The book and movie, “The Help,” broke many records for sales of copies, tickets and pay-per-view, so perhaps the time is excellent to look back on racism in America. It was the late 1950s. I only recall three terms used to describe “the darker race” in America: Negro, the coloreds and the “N” word. No apologies for my refusal to spell it out. It unnerves me to hear it or see it in writing. I find it nearly impossible to believe that, as a little girl, the “N” word was as easily a part of my vocabulary as “Mama” or “I love you.” But that was in the 1950s, and through ignorance, prejudice or whatever the driving factor, it was common to hear it in conversation. Just recently, as we were watching television, from out of nowhere my husband asked of me, “Do you remember when there were no blacks on television? Well, except Nat King Cole…” My response to him was, “Yes, I do. And I find it ironic we were allowed to advertise beer and cigarettes, but he was the only black American who had a successful prime time show.” But I also recall hearing the “N” word being bantered about when his show aired.
I remember watching news footage (ironically, on our black and white television) of police officers utilizing attack dogs and fire hoses to disperse crowds of peaceful marches or demonstrations. A black Baptist preacher moved to the forefront, preaching peace and brotherhood. He had a dream. Yet, all around me I heard family and friends using the “N” word to describe him. I just didn’t get it. Whites and blacks—we all professed to be Christians. It just seemed a direct contradiction to what we claimed to be and believe.
The “coloreds” usually filled positions of butler, hired hand, maid or nanny. They rode to and from work in the back of the bus, unless they walked. It was a different world back then. Racism was rampant. The horror of a man being hung from a tree, simply for the color of his skin, was not breaking news—it was a common occurrence.
But, that was all back in the 1950s and early 1960s, right? Before JFK took up the cause for civil rights, and Martin Luther King, Jr., began leading marches and preaching about peace among all mankind? Thank God things such as that don’t happen any more? Yeah, well, perhaps you can imagine how pained I was to hear that a fine, congenial young black man was fired from his position with a prominent socially elite club in my hometown. I was told that as he waited on those sitting in the pool area, one of the older members complained he was “ogling the young white girls” who were sunning. This is the same organization that for many decades banned Jews from membership, as well. Yeah, maybe we have come a long way, but it’s obvious we have not eradicated prejudice or racism from America—and that I find exceedingly sad.
Let’s face it. We boomers have raised a generation who will never know the reality of what it was like back when we were young. Schools, lunch counters, bathrooms—all of society was segregated. I only hope and pray they are being taught these things in school today. Such things as the civil rights movement in America and the Holocaust in Europe simply must never be dismissed as unimportant, much less altogether forgotten. Ironically, during the time of Whitney Houston’s death and burial, I saw the “N” word sprayed all over the internet. We had a commercial back in the 60s and 70s that said, “You’ve come a long way, baby!” Reading the crude comments about Whitney only made me realize that just maybe America has not come as long of a way, baby, as we’d like to believe.
Post note: While I will probably raise the ire of many here (and totally unintentionally), let me make one more statement, for any who may become offended not only at the use of the “N” word, but also at my use of the reference of “black.” You do not see the term “African American” in this post for a reason. I do not refer to myself as Irish American or Scottish American. I am an American. My ancestors came from Ireland and Scotland to America, but this is my homeland. Read the words of Dr. King’s speech. Let’s all become one brotherhood/sisterhood of mankind. I am an American. Regardless of my ancestry, gender, religion or skin color, I am an American, and I have a dream that one day we will all set color, ethnicity, sexual preference and religion (NOT spirituality, but “religion”) aside and see ourselves as . . . “One Nation, Under God – indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Carolyn S. Hennecy recently received a certificate as Designated Victim Services Practitioner through completion of a 40-hour course conducted by the Office of the Attorney General of the State of Florida. She is recognized nationally as an expert survivor spokesperson on domestic/intimate partner abuse and violence, sexual assault and child molestation and abuse.