by Secret Hippie
Growing Up Irish (Black is Beautiful)
As a child in College Park, other kids called me black. That seems strange now. They called each other weird names, too, and they did it at times when emotions were high in the midst of a game. They weren't talking about the color of my skin. That was never the thing. I'd be playing kickball or cowboys and indians or walking in a gully with other kids and someone would say it. They meant it as an insult but, because they didn't understand it, the term had vague meanings even for them. It always seemed to come from kids repeating the bad words they got from their parents.
One of my friends suggested, "I think it's like when you're a bad guy. You have to wear a black hat."
"Like in cowboy shows?"
"Yeah." In the movies, the rustlers wore black clothes, black hats, or rode black horses. That's how you knew they were bad.
There was an older child who knew a little more. After he said it, he explained, "I mean your soul is black. It's ugly."
This felt similar to when I had the term 'pinko' explained. That was another phrase that didn't really have to do with skin color, at least for me. As confusing as 'pinko' and 'black' seemed, though, only one of those terms was also caught up in describing a group of people by appearance. And for them, it referred to skin color with the additional baggage of wearing a black hat in a western gunfight.
For most of the years as I was growing up, the polite American term in matters of race was 'colored' and the corresponding derogatory term was 'black.' My awareness of the situation started dim and it grew brighter only gradually. Often enough, the stories about our American situation didn't seem to make sense. My mom said that Harriet Tubman was a hero and I devoured the books on her. (There weren't many but the stories were great.) Other folks thought she was a hero, too, so how could there be any argument or stigma attached to her because of her skin? To supplement my reading with experiences, my parents went out of their way to make sure we left our neighborhood at times and had non-white or foreign friends. Some of those friends, like me, seemed oblivious to any historical reasons to not be neighborly. We were just kids together.
In any case, amazingly, almost miraculously, in America our Black is Beautiful movement came along and changed the language. Even now, it seems like an astounding cultural feat. By the time I was nine, the slur of blackness had become something respectable, often something good, and moreover, the change lent a bit of freedom to everybody's talking and thinking. We could finally hear 'black' more as a reference to a color from a palette and not a value judgement.
Although I was, of course, mostly oblivious to the cultural events of the nation, I can see that the adults at the time were acutely aware of their local ethnicities. In fact, they were almost delusional about them. They differentiated between Scottish and English, Mulatto and Colored, Spanish and Italian, Dutch and German, Jewish and Christian, Armenian and Serbian, and more, as if they carried around maps of Europe in their heads. This is how I grew up Irish even though that doesn't make any sense. Adults acted as if we all still belonged to those distant Eurasian tribes that wandered the plains and mountains somewhere across the Atlantic Ocean. If you were French, even though you were actually American, you were supposed to hate the Germans, even though they were actually American. Sometimes this stuff led to fistfights which are, in retrospect, a little hilarious.
"Those damned Armenians," I heard an adult say, once. I asked him to repeat it. I'd never heard of that group before. Some of them had protested about genocide in front of an embassy, apparently, which put them in the same category as 'those damned hippies' to the adults.
Likewise, my neighborhood adults told me:
- Irish were black
- Irish were low white
- Poles were dumb
- Poles were low white
- Hispanics were white, except some of them
- Italians were colored
- Jews were colored
- Mixed marriage was a sin
- Irish were guilty of marrying Italians, which was precisely the sort of mixed-marriage everyone should be concerned about
"Ah, that stuff don't matter," her husband retorted. "He won the right. That's not the same as other people joining in."
"We'll never see that, not in our lifetimes," a different woman cackled. They were talking about Mildred and Richard Loving, who won the right to be married despite the laws against it in our neighboring state, Virginia.
Later, I remembered their name and found out who they were. Their case made me feel like America was making progress and that civil rights success, for everyone, was inevitable. It wasn't. In some ways, it had barely begun then. But it did give me hope in fifth grade, when I got up the nerve to tell my crush what she knew anyway, which was how I felt about her.
She came up next to me as I was drinking at a water fountain outside our reading class. She smelled good. Already I knew that she was as bright as the sun through a magnifying glass. She was too beautiful to describe. I felt hypnotized by the way she moved and spoke. It made my stomach feel light just to be close to her.
"You know, I love you," I blurted out.
"You mean that you like me." She leaned back.
"Okay, I really, really like you." I felt myself shaking. "A lot."
"I, uh, really, really like you, too." She grimaced. A moment later, she blushed. "I love you."
It took me a moment to process it. I stepped back and held the water fountain for her. She politely took a drink.
"Can we hold hands?" I asked.
"Um, I'm Jewish."
"Right." I had no idea what that had to do with anything but it was something that I understood in my limited way. She had mentioned it before. She took a minute, then, to tell me more about it and, after a while, she reminded me that I shouldn't call her a Jew. It wasn't polite.
"I know that you don't know what it means. But try."
"Okay." She was right about me not knowing the context for any of this. The conversation seemed to be leaning in the direction of holding hands, though, and that was plenty for me.
A few days later, after we had held hands in a fluttering way, once or twice, she marched up to me with her textbooks in her arms like a shield. After a confused stammer, she said,
"Now you can call me a Jew."
"I talked with my dad about you. He said that we're taking back the word Jew. It's okay now." In a sing-song voice, as if she'd memorized the phrase, she added, "If the Afro-Americans can say Black is Beautiful, then Jews can say that a Jew is beautiful, too."
And they did. And she was.