Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Racism Is Not a Family Value

Originally published November 2009


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 novelist writing about black life. 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 (http://www.ywca.org/site/pp.asp?c=djISI6PIKpG&b=284783). 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.

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