Sunday, September 16, 2012
Guides: Bernice Pierce
[This is one post in a series about people who have had a great impact on my life. You may wish to read the introduction to the series.]
Back when I wrote about my views on political correctness, I mentioned that I have a fair number of friends who were black, including one of my best friends of all time. You may not find this unusual at all, being that, if you have (despite my repeated warnings to the contrary) read all my blog posts, you will surely have noticed that I’m a California liberal.
But, the truth is, it is unusual. It’s downright unlikely. You see, I’m from Virginia, which is part of the South. I know some of you Northerners think it’s not, but where do you think the capitol of the Confederacy was? I was also born over forty years ago. Forty years ago in a small town in the South ... where I grew up, there literally was a set of railroad tracks running through the town, and all the white people lived on one side, and all the black people lived on the other. Literally.
But, even more importantly, I am descended from 4 white Southerners: my paternal grandparents were born in North Carolina, my maternal grandfather in Kentucky, and my maternal grandmother in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia, all between 1900 and 1925. Now, I’m not saying that every single white person born in the South during that time period was racist. Really I’m not. But I am pointing out that the odds swung pretty damn hard in that direction. And my grandparents didn’t beat them. Every single one of them was racist, to one degree or another. And at least two of them (one on each side) were very racist. My mother used to tell me that her father would get up and change the channel if a black person appeared on the television. I could go on, but it’s just too depressing.
Now, when people are raised by racists, it’s very difficult for them not to be racist themselves. So let’s look at the mathematics of this: four racist grandparents raised my two parents. Logically, they should both be racist themselves, and, since they raised me, I should therefore be racist. And, you know what? If I were, I wouldn’t be me. When I look back on my life and think about all the experiences I’ve had, if I were to eliminate all the black people from them, I just couldn’t possibly be the person I am today. Too many lives have touched mine and changed me, for the better.
So what happened? Well, my parents were born in a 14-month span from 1945 to 1946. They were, as most children were back in those days, raised primarily by their mothers. My father grew up in a working-class household: both his parents worked at a factory. His mother was every bit as prejudiced as my mother’s father, and he’s still prejudiced to this day, although I suspect he’s less open about it these days.
My mother, however, grew up in an upper-middle-class household; in fact, in my small town (I grew up in the same small town where my parents did), my mother’s family were considered wealthy, although I’m sure they wouldn’t have been in a bigger city. But my grandfather had his own construction business, and it was very successful, and they lived in a big house. And they had a maid.
Now, you’ve no doubt seen movies like The Help. That movie is set in the ‘60s, but you can be sure it was similar in the ‘50s, when my mother was growing up. Wealthy Southern families had black servants, and, if they had children, those black housekeepers often raised the children more than the mothers did. My mother’s mother was even less interested in children than most women of her time and status, I suspect. I do not know for sure, but I have many reasons to believe that my mother was raised almost entirely by their maid: Bernice Pierce.
Now, Bernice was still my grandparents’ maid when I was a boy. I remember her dimly but warmly: I remember her making my lunch for me when I was visiting them, I remember talking to her and her responding and treating me like a regular person and not a pesky child that was in her way. But her influence on my life was not so much direct. Her influence on my life is that she broke generations of Southern racism and gave my mother the gift of an open mind. And my mother in turn gave that gift to me.
Without Bernice, my life would be very different. The first house I ever lived in that wasn’t owned by a family member, I rented along with my friend and coworker from Burger King: a black man. The lawyer who got the charges dropped when I was stupidly caught shoplifting (or perhaps I should say “caught stupidly shoplifting”) was a black man. My first (and only) one-night stand was a black woman. The manager at the pizza joint who encouraged me to fiddle around with the office computer on which I performed a crude electronic prank which ended up introducing me to the man who was my first business partner which eventually led me the job where I met the mother of my children ... that manager was a black man. I’m certainly not suggesting Bernice herself would have been proud of me for having all those experiences—I’m sure there are a least a few she wouldn’t have approved of. I’m just pointing out that, without her, my mother is not my mother and therefore I am not me. Without all those formative experiences, I am a whole different person. And I could never have had those experiences, been able to have those interactions, if my mother had not taught me to be far more tolerant and accepting than my ancestors were.
And it’s not just a matter of black and white. My gay and lesbian friends, my Chinese and Mexican friends, my Jewish and Hindu and Muslim friends ... how many of these people would I have gotten to know without my mother teaching me that all people are the same on some fundamental level? Some of them, perhaps ... but then again, perhaps not. Right now, the two people that I spend the vast majority of my time with, outside my family, are a Cuban and a French-Lebanese Armenian. Would I have been able to forge such strong relationships with people so culturally different without the example that my mother set for me?
Now, I’ve never discussed this in detail with my mother. I don’t know if Bernice ever talked specifically with her about racial matters; I suspect it was more just a question of being exemplary. That the racist rhetoric that my mother was faced with from her own parents paled in comparison to the kind and nurturing example that was set for her by the person she looked to most for love and attention. I suspect this to be so from what my mother has told me of her childhood, and from my own remembrances of Bernice: as I say, I honestly can’t remember much, but I remember a woman with a large heart and a calm disposition, a woman who always knew the right thing to say and the right way to say it. I suspect that she was a woman who knew perfectly well that she worked for people who held hateful beliefs, and never held that against the children she was employed to care for. I can’t imagine doing it, myself. I would never have had the patience or the self-control. I have an over-developed sense of injustice sometimes. But that just goes to show you that Bernice was a better person than I, in many ways.
Bernice died a few years ago. I never had a chance to discuss these sorts of things with her, let her know the impact she had on my life, even if indirectly. But, then, I’m not sure I could have articulated it so well as a younger man. Sometimes it takes a certain amount of perspective to understand the impact that the past has had on you. From where I am now in my life, I can look back and see how much I owe to this woman. Who, in many ways, was more of a grandmother to me than the woman who bore my mother.
I know my mother always maintained a special place in her heart for Bernice, and I don’t think she ever thought of her as “the maid.” This was the woman who really raised her. And, for that, I will ever be grateful.