David Bruce: Prejudice

Resisting segregation and racism is a good deed; so is simply being non-racist. Ralph Ellison, African-American author of Invisible Man, grew up in the era of Jim Crow and segregation. The black children knew about racism. When he was a child attending Frederick Douglass School in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, the black children skipped rope and sang, “These white folk think / They are so fine / But their raggedy drawers / Stink just like mine!” His mother, Ida, wanted her children to know how affluent white people lived, and so she took them for walks in well-off white people’s neighborhoods. Young Ralph decided that he wanted to live in a “world in which you wore your Sunday clothes” everyday. Ida even took her children to a whites-only zoo, entering at the tail end of a group of white people. No one seemed to mind until at closing time, when an angry guard confronted Ida, who said that she paid taxes and therefore she and her children had a right to visit the zoo. Roscoe Dunjee, editor and publisher of the Black Dispatch, criticized segregation and racism. Blacks were not allowed to use the Oklahoma City Carnegie Library, so Mr. Dunjee threatened to sue the city, which opened up the Paul Lawrence Dunbar Branch Library for black people. The books weren’t new, but young Ralph read many of them. Unfortunately, the adult Mr. Ellison also encountered racism. When he went to New York City and ordered a meal at a restaurant, the waiter salted his food so heavily that it was inedible. But some white people also helped him. He took a photo of white author and translator Francis Steenmuller that was used on the cover of one of Mr. Steenmuller’s books, and Mr. Steenmuller allowed him to use a quiet office in a wholesale jeweler’s suite he owned. The suite was on Fifth Avenue, and none of the white people in the upscale neighborhood questioned his being there, and all of the white people were courteous to him. The Steenmullers also let Mr. Ellison use their Vermont vacation cabin, where he wrote the first chapter of Invisible Man, which in 1953 won the National Book Award’s gold medal for fiction and is now a modern American — and world-class — classic.

Amiri Baraka grew up in a racist age, and while he was dating a white woman named Hettie Cohen who later became his wife, they were walking together in Greenwich Village when a number of white people started to jeer at them. Angry, Hettie turned toward them, “ready to fight or preach,” as she later wrote, but Amiri, who at the time was named LeRoi Jones, grabbed her arm and told her, “Keep walking. Just keep on walking.” Hettie wrote, “It was his tone that made me give in, and only later I realized we might have been hurt, or killed — and him more likely.” The two worked at a music store called The Record Changer, which was going out of business, and they were looking for other jobs. Hettie once listened as Amiri (LeRoi) pretended on the telephone to be his boss, giving him a recommendation. He said to the person on the other end of the telephone, “Yes, I’m well aware that he’s a Negro, but he’s been a fine employee.” Shortly after, he said on the telephone, “He hasn’t stolen anything, if that’s what you mean. We’d be glad to vouch.” His face remained calm as he spoke, but Hettie noticed that his jaw muscles clenched and unclenched as if he were grinding his teeth.

Ed McMahon stood up when standing up is necessary. He was Irish, and he was old enough to remember this sign for job openings: “IRISH NEED NOT APPLY.” Eventually, Americans stopped being prejudiced against the Irish, but other kinds of prejudice remained. When his daughter Claudia came home from college with a Chinese friend, a country club in Westchester County that the McMahons belonged to refused to let them in. Mr. McMahon paid a visit to the country club and raised his voice. He says, “Believe me, no McMahon ever set foot in that country club again.” Mr. McMahon and his daughter Linda once went to P.J. Clarke’s in New York. A man there bothered Linda and tried to put his arm around her. Mr. McMahon says, “I poked him in the chest so hard I knocked him to the floor. I remember exactly what I said to him, ‘It will not be necessary for you to touch me or any member of my family for the rest of your life. Do I make myself clear?’”

In 1914, African-American author Langston Hughes was 12 years old. He enrolled in Central School in Lawrence, Kansas. His teacher, who was white, wanted black students to sit in a certain row, separate from white students. Langston made up cards for the black students to put on their desks: “JIM CROW ROW.” He was expelled from school, but he was allowed to return when black parents and VIPs spoke up for him. The teacher stopped requiring black students to sit in the Jim Crow row. When Langston was in the first grade in Topeka, Kansas, his mother, Carrie, enrolled him in Harrison Street School, which was all white. The principal would not admit him until Carrie went before the Topeka School Board and won.

Henry Ford was an anti-Semite who backed the anti-Semitic publication the Dearborn Independent. This publication was about to start a series of articles railing against Jewish influence in Hollywood. Dore Schary, a film producer and the author of the play Sunrise at Campobello, showed Mr. Ford a short public-service documentary about automobile safety. The documentary showed a lot of automobile crashes — all of the crashing automobiles were Fords. The Dearborn Independentshelved its series of articles railing against Jewish influence in Hollywood, and Mr. Schary shelved his short public-service documentary about automobile safety.

A hospital orderly once took care of a really racist patient. The orderly gave the man a sponge bath with a chemical that turns white skin black for several days. A nurse in on the joke told the racist that blood from a black person had been used in his most recent transfusion. Unfortunately, the racist stayed racist.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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