Note: Along with my writing this week, I offer an article by John McWhorter which appeared in Atlantic Magazine on August 27, 2019.
Seeds of Doubt
Do you remember the day you began to doubt your parents infallibility? I do. It was 1952, the summer of my seventh year. We lived in a modest house in a nice neighborhood. We had a big corner lot with a bus stop out front. Our nearest neighbor had a black cat that I fed when they were gone and played with whenever it came outside.
Such was my life that my innocence on many matters had not yet been shattered. I had an intact family, grandparents nearby, homemade bread and cookies, backyard BBQs with neighbor families in the summer, a supportive church, a good school, trips to visit relatives each year.
This particular day stands out because I remember the shock of doubting my parents’ character and wisdom. No doubt I’d been perturbed by them on earlier occasions, but I’d had no reason to truly doubt their goodness prior to this day. Here is what transpired.
Version One: The cat and I started out in the ample backyard. At some point, it headed south toward the front yard. I chased as it ran between our two houses, called its name repeatedly, and followed it around the large spruce tree in our front yard. I did not see the woman waiting at the bus stop until I ran into her. I was stunned, and ashamed, and immediately ran into the house.
My parents were sitting at the table drinking coffee and chatting. I ran to them and told them what I’d done, my shame apparent in my voice. But they laughed at me, big, hearty laughs, and assured me that I needn’t worry. I wasn’t convinced, but I went back out to the backyard.
Now, why would this simple story feel like such a traumatic event to me? Perhaps the more complete version of what transpired will help you understand.
Version Two: The cat and I started out in the ample backyard. At some point, it headed south toward the front yard. I chased as it ran between our two houses, calling its name repeatedly, “Here, Nigger, here Nigger.” I followed it around the large spruce tree in our front yard. I did not see the large black woman waiting at the bus stop until I ran into her. I was stunned, and ashamed, and immediately ran into the house.
My parents were sitting at the table drinking coffee and chatting. I ran to them and told them what I’d done, my shame apparent in my voice. But they laughed at me, big, hearty laughs, and assured me that I needn’t worry. I did worry. I worried about them.
So. What did I know, and when did I know it?
I knew enough by age seven to know that “Nigger” was a problematic name for a cat. I knew that I really shouldn’t use this word. I’m not quite sure how I knew this. Perhaps I’d heard my dad’s sister chiding him for using the word. Perhaps I had detected that my dad was selective in where he used the word. For example, I might have sensed that he didn’t use it at church or in restaurants or in places where he didn’t know all of the people who might overhear him. I also knew that my mom never used the word.
Yes, “Nigger” revealed Dad’s disgust and disregard for black people, but I’m sure he had no desire to stir up trouble in personal encounters. As I learned over future years, he was content to do all he could through the union and the government to keep black people in their place.
Despite growing up with a neighbor cat named Nigger and adults who used the word in casual conversation, I’d learned how to be polite and respectful in public. I knew when to say please and thank you, and when to apologize for bumping into someone. But more than that, I was forming a rule that one never deliberately disrespects another person.
Now, clearly, my parents operated by a different rule, namely that it was fine to disrespect anyone who wasn’t present. Hence, it was OK to name a cat Nigger because there were no black people in our neighborhood. No one who would be offended by this would hear it. Clearly, they’d forgotten about the hired help, the bus stop, and the large spruce tree in the front yard, i.e. the combination of circumstances that would lead to my sense of shame.
What I had not yet fully grasped was the understanding that calling people a disrespectful word when they were not present was fully as problematic as doing so when they were present. What led to my shame that day was having my double standard exposed. I would not forget the lesson.
The even bigger lesson for me on that summer day was that my parents could not be relied on as a source of wisdom. I now sensed that they made not just mistakes, but huge mistakes that called into question their character. Seeds of doubt had been planted. Forever after, I felt apart from my family in a way that led to hurt and confusion that would persist forever. I always tried to exempt my mother from the harsh judgement I felt for my father, but I was only partly successful. She could never disagree with my dad in public, and I never truly knew her own feelings on many issues.
I, however, was freed by the events of that summer day to make my own way in the world. I found my own sources of wisdom and continue to be comfortable with opinions that are at odds with others. I thank my parents for that freedom.