.

Today a woman of color can sometimes locate a bra in her shade, and occasionally my not-so-lily-white self can find a skin-tone bra, too. But we can each make the best of an irritating situation and chose a clothing color, not a skin shade, for our brassieres. We can also send strident complaints to the manufacturers, dye our lingerie, or, as I have done for so many years, just shrug and deal with it.

But–and this is me trying my best to walk a mile in another’s moccasins–having been born with “white” skin, I’ve had little cause to experience racism, except for one glaring childhood incident (see the post Amosandra, 06/01/2018) If I had frequently endured the dehumanizing experience of genuine racial discrimination, would I not be more inclined to suspect racist intent at every juncture—even in something as minor as the shade of one’s underwear?  Yes, I must admit it; probably so.

Having been born with this peachy-pale skin of mine, I shall also probably never know. But I will conclude by saying that all my brassieres are currently in a shade called “Champagne”. It’s a sort of ivory yellow beige. It’s nowhere near my skin tone. Instead (having learned a lot over the course of my 65 years), these bras are comfortable. And that’s why I don’t really give a damn what color they are.

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.

And Speaking of Prejudice…

Marie Gregory

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 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; the bias against the faith not fading until the 1980s.  I feel sure that (knowing how unpleasant facets of  history are glossed over or rewritten in schoolbooks) young people today aren’t taught 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 11 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 Gregory 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.

Grief and Prejudice

A while ago I sat with an acquaintance, a devout Christian, discussing a mutual friend who was grieving the loss of a loved one. Our conversation centered on whether or not the individual’s grief had exceeded the bounds of normal mourning and become debilitating.

I’d held this same discussion only a few days earlier with another acquaintance, one who is Jewish. During that conversation, my Jewish friend had described to me her faith’s designated period of mourning, which, as she explained it, was far longer and more ceremonial than what most Western society considers usual.  As I listened to her explanation, I realized that the Jewish customs of mourning genuinely ministered to the survivors.

I felt as if scales had fallen from my eyes. How wise to accept mourning, even deep and long-lived grieving, as necessary and healthful, and to provide ceremony and time for its passage! Why had I never encountered this civilized concept before?  My friend’s explanation of Jewish mourning rituals forced me to acknowledge that that we as a society were perhaps not doing our loved ones any favor by allowing them only a brief interval of grieving before insisting that they now “get over it”…“get back to normal”…”take an antidepressant med”…“stay busy to take your mind off it”.

During the second conversation about grief, this time with my Christian acquaintance, I mentioned this (to me) enlightened view of the grieving process. Nodding in response to a comment made by my acquaintance, I explained, “Well, a Jewish friend told me that in her faith…”  And although I know that I continued my explanation intelligently and comprehensively, I cannot now recall anything of what I said from that point forward in the conversation, because I found myself focused on only one thing: the expression of utter distaste that flitted across my Christian friend’s face the moment I said the word “Jewish”.  It was there and gone in an instant, but it was unmistakably there: the grimace of aversion the moment I said the word, “Jewish”.

I’m sure my own eyes must have widened in shock at response to what my brain had so clearly registered. Sitting before me was a sophisticated, intelligent, 21st century individual, one whom I was sure that, if charged with prejudice against Jews, would have vehemently denied it.  And yet a single expression unmistakably crossing a face had just clearly said otherwise.

Prejudice knows no sanity. The spiritual leader to whom my Christian acquaintance declares allegiance was born, raised, and lived a Jew. His name was not actually Jesus Christ; Jesus is a Greek rendering of his name, combined with a Greek title.  His Jewish name was probably Yeshua Ben Yosef.  And he, Yeshua, is the spiritual ancestor from whom all Christian faiths claim descent.  Yet more than 70 years after the horror of the Nazi death camps, I witnessed a Christian’s face betray utter distaste at the thought of a modern Jew.

As I think of it now, remembering, I am no longer shocked, although perhaps even more dismayed. Does prejudice never die?  Do the old hatreds never end?

I began the conversation with my Christian acquaintance discussing the topic of grief. And I ended it grieving — grieving the unbounded, undying continuation of hate and ignorance and prejudice.