Over on the Amazon boards the recent censorsh- uh, "revision"- of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
have been a topic of discussion. (So far the consensus seems to be, "Bad idea.") As a result, I've been thinking of the way my upbringing has influenced my thinking about race, and have been appreciating my mother anew.
First of all, on my mother's side (which is really the only one that matters here), I come from a family of dyed-in-the-wool Republicans, though more the virtually extinct Rockefeller variety than the more right-wing type we see today. Momma loved Ronald Reagan, but I think it was more his personality and the general "small government" philosophy than a deeply held agreement with his more extreme (though relatively moderate compared with today's Republicans) policy positions. Beginning with the first Bush administration, she became more and more disenchanted with the party, although she never officially changed her registration. So while I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, she wasn't exactly on the cutting edge in civil rights issues - politically, that is.
Personally, however, she educated us by example. While the small town where we lived had a very small black population (there was one African-American boy in my class in elementary school), we were never allowed to think that there was any difference between us and people of any other race or creed. We never heard the "n-word" from her except in an explanatory sense, and if she had ever heard it from us, there would have been hell to pay. Her supervisor at work, whom I believe she considered a friend, was black, and she and my grandmother also had a friend from Buffalo whom we saw with some regularity until he retired to Florida and with whom we traveled down to Washington, D.C. when I was seven or eight. The respect and affection which they had for him was obvious. They called him Hanks, but he was always Mr. Hanks to us.
The thing that strikes me the most, however, was the shock I felt when she admitted frankly to us that our beloved grandfather, who died when I was five, had held racist views. My mother adored her father, while her relationship with her mother was adversarial to say the least. I never cease to be amazed, at how she was able to break with the parent whom she loved more by far, seeing with clear eyes that he was wrong, yet never relinquishing her love for him. (I can't help but think of people today who refuse to espouse a position if someone they dislike holds it, regardless of whether it's right or wrong.) I know it's not a great story of heroic rebellion - just an ordinary person doing her part to make the world, and the next generation, a little better.
Momma passed away in 2005, and I don't remember if I ever asked her when she thought it would happen, but I think she would have been pleased to see an African-American man elected President only three years later.
In 1985 when I told Momma that I was converting to Judaism, her original reaction was violently negative, mainly because she felt that I was rejecting her and the beliefs with which she had raised me. As I told her then, I was actually embracing what she had taught me, by word and deed, which was to think for myself. She was able to continue evolving in her thinking until the end of her life; if the same can be said about me when my time comes, it will be in no small part due to her.