Friday, August 20, 2010

Dr. Laura's on-air slips

"The Problem We All Live With" ©Norman Rockwell
(Courtesy of Park West Gallery)

Today's blog is going to be troubling for me and many of my contemporaries. It is one that affects me in many ways because I am a child born in the Fifties, raised in the Sixties and who matured in the Seventies (although the jury is out on that one). As a child of the Deep South, I recall the strange practices of segregation that kept races apart from water fountains and restrooms. I remember arriving at a ferry landing one day when I was six and trying to decide between four choices available to "white" and "colored" patrons instead of today's usual two or progressive unisex variety. Unlike most of my contemporaries when I was young, my mother worked for a living. She chose a housekeeper to do the regular chores of cleaning and washing clothes and instructed her to escort my sister and me home from school while she pursued her own career. It was unusual for a black woman to pick up her charges at that time, but she did so every day without fail. Her name was Victoria and she would walk us for the ten blocks to our home and feed us prior to the arrival of our parents each weekday evening. Sometimes, were we fortunate enough to time it correctly, we might catch a Broadway bus to within a block or two of our house. At that time the Broadway bus ran directly in front of my home, powered by an electrical line that ran overhead. I remember the Broadway electric bus for a couple of reasons. First there was one little seat adjacent to the rear exit that I especially loved to grab for myself because it faced inside the aisle rather than towards the front of the bus. I loved that seat because I didn't have to share the space with anyone else on a bench. It was my own private seat. Secondly, there was the sound the bus made as its extended arm slapped the power line above it. I could especially hear it when I was in bed at night trying to fall asleep. It was a sound like that made when wet leather is snapped rapidly and it sounded distinctly different from the clicking sound the similar arm of the St. Charles streetcar made as its pole conducted the power that turned its engines beneath the carriage as it rumbled along that historic avenue. On both the streetcars and the buses was a card that clipped to a seat on the midpoint of the transport. My sister and I knew that card well. We both ran toward it when we got on board and, if the seats were full where it was, we would move it forward to allow us to sit on one side - the "white" side - and to allow Victoria to sit on the other ("colored") side of the card. It didn't seem odd to us because everyone accepted it as normal practice. Sometime around this time the sit-ins and the Freedom Riders of the Civil Rights era ensued. Within a few years only "men" and "women" restrooms were around and that card had all but disappeared from memory. New Orleans became a watershed for the Civil Rights era when desegregation was ordered for its public school system in 1960 and Ruby Bridges, a six-year-old originally from Tyler, Mississippi, was escorted to school by federal marshals in a scene famously depicted by Norman Rockwell in his painting "The Problem We All Live With "(see above). That was a time when church bombings and cross burnings cropped up across the South. The last vestiges of the system that sold humans like chattel were being shaken off forcibly and we were all spectators or participants. As a child, I heard the epithets hurled at blacks, but they were an anomaly to me. Aside from my maid, I dealt with very few men or women of color and the desegregation of the school system , which was accomplished in stages, actually didn't catch up to my grade level until I was in high school. I had very few schoolmates who were black until my final four years of public school, but I accepted them as I do all others: by the content of their character and the capacity of their hearts. To use the infamous "n" word has always been abhorrent to me. I have little love in my heart for those that demean others in such a callous fashion. Yet today, as the urban culture has taken over much of the fashion and consciousness of the younger generation, there is a disturbing trend. Too often the rappers and spokespeople call each other by the very same tarnished word that slave owners used in referring to their property. But why is that? What makes blacks employing the "n" word as often as Michael Richards did in his infamous cellphone outburst more right to use that word? Does the fact that their skin is a darker hue entitle them to demean their entire race and, in essence, to continue the practice of racism and race-baiting? I know that I can hear from some of my black friends that I'll never get it: "it's a black thing," they might say. Well, to that I say no, it's not. It's a people thing. I don't care who you are. You can't make yourself feel better by standing on the backs of your brothers and sisters and making them feel psychologically less than you by name-calling or hurling epithets. This is especially true in my own Jewish community where there are documented self-loathing Jews, who wouldn't associate with this one or that one because they're either too Jewish or not Jewish enough or, perhaps, are too supportive of Israel or not Zionist enough. In the case of a famous Jewish radio broadcaster, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, things got way out of hand last week. Having been a former talk show host myself, for many years, I can well appreciate what she was trying to do. She was trying to desensitize her black female caller who was complaining that her white husband was using the "n" word and demeaning her in front of others. Clearly the attempt to make her caller see that it was just a word did not translate over the airwaves. The reason is that it's truly more than just a word; it's the compendium of a million words of hate and it carries no less weight than "kike" for Jews or "wop" or "dago" for Italians. I cringe every time I hear someone refer to others by such words because I recognize the power within them. They have the power to make someone grand into someone small, but using them over and over in such a capricious manner will not lessen the power of those words. On the contrary, what it suggests is that it's okay for everyone to hurl the epithets at one another. In reality it is the exact opposite of that. Dr. Laura was wrong to do what she said over the airwaves and she has apologized for her having said it. That doesn't justify what she did, but it does acknowledge to us she admits culpability. Apparently, as a result of this event, she has elected not to renew her radio broadcasting contract in the coming months, thus ending her career of three decades over the air. While he did not utilize a racial epithet, Rush Limbaugh was similarly sidelined from NFL broadcasts when he was deemed insensitive by suggesting that a black quarterback with a very good record was being carried by his teammates and bandied about by the media merely because of his skin color. He never used a racial slur, but he lost his position on the ESPN broadcast team because he rightly or wrongly expressed his opinion and it touched a nerve. The power of words have shaped human conduct through the ages, from the ancient writings of the Bible to the powerful teachings of modern thinkers like Gandhi. They have the power to bring positive meaning to entire races of people like those found in the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or they have the power to incite wars and unleash unspeakable horrors like those spewed by Adolf Hitler. Meanwhile, the gangsta rappers like presently incarcerated Lil Wayne and others like him, propagate the culture of hate by continually using the very words they won't permit outsiders - non-blacks - to use in describing them. I clearly remember the days when using such words meant someone was a racist. Today, however, it seems when someone uses them, they're multi-millionaires.


Suswan said...

Not what I expected Alan. Well written. I grew up in the same time as you but in the Northwest, in a rural and pretty much all white community. I didn't see the things you describe. Sometimes I wish I had seen it, just to be an eyewitness because as you know, witnesses have an important role in change and in keeping the past from repeating itself.
Thank you for sharing your experiences and your thoughts. Well written Alan.

Arlene said...

According to NOPSI, the signs were officially removed in April 1958. Being 2 years younger, I honestly don't remember removing the sign on the streetcar. However, I do remember halting the Broadway bus (more than once) when I insisted on sitting in the back of the bus with Victoria! It's funny how you recall things as a child. I am surprised that you thought that all those numerous days that we walked for 10 blocks was simply because we missed the connection. I hate to enlighten you after all these years, but missing the Boadway bus was definitely a calulated manuever by Victoria. It never occurred to you that we consistently caught the bus on rainy days!

Kosher Computing said...

Victoria started working for us when I was six and you were four. It's just not possible that the signs were removed in 1958. Whatever web site you checked is obviously in error (imagine something on the Internet being wrong!), because I was at least six and possibly as old as eight when those signs were still in use.