The recent eruptive antagonisms between whites and Somalis at Tech High School brought me – unpleasantly – back to the past, to my growing-up years in St. Cloud in the 1950s and 1960s.
There was racial prejudice then, and – sad to say – there still is.
When I was a kid, St. Cloud was sometimes called the “Lily-White City.” The sight of a person of color was a rarity. The closest we came to “color” were the deep tans some sun-worshipping goddesses and quarry-baked Lotharios loved to sport mid-summer. The classrooms and hallways of my schools (Washington, Central, South, Tech) were as white as Wonder bread.
When I was a toddler with mom at the St. Cloud Post Office, I saw a black man (out-of-towner probably) walking across the street, and I was afraid of him and started to cry.
Mom gave me a yank of the arm and said, “Don’t be silly. He’s black but he’s human just like you and me.”
In the 1950s, race issues weren’t on our radar screens. Blacks would sometimes come to our attention as shockingly naked tribal natives in National Geographic magazine, in cartoons of blacks with bones through their noses boiling white missionaries in cauldrons, in magazine photos from the Deep South showing maids or field hands, in movies like Gone with the Wind with its happy-go-lucky slaves and in images on some food products. I remember the fat, happy face of Aunt Jemima on our syrup bottles and a grayish, grizzle-haired face of a black man on a brand of oysters that was called (no kidding) “Negro Head Oysters.” I also recall seeing on lawns here and there wooden figurines of beaming Negro boys gorging on big slices of watermelon. They were supposed to be “cute,” but to me there was something scary about them.
In my South St. Cloud neighborhood, the subject of Negroes (that was the widely accepted “polite” term then) was rarely mentioned, but when it was, it was not good. Here are some comments I used to hear:
“Give ‘em an inch, they’ll take a mile.”
“They’re all lazy.”
“They smell bad.”
“They drive welfare Cadillacs.”
“I don’t trust ‘em. They’ll stab you in the back if you give ‘em a chance.”
“Sure, they can sing and dance, but what else can they do?”
“They all stick together.”
With hateful comments like that, who can blame “them” for “sticking together?”
What really bothered me, even when I was very young, is the neighbors who made such remarks had never, far as I knew, ever met a black person. That is why, from the get-go, I didn’t believe them. Those neighbors, all of them men, who made such cutting remarks I knew first-hand as kind and caring gents who would have been the first to help a black man or woman in need. That’s what I wanted to believe, needed to believe. And to this day, I think they would have. Their nasty slurs were just talk, parroted nonsense, but – nevertheless – that’s how the forces of racism in both whites and blacks are promulgated endlessly, through dumbly repeated slanderous notions untested by personal experience.
I am still grateful my parents never once used the “n word,” never told racist jokes and never made cruel comments about black people.
As the mid-1960s rolled around, even those of us in Lily-White City had to confront racial issues because of the images we saw in the media: protests; marches; sit-in demonstrations; lynchings; cross-burnings on lawns; assassinations; scowling-faced white officials blocking black children from entering schools; lunch counters, swimming pools and drinking fountains marked with signs saying “Whites Only” or “Colored.”
I think progress has been made against racism since the Civil Rights Era. However, since I am white, how can I make that claim confidently? Sometimes my certainty is undermined by bad memories. During the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, my sister’s fiancé was attacked in an East St. Cloud bar because he had an olive complexion, and so the attackers mindlessly figured he must be an Iranian. He was, in fact, of French-Canadian descent, born in Faribault, 100-percent “American.” Years later, my sister-in-law’s brother, also 100-percent American, born in Grand Rapids, Minn., would get nasty comments from some people who called him a “wetback” just because he was darker-skinned, his father being of Mexican descent. In a few cases, I was walking on the street next to him when young hooligans would yell out of their car windows hostile remarks, such as “Hey, can we see your Green Card?” He would always joke about how he was happy when summer came so people would think he “just” had a suntan.
The same racial animosity against blacks back then, the same kinds of cruel comments, are now visited upon our Somali neighbors. I continue to hear such slurs from people who are, at heart, kind and decent, but at the risk of making them mad, I call them on their comments every chance I get. We should never remain silent when such mean-spirited remarks are spewed.
I highly recommend people go see two exhibits at the Stearns History Museum. One is For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights. The other is Hands Across the World: The Journey Continues. The latter is an exhibit of art works made by Somalis in this area. Both shows are eye-openers. Both are helpful in calling the lie to racist stereotypes, parroted slanders and hostile denigrations against our fellow human beings.