Early in November 1620, after a rough Atlantic crossing of about two months, an aging ship called Mayflower arrived in the coastal waters of what we today call Cape Cod Bay. By mid-December, the colonists had chosen a site they called Plymouth, which is about 40 miles south of the current city of Boston. Although English colonization had begun further south in the Chesapeake Bay area over a decade earlier – not to speak of even earlier Spanish and French efforts – the arrival of the Mayflower is frequently imagined by many in American mainstream society as the founding moment of the United States. Largely spurred and popularized by the Thanksgiving holiday, this founding myth all too often minimizes the impact of colonization on the indigenous peoples of the region; theirs is a history that hides in plain sight.
When I was five years old, I announced my new discovery: “Negroes (the polite term at the time) are bad.” My parents tried to correct me, but I felt my logic was unshakable: When the radio reported a crime, the perpetrator was often black. They never said that a suspect was white. I didn’t know any black people in our segregated town, but I knew many white people, and none of them were criminals. This was an open-and-shut case in my five-year old’s mind.
A few weeks later, my father took me downtown to see a parade. He struck up a conversation with a black woman we were standing next to. She had a baby, who captured my interest, though I was more entranced by her Kraft Caramels (my favorite candy at the time) she shared generously with me. This, of course, completely shattered my baby bigotry.
When I was approaching middle age, I reflected on the incident. Only then did I realize that when I was young, parade-viewing areas – as well as everything else – were strictly segregated in Enid, Oklahoma. It must have taken some planning and more than a small amount of courage to arrange for us to stand in the “colored area” next to a friendly woman who just happened to have a cute baby and my favorite candies.
The issue of race did not come up often in our small, mostly white town (at least not in the white community), so I had little need to reflect on what I had learned until Emmett Till’s murder on August 28, 1955, made national news and provoked national outrage.
Let’s start off with a few telling facts: The origin of the word “racism” stems from the French word racisme which appeared during the last decades of the 19th century. In English, however, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, “Racism appears to be a word of recent origin, with no citations currently known that would suggest the word was in use prior to the early 20th century.” Now, let that sink in. The people at Webster are also quick to point out that just because the word is “fairly new” doesn’t mean that “the concept of racism did not exist in the distant past.” No wonder we – and with we, I mean all societies – have a problem with racism. So let’s get to the root of it and root it out.