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“You’re not a Racist, Mom” – Excerpt from Split at the Root

“You’re not a Racist, Mom” – Excerpt from Split at the Root
Fall in the Munich English Garden

Fall in the Munich English Garden

There are several passages in Split at the Root where the protagonist finds herself at odds with being Black in the US. Here is a brief exchange with her teen-aged son:

While in the Michigan boarding school, Patrick perfected a habit of going for walks. Occasionally he asked me to join him, which I gladly accepted for, although he was friendly, he was also a tight-lipped, introspective teenager. On walks I could get him to talk to me. One afternoon, as we were strolling under the leafy canopy of the town park’s forest, I brought up the situation at the high school. I told him how Myrna, when I asked her a question to which she felt I should know the answer, had said: “Aah haid to explain that self same thang to a whaat woman,” and on one occasion when I wore my Scottish kilt, she commented that only a White woman would wear such ugliness. “Whatever I do,” I said to Patrick, “whatever I wear, however my hair looks… for Myrna, it’s never right. I don’t want to even talk to her, because I know she’ll take any opportunity to put me down and make me feel inferior.”

“Don’t act like Myrna’s the first Black person you’ve ever dealt with, Mom,” Patrick said after listening attentively. “No matter what she says and what you think now, you don’t have a problem with Black people at all. It’s only that particular one that bugs you.”

“Not really. I’ve always had a problem with Black people. I think I scrutinize them like White people do, perhaps even in a mistrusting way.” I held my head down as if paying attention to where I placed my feet.

“That may be so, Mom, but Myrna is disrespectful,” Patrick responded evenly; “that’s what’s annoying about her.”

“And she’s disrespectful because she knows I don’t get the likes of her. I probably behave like an animal that lies on its back and surrenders to the stronger one.” I stopped and looked at Patrick, and laughed. “That’s a great insight,” I said, pleased.

“Sure is, Mom,” my son grinned. “I don’t think she is in any way stronger than you. Just get that out of your mind. Here, for you,” he said, handing me an acorn and giving he a hug. “Mom, I’ve been with you all of my life, and I want to say that you’re completely impartial. Except in sports, of course, when you always want the Black athletes to win!” He burst out laughing with joy. “I also know you read a lot of books by Black writers.” He raised his arms and stretched, twisting at the waist. “Writers from the Caribbean, Africa, the USA, all sorts of Black writers. If there were Black writers in Alaska, you’d have read their works, too.”

I laughed at that. It should not have surprised me that Patrick watched my every move: only children don’t have siblings to distract them from observing their parents.

“Think of the educated Blacks you know, Mom… No grief with them, right? And the Black folks when you were growing up… they were cool, too, weren’t they?”

It had been a long time since I’d heard so many words coming out of this boy at one time, and it was embarrassing to have been caught making a sweeping generalization. I admitted that I understood it was only this particular person I was stuck with, and added for clarification, “There were no Black people in Guatemala City, at least not as I was growing up.”

“Jamaica then. You knew some in Jamaica…” He was sure of himself, and he was right. “Hey, Mom, we should have a Jamaican vacation! You know I love Bob Marley’s music. Why haven’t we gone there?” We said nothing while I was lost in thoughts about my early contact with Black people. Patrick couldn’t know it, but he had a way of making me re-think my theories. Was he an old soul, or was it his youth that forced me now to recover forgotten incidents of my younger years?

“I remember a family Mutti had met in Kingston,” I began my recollection. “Sometimes at the end of the school term I stayed with them for a few days before my flight to Belize. The father, Dr. Dezon, was a medical doctor and a professor at the university. They had two daughters, Daphne and Phoebe, who were a little younger than me. It was a very formal family that adhered to the manners of fine English upbringing. Daphne once wrote to me describing their vacation by the sea. On two occasions, she reported, they’d been so relaxed they hadn’t bothered to change for dinner,” I chuckled at the memory.

“How sweet!” Patrick laughed.

“They were the only Jamaican family I got to know. They spoke British English and their home was very dignified, indeed.”

“Formal is fine, Mom. It’s cool. No Blacks at all in Guate. City, are you sure?” he looked at me intently.

“You’re forcing my mind, Patrick,” I said, as elusive images began to taunt from the edges of my memory. “She was an artist,” I murmured, and Mutti had her paint a portrait of me. I was about seven or eight. Mme. Goudere was her name, and I think her husband was the Haitian ambassador in Guatemala. They were distinguished people for sure and spoke French.”

“Aaah,” Patrick grinned sheepishly, “you didn’t consider them as Blacks, because they were cultured… Right?”

I didn’t answer, as he was not necessarily right with that assumption. Truth was, I had interacted, probably reluctantly, with a handful of educated Black people. Come to think of it, I never thought I was racist until Myrna showed me differently. If I had any role models at all, Mutti provided me with Ralph Bunche whom she admired tremendously, and Marian Anderson who Mutti said sang German Lieder better than anyone, ever.

Read more: Split at the Root: A Memoir of Love and Lost Identity (Kindle) or Split at the Root: A Memoir of Love and Lost Identity.

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