Monday, November 16, 2009

Racism Is Not a Family Value

My daughter, a recent graduate in Cultural Anthropology, praised in
particular a course on Zora Neale Hurston, an American folklorist,
novelist, and authority on black culture, taught by Professor Lorecia
Kaifa Roland of the University of Colorado Boulder.

Raised as I was in lily-white suburbia, I had never heard of Zora.
She was "rediscovered" by Alice Walker. But it turns out that one of
Zora's best friends was Fanny Hurst, another famous black
novelist. Fanny Hurst's novel, "Imitation of Life," was one of the
defining "experiences" of my life, even though I never read the book.

During your life, if you have children, you try to share your values
and reasons for those values. I had shared the story with my daughter
that I had joined the YWCA, one of the oldest women's organizations in
the United States, not because I was a Christian, but because one of
their basic tenets was to get rid of racism. Somewhere along the way,
the YWCA felt this goal was no longer necessary and dropped it from
their principles and practices. At the time, I was very upset about
this and felt it was premature. I'm happy to say that it is now back

My daughter and I didn't know we had these inspirational novelists in
common, but for me it was exciting to see her discover and internalize
an experience so different from her own privileged upbringing yet so
important to our society today.

"Imitation of Life" was made into two films, one in the late 1930s and
another in the 1950s. I saw the 1950s version first. The story
involves a black woman raising her light-skinned daughter while
working as a servant for a strong white woman entrepreneur. The
daughter, even as a young child, wants to be white and denies that she
is "colored." When she grows up, she abandons her mother and gets as
far away from her as possible, passing herself as white. She lives in
constant fear of being discovered. Her mother is resigned, even
comfortable, with her identity and never understands why her daughter
rejects her race and her mother's love.

There have been many other fantastic stories about mother/daughter
betrayal, notably "Mildred Pierce" and "The Piano," but "Imitation"
contained the double edges of blood kin betrayal and racism, a potent
combination that I found life-changing.