For some time I’ve been following a wide-ranging and thought-provoking blog entitled ‘Orange Crate Art,’ posted by a now-retired English professor in Illinois, Michael Leddy. Recently he had posted on this subject: ‘Being Wrong about Beauty.’
His post related to music appreciation, but another of his readers, ‘The Crow,’ posted her revelatory experience on Race and Beauty. Here is (I hope) a link to Dr. Leddy’s blog.
Reading The Crow’s wonderful account of a life-changing experience led me to share the following in his Comments section (and then, via e-mail, a longer reflection on my upbringing.)
I am recalling a visit with my parents in their CCRC (Continuing Care Retirement Center) where they spent their last years. Two meals each day were served in the dining room, and the wait-staff was drawn from the historically black colleges in the area, schools which benefitted from an annual scholarship fund created by the residents of the center.
As different servers visited the table, taking orders, pouring water (remembering that my mother wanted only one ice cube), and bringing our meals, I commented to my father on the handsomeness of the young people--and I meant beauty aside from the glow of youth and health, beauty imparted by symmetry, exotic features, rich colors, the infinite variety of human forms.
My dad gazed across the room and said, "Isn't it a shame that it took me until age 89 to realize that a black person could be beautiful?"
My father had always been silent on the subject of race (and the US military in which he spent his career had been desegregated the year I was born.) My mother had been more vocal, so I knew her views, but I was shocked to realize that my silent dad had been equally prejudiced.
A mere idea can deprive humans of the ability to recognize what is in front of them, of 'eyes with which to see.'
I found it interesting that both The Crow and I (I’m guessing we're of an age) had stories related to notions of beauty tied to Caucasian features.
Here is more of my own story:
Although I was raised as an Army kid (living in diverse states and a foreign country) I was the daughter of Southern parents. (Insert here my later observations that racial prejudice is firmly implanted in all parts of our nation.)
We (our Mother and we three children) were sent to Germany in January, 1951, to join our husband/father; these were the post-war Army of Occupation years, and we were among the first dependents. (There were a lot of regulations: we had to live 'on the economy,' employ at least one German national, use only scrip--no US money allowed--or DM, and my father had to wear his uniform at all times in public, even on vacations.) I was three and a half when we arrived in W. Germany, and in time I attended Darmstadt American School (run by the DoD) for Kindergarten and 1st grade. Thanks to Truman's desegregation order, I went to school with students of all races, and in fact my teacher in a combined Kg/1 classroom was African-American.
Now, my mother struggled all her life with a significant learning disability--reading, writing, and even speaking were issues for her. She could barely read, and her spelling was atrocious throughout her life. (At least part of my interest in special education related to the mystery of her difficulties.) So.....it was a thrill to have a teacher who read fluently to us, (and I still recall the instant I 'got it,' and could read for myself--no thanks to those awful Dick and Jane books.) I adored school; I came home every day and set up a classroom for my dolls and my little brother.
In any case, no discussions of race took place, though years down the road I read some of Mother's letters home to Granny and Grandpa in Georgia, and she stated that she “wasn't too crazy about Elaine’s having a colored teacher.”
Eventually Dad received orders to rotate back to the States, being assigned to Ft. Chaffee, outside of Ft. Smith, Arkansas, where we arrived in August, 1954. It was like being dropped on Mars--first, the incredible heat compared to the climate in Europe--(that summer is still mentioned for its epic high temps--and no one had a/c); then, the money--I had no memory of ever having seen US coins and had a hard time telling them apart; and the school--no buses!....And: nobody but white kids. I don't even think I noticed that at the time.
Right about then, Mother decided it was time to indoctrinate us regarding some of the new realities. She sat us down and explained about colored people: all the usual--ignorant, superstitious, inferior, dirty, menacing. As Oscar Hammerstein wrote, "You have to be carefully taught." Deeply prejudiced as she was, neither she nor my father would have stooped to use 'the N word,' though I remember hearing 'Nigra.' I listened to all of this, and then I thought about my teacher, whom I had worshipped. Right then, I knew that my mother just didn't know what she was talking about.
I think that many Baby Boomers may have similar stories-- realizing that some 'facts' were simply not so. And in time, it became impossible to ignore the injustices and the righteous push for Civil Rights. We were still in Ft. Smith in 1957, (our husband/dad having been sent to S. Korea), when Little Rock's Central High School was desegregated. We did not have a TV, but we did have newspaper delivery; I will never forget the now-infamous photo of the woman screaming her hatred into the impassive faces of the Little Rock Nine. Such a shock. So I sat down and read the newspaper, a first time for ten-year-old me, because until then I read only the funnies.
Of course I know there are plenty of Boomers who have had no ?exposure? transformative experiences? (What word do I need here?) ..........
Various acquaintances have at times shocked me by exposing prejudices through tasteless jokes or bald statements. All or most of them were well-educated and had had every opportunity to know better.... Even people who are otherwise decent can somehow bear these ideas--just as my father had.
Well, I have no idea where to go with this, but now, sixty years later, in 2017, in the newly-refreshed atmosphere of Hate, it seems important to think on these things and try to come up with ways to counter injustice, fear, and prejudice of every kind.