Looking At Our Lives Through the Lens of Race project
Here is a story by Marianna Sommerfeld, a retired social worker who lives in Cambridge, MA. She wrote it when she was 85 years old.
“They call them pickanninies,” my parents said, in love with a new word and in love with our new country. We had been watching some Black children at play. Newly arrived in New York, we had come from Germany at a time – before World War II – when the two continents had little knowledge of each other. None of us had ever seen a Black person, and it didn’t occur to us that ‘pickannny” could be a word offensive to Black people. We settled in Scarsdale, an all-white suburb, and gave no further thought to Blacks.
I remember only two Black students in college, although Smith, to use the lingo of the time, was considered “good about taking Negroes.” One of the two, who had an outstanding academic record, couldn’t pass a swimming test, which at that time was required; it was said that “they” simply couldn’t learn to swim. Much later I would run into the other Black women, waiting for the ferry to the Vineyard. She recognized me, I didn’t recognize her, and this happened again the next year. She paid me back: ‘Oh, so you’re a social worker now? You’re meeting unmet needs?” “We don’t talk like that any more,” I said. I still cringe when I think about this encounter.
I had always thought of myself as a good white liberal, without racial prejudice. I learned about my own racism in the seventies, when the Boston schools were being desegregated. I was working at a mental health clinic in East Boston; a community group had asked for mental health consultation. With this group I went to meetings with parents, with teachers and principals, and with politicians. Rather smugly I wrote in my diary some of the comments I heard from other good white liberals; “ I am tired of hearing about slavery,” “If they want better schools why don’t they hire better teachers?” I also found myself describing a biracial parents’ meeting thus: ‘Then the Black mothers came in, pushing and shoving each other, and giggling.” A friend pointed out the condescending tone of my descriptions. I might as well have been writing about Little Black Sambo.
It’s easy to be unaware of one’s own condescension. We see this when men condescend to women without knowing what they’re doing. “They should stop complaining now that they have everything they want,” say people unaware of the daily slights, the daily put-downs Black people still encounter – in school, at work, in the marketplace.
As a child, I was taught a little English ditty:
Jimbo Jim was cast away, Upon a desert isle
The ‘habitants they liked his ways, They liked his Irish smile
A desert isle with “habitants”? I’m guessing the islanders were dark-skinned and so didn’t quite count. I don’t know who taught me this song. It seems strange, now, that I was taught it, since I didn’t learn English until I came to this country. But I think of it from time to time. Like many Whites I grew up with habits of mind that are difficult to get rid of. They are part of the baggage we carry.