This week the headlines ran “Paula Deen uses the “N” word. Food star Paula Deen was asked if she had ever used the “n” word and she replied, “Yes, of course,” adding "It's been a very long time." The writer of the article I was reading commented “she said ‘yes, of course’ as if to say, hasn’t everyone?” That got me to thinking about how differently I view race-related things said by older white people than how younger people might view them. There is this great divide based on very different racial experiences. There are those of us on the Jim Crow side of history—that would be people like me and Paula Deen, people over 55 who were the last generation to grow up in the south under a legal system that required by law that EVERY white person discriminate against EVERY black person, whether or not they were racist. And then there would be on the other side all the young adults who did not personally experience this extreme dehumanization of black people.
As a member of the last Jim Crow Generation, I often feel as though some kind of deal was made with history recorders that gave black people basic rights in exchange for not having to put truths in history books or classrooms. Just pretend like some things never happened, and maybe this disgraceful period of American history might just go away. Unfortunately the opposite has happened. By not confronting and acknowledging these truths, the last Jim Crow Generation can hum comfortably along, never confronting the demons of its past, those childhood experiences that shaped our views and unfortunately display themselves in business and government policies and enforcement in ways that exhibit a lower view or expectation of another group of people. Many times, we are unaware of how we come across, until someone points it out. After all, we generally run in circles of people who support our core beliefs.
Here are some things that shaped our childhoods: High level officials who publically used the “N” word; one ethnic group legally singled out as “not fit” to go to school with all other ethnic groups or sit on the same commode or drink from the same water fountain; black mothers serving as maids/mothers to white children; black parents having to address white children as Miss or Master while the children addressed them by their first names; leaders and their children bombed in their homes or leaders beaten to death or burned alive and jokes made about it around dinner tables and the guilty parties never convicted; mothers screaming obscenities at little black elementary children trying to get an equal education; or boys who thought it great sport to expose their private parts to black girls walking the roads because black girls “were for sex, not for marriage”. Some of the men in their late 50s or early and middle 60s are the same little boys you see in the old clips holding their father’s hands staring up at the burning Klan cross or whose parents committed heinous crimes against innocent people of all races who were fighting for the basic rights of black people.
We are a generation with a childhood built on legal and practiced inequality. So one generation responds to Paula Dean’s statement of “Yes, of course” with “oh wow, did she say that?” and my generation says, “Why would you be surprised that someone from that generation has ever used the “n” word?” I’m certainly not surprised. Maybe this could be used as the beginning of something useful like the last Jim Crow generation confronting some demons of the past so we can stop transferring this racial discord to the next generation. WE CAN NEVER SOLVE WHAT WE ARE UNWILLING TO CONFRONT.