Friday, July 6, 2012
I have race prejudice. I tried to exorcize it when I wrote "Somebody, Woman of the Century," expressing my own feelings through the heroine of the book, Cordelia.
From age twenty till the end of the book, Cordelia's best friend, who becomes her "sister," is Rayella, a black nanny and maid.
Cordelia is in her seventies, when Kate, her estranged daughter, whom she hasn't seen for six years, appears unexpectedly. There's an awkward silent moment at the door then this:
Kate said, "I dropped in today to help the cause -- the Women's lib movement. Maybe get an article in the Elliot newspapers about MS. Magazine, or get an ad in the papers for free. You could help."
"You're the executive editor. You could tell the Elliots to make a news page for women. And get feature stories about the first female FBI agent, or the first woman Rabbi -- the progress we've made—girls in the Little League, girls training at NASA, a female's at the summit of Mt. Everest! You could write an editorial. You could be a spokesperson, Mom, and a leader for us!"
. . . Mom . . . not for a long time had Kate called her Mom with reverence . . . It took a moment before Cordelia said, "Kate, the movement is progress and important, but I'm a congresswoman. I have other priorities."
"Mom, women have been downtrodden for years!"
"So have the blacks." . . . what could she say, yammer about civil rights laws that weren't working, bombard Kate with facts showing that equality for women wasn't as important as all men are created equal . . .
"You're not black, Mom! You're a woman!"
"That's your feeling. Not mine, Kate."
Kate muttered through her teeth, furiously. "What a cop-out!
(The mother-daughter conflict continues, as part of the plot for the rest of this novel.)
Back in my grade school days in Winnetka, Illinois, there was a black boy in my class.. My classmates and I were shocked when we saw him at a desk in the front row, but he was smart. He certainly seemed to deserve to be there. Soon he started lunching with one of the girls. We sixth graders gasped, and whispered about it being wrong. Soon other issues diverted us, and they both disappeared -- she moved to another town and he stopped coming to class.
I didn't think much about prejudice till I got to New York City and was trying to be a dancer. Junior Ann Henry, a black girl, and I became a dance duo. Duke Ellington liked us, so did Louis Jordan. (You can read about the year I tried hard to be "black" in AIN'T NOBODY HERE BUT US CHICKENS.)
I didn't want to dance like any of the white dancers I knew -- they didn't thrill me. But Talley Beatty did -- he was a black dancer who had magic in his bones. So did Janet Collins, and Alvin Ailey -- he had it and so did Carmen de Lavallade. I wanted that magic in my own bones. It just wasn't there. I wondered if it was because I was white.
I had a head-on collision with another kind of prejudice when it came to gays -- the good-looking male dancers I hired for my Dance Drama Company. Again and again, I found these guys unreliable. I found them imitating what I didn't like about women --. exaggerated helplessness, that sibilant tone of voice that was excessively female, and those broken wrists, their ridiculous concern with a perfect hairdo, perfect outfits.
It didn't occur to me that I was prejudiced, that it was wrong to think the thoughts I "thunk." But when we had a flat tire, the men who could have, should have helped, sat cozily in the warm car, while we girls went out in the snow, to do the work.
Slam-bam! I was told by a friend who's in a lesbian relationship, that whenever I talked or wrote about gay guys or gals, I expressed old-fashioned race-prejudiced ideas. It got me thinking about remarks I made about various well-known creators in show biz. "Oh he's gay!" I would murmur, letting "gay" explain why so-and-so was successful, Was it because birds of a feather flock together -- the gays hire gays? Was it jealousy? Was it because I'm not gay, and not a top flight name in dance?
Apparently, grade school experiences, magic bones, gays. success in theater, and all that I heard and observed over the years -- all that prejudice stuff that's part of American culture -- is in me.
Touré, (he uses one name only), black American essayist, music journalist, cultural critic, and television personality, author of four books, including "Who's Afraid of Post Blackness," which the NY Times called the "notable book for 2011," said in an article in Time recently, "Inside the racist mind, bias is the complex neural play between emotions and beliefs... It's learned quickly, often after a single presentation, of an unconditioned stimulus in a fear learning paradigm." Quoting surveys, psychologists, and research, Touré proves how prejudice is ingrained in us.
I wasn't surprised to learn that 15 percent of Americans believe that blacks pose a greater threat to public safety than any other groups, and realize that my prejudices about gays is built on words in the air, hand-me-down ideas of what's masculine, what's feminine.
Okay, Touré, you're right. I'm prejudiced. Prejudice is a pair of gloves in my drawer that's filled with gloves I've sort of collected over the years.
I don't wear them all the time, but I sometimes I put them on them without thinking -- it's the weather, they look nice, sort of enhance the outfit I'm wearing. Without thinking, just reacting, when I see plays, like "Streetcar Named Desire," with blacks playing the leads, it seems wrong. In Shakespeare In the Park last year, when a black actress played the lead in "Measure for Measure" I was very aware, distracted by one black nun in a group of whites nuns.
I can't change. It's a conditioned reflex. I see a black person and it registers -- he's black, she's black. I hear someone's accent and I might think "Latino." Also, it registers if a person is fat -- I am prejudiced against fat people. I am prejudiced against women who wear too much perfume. Hey, I am even prejudiced against old people inching along, crowding the sidewalk when I'm in a hurry, or homeless people, sleeping on my street.
I don't know how to eliminate prejudice.
But I can try to throw out the gloves.