My father was a racist. He used the word “nigger” freely outside of the house. Inside, my mother, the proper English woman, insisted on the word Negro. But it never came out sounding like that. It came out Nigra, sort of a combination of “nigger” and “Negro.” Or maybe it was just the accent.
When we made a visit back to SC when I was in high school, we stopped in Alabama somewhere for gas. And my father said to the elderly black man there, “Fill her up, Uncle.” The black man said, “I ain’t your uncle.” He was angry, and I was surprised that my father just laughed. Back in the community of Ora, I sat in the car watching him interact with one of the blacks who was a long time member of the community; he would send Christmas cards to all the white children in the area. My father had bought a six pack of cokes to give to the elderly black man; and as the black man did his obsequious routine, I could see my father, in his gesture and his tone, swell up with self-importance. I felt disgusted.
But my own experience suggests how easily one might become racist. It was just in the air, like the “nigger piles” in the school yard. Or in songs, the version of “Someone’s in the kitchen with Dina” that we sang ended with: “She’s my one black, two black, honest to goodness shoe black, chocolate to the bone. You better leave her alone.” And in horrible phrases that stuck in my mind like lint: “nigger-rigged,” for example, to describe a repair poorly and hastily made.
As a child, if I wanted to socialize with kids my own age, I had to bike two miles to the nearest white boy. But from the top of a tree near my house, I could see past the field, over the abandoned peach orchard to a house that had kids all around. But they were black, and I knew without being told that I was not to go there.
My father forced me to work with him on a weekend scab jobs; he would sing the same song all day long. Too frequently, he got stuck on: “Bingo, bango, bongo, I don’t want to leave the Congo…” I think this song is racist; but it’s a bit more complicated than that. It’s not just about blacks not wanting to be made into slaves; it’s also about “savages” not wanting to enter the world of civilization with all its misery.
I wonder if my father didn’t in some way identify with those who did not wish to leave the Congo. Perhaps the South was for him the Congo, a backward part of the world and not civilization proper, so that in, a twisted and convoluted way, his racism was an expression of self-hate.
As a brick layer, he had to wait sometimes from a call from his boss to learn where he would work the next day. He would call the boss to find out, but sometimes he could not get through. He would slam down the phone; one evening he slammed it down over and over. We all retreated to our rooms. My mother pleaded with him to stop. Finally, the boss called, and my father’s tone was as obsequious as could be, as if he had not been raging for two hours at how late he was having to stay up to hear where he would be going at 5 am the next day.
Being a “nigger,” in the vilest sense of the word, is not entirely a matter of skin color.