Thursday, September 13, 2012
R-E-S-P-E-C-T: What Are You Saying?
I remember how I felt when I heard my grandmother use the word “Negroes.” Confused, disillusioned, and sad without knowing what I was sad about. She offered it matter-of-factly as part of an answer to a question. Me: “What is a pickaninny?” Grandma: “Little Negroes.” My grandmother, my grandfather, my little sister, and I were outside eating slices of juicy watermelon. We were having fun spitting seeds far enough to clear their wide span of patio – a rounded section of cement that was covered in green, outdoor carpeting intended to look like grass. The “Negro” reference came about halfway through eating and spitting when my grandmother told us “a little riddle” that someone – she thought probably her mother or brothers - had taught her. Grandma’s rhymes and riddles were fun. When really young, one of my feet would have cows heading to market while the other would have piggies doing the same. And I absolutely loved my grandma’s story about the dam man selling dam water and the buyer telling the dam man to keep his dam water and that Grandma could recite the entire story “without swearing even once.” A new riddle from Grandma sounded fun. She began. “See if you can guess what this is. There was a green house. Inside the green house was a white house. Inside the white house was a red house. And inside the red house were lots of little black pickaninnies. Do you know what it is?” I did not. I did know something felt wrong. My grandmother said the riddle again, but the entire scenario was too much for my elementary brain to process – my younger sister was equally lost. We held no reference to the word “pickaninnies” until Grandma defined it for us as “little Negroes,” and we held no stereotypical connection to link people who were black – the term we had learned to use – to watermelon. Watermelon was the answer, but she had to tell us. My little sister had been puzzled; I had not even wanted to guess. I remember watching Grandma point to the green shell of the watermelon, then to the white rind and next the red pulp before tapping a few individual black seeds as she recited the riddle a third time. I desperately wanted “pickaninnies” to be another term for seeds. When she said the word “pickaninnies” again, I asked, “Grandma, do people like being called that? Is it a good word?” Grandma didn’t look at me. She was quiet and thinking, wondering how to respond, I supposed. I wish I could remember what she said. I cannot. Probably because I knew the answer regardless of the words she chose. I did not want to be called a pickaninny. Why would someone else? I regarded my grandmother differently after that riddle. Her riddle taught me that respect lived in layers. I could respect my grandmother as the matriarch of my father’s family, but I also needed to respect her life in the context of its experiences. They had shaped her. That is how I regard the impact of that riddle now. Back then I merely catalogued it as something I needed to ask my mom and dad about on the car ride home. I wanted to watch their faces when I told them that Grandma had taught me what a pickaninny was. Their reactions confirmed what I already knew. I was not to use that word–or the word “Negro.” Once upon a time, my father explained, people who were white used those words to describe people who were black, but we are not to do that anymore. I sensed my father’s awkward struggle with feelings about the word his mother had taught us. I sensed that children might grow up to understand some things better than their parents. Adulthood felt more mysterious. Rather exciting, but scary. Complex. I am unable to place the watermelon riddle in a chronology with the first time I met someone who was black. I am fairly certain it was in 1971 when I was in first or second grade. My parents invited an African student from a nearby college to dinner, and he came along with his wife and baby daughter. I recall my parents’ nervous excitement. My father, a government and history teacher, helped me understand this type of dinner was extremely rare for a family like ours. No one black lived in our small Iowa town. He wanted me to remember that they were just like us. I was to use my manners and be on my best behavior. Both Mom and Dad stressed manners – but there was nothing uncommon about that. The mantra shared before important public functions was “Remember: Be seen but not heard.” I could, however, speak when spoken to. My favorite adults became those who talked with children, and I developed a habit of hanging around – being seen – until I had a chance to be heard. On occasions when I was encouraged to leave a room and “go play,” often my “play” became hiding and listening. I learned a great deal listening to adults talk to one another and watching them interact. I learned more by asking questions when I got the chance. “Grandma, do people like being called that? Is it a good word?” Layers of respect. They could be seen – and felt. Those with the greatest allocations of respect could talk about anything with anybody at anytime. They understood humans were more alike than unalike. They understood when it was offensive to use words that did not apply anymore. They understood respect could be diminished by a verbal misstep, misunderstanding or miscalculation, but they took the risks necessary to communicate anyway. How else could they learn? Some things when said aloud might feel right; some things might feel wrong. You have to say something aloud to find out. I believe my grandmother knew that the term pickaninny no longer fit; but I also believe she had no other experience to draw upon when reaching for something fun to share with her granddaughters about watermelon. Life experiences had created the contours of who she had become. I learned to respect that. I also learned that I harbored a need to ask questions about topics that might make people uncomfortable. Four decades after discovering that respect lives in layers, I no longer wait to speak until spoken to, yet I continue to struggle with how I should regard people who reach for new ways to interact and offer stories that leave me disillusioned and sad. Who were they to me before? Who are they to me now? Who have I become to them? Sometime in 2008, the year my grandmother died, my parents were sorting through the last of my grandparents’ things. They had both lived into their early 90s–my grandmother dying at age 91, seven years past my grandfather’s death at age 93. We grandchildren were given items that held sentimental value to us. Among my chosen items were Mammy salt and pepper shakers and a Mammy bell. I did not remember them specifically, but I remembered the watermelon riddle that seemed to match somehow.