The words rang through me like I had just been punched point-blank in the face.
There we were, my co-worker and I, having what started out as a really healthy discussion about women’s issues when somehow the conversation took an awkward turn.
I was comparing the attitudes that some people have towards race to their attitudes towards women and gays. She, Caucasian, American, mid-50s, said to me, Jamaican immigrant of mostly African descent, that she never liked the idea of being politically correct.
She raised the issue of gay veterans being barred from marching in the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade. For the past twenty years, gay organizations have been legally banned from marching in the parade and recently there had been a standoff between the parade organizers and the state gay advocacy group, MassEquality.
“Why do they have to march as gays?” she lamented. “Quite frankly if I were a parent I wouldn’t want to have to expose my children to that. And what does gayness have to do with the St. Patrick’s Day parade?” she added. “I’m so tired of this P/C nonsense.”
I was quick to add, “Well, frankly, what does drinking, getting drunk, making an ass of yourself, and being arrested have to do with St. Patrick? I’m sure if he were to pay us a visit today he wouldn’t like his name associated with that either.”
My friend is very conservative, anti-liberal, anti-civil service, Christian, and single with no kids. She only watches Fox news.
I am none of those things.
But at the same time, she was in the middle of reading a book written by Bill Clinton, the bane of all conservative republicans. She doesn’t believe women with children should work, but she spent several months working in Camaroon in Africa as part of a missionary program.
I try to avoid political discussions with her because I don’t want to be rude (unless I have to). I like her because although we’re never likely to hang out together after work, she’s good company to go walking with at lunch time.
We segued from gays marching, images of buff male veterans scantily clad in hot pants and midriff-tied blouses very much in the air (woo-hoo!), to the difference between blacks in America and the ones in the Caribbean. I even told her that some black Africans today refer to westerners like myself as “slave babies” so as to distinguish themselves from our unfortunate history.
That was when the words came tumbling out of her like loose bowels, as if she had been dying to set free these truths that she had been hoarding in her mind for a moment such as this.
I thought I was going to faint. I had only heard such talk from the ultra-right and racists. I never dreamed someone I knew would ever utter those words in my presence.
Oh no, she did not go there, I thought.
As I tried to recover my balance, I said, “You can’t say those things to people, T!”
“Why not? It’s true!” was her reply.
Lord have mercy…Seriously, if this would not have cost me my job, I would have slapped the Holy Ghost out of her. But I decided that this, like others before, was a teaching moment. That, and I can’t afford to not work for a living.
As a student of Caribbean History for many years, the knowledge of the slave trade is ingrained in my memory, so I gave her a synopsis of what went on back in the 1700s and 1800s, as it seems the Rochester, NY school system may have failed to educate her on this topic when she was growing up.
I ended with:
“The point of bringing black people over from Africa was not to save them from the torment of living in Africa. It was purely an economic decision. FREE labor. And don’t you dare even try to think that everyone was suffering back in “darkest Africa” at the time, either. There were kings and queens and their offspring who were also captured and taken as slaves. And the relentless whipping, raping, maiming, and hanging at the hands of their masters…how was that helping the slaves? And do you really believe every black person is suffering in Africa today? Because I can assure you it’s not all of them.”
We spoke about this a bit more and I’m not sure if I got through to her.
We haven’t been out walking since because the weather has not been agreeable. But I need to get this off my chest. I feel there is unfinished business between us. It’s tragic that someone can still have this idea of slave master/savior in this day and age. I mean, I know they’re out there; I just didn’t expect to actually know someone like that.