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Alien Nation, Part Two
Where is our humanity?
by DK Holland
Metuchen, New Jersey, the cozy antebellum borough of my 1950s childhood, was racially and economically diverse—highbrow, lowbrow, no brow. Black kids whacked balls with us white kids on our backyard clay tennis court. Together we waded into the muck of Tommy’s Pond in a quest for tadpoles. We walked to school together, sat in the same classrooms together, argued together. The point is, we accepted each other as equals. We were just kids: We didn’t see color or class. We didn’t see nuance, we just saw fair and right. But I also recall the beloved black maids, handy men and nannies. They came from a poor community near Plainfield called Nigger Town—a nickname often given to the black ghettos that dotted our country. This was just one of the pejorative terms accepted in that era that held back minorities, especially blacks. These gentle folk had limited options and limited access. As progressive as my hometown felt back then, this is a sad reminder of the struggle for equality that was yet to come.
LITTLE BLACK SAVAGE
In 1956 a fourteen-year-old Chicago boy named Emmett Till visited Mississippi, just a few hundred miles south of Metuchen. This child was dragged from bed by a mob of angry white men, brutally tortured and lynched. His crime: whistling at a white woman. He was just a kid in the wrong place at the wrong time. And, of course, he was black. Till’s mother insisted on a very public funeral with an open casket of his mutilated body along with photos of his shining young face. Tens of thousands saw these images as the news media spread the horror of this appalling murder. Till’s brutal killing (and the quick acquittal of his killers) was the spark that lit the civil rights movement on fire.
Till was murdered almost one hundred years after the Thirteenth Amendment of 1865 freed all African slaves, making blacks equal to whites in the eyes of the law. And yet blacks were still seen as less than human in the most stubborn of Southern states. In fact, the Thirteenth Amendment was only officially ratified by the state of Mississippi in February of this year.
The civil rights movement started to help phase out the Jim Crow era. Jim Crow was a caricature, a fiction whose image fueled prejudice, disrespect and hate. But unlike Emmett Till, Jim Crow was not a real breathing person. He was a cartoon—a fat-lipped, bulging-eyed black illiterate (crow was code for black) whose image became a brand, popularized and reinforced in dolls, songs, posters and minstrel shows in the 1800s. You can’t educate buffoons and you certainly didn’t afford them any agency or autonomy. Media tends to reinforce the stereotypes of any era. Take the 1927 “talkie,” The Jazz Singer. It featured the black-faced Al Jolson as a “Jim Crow” crooning “Mammy.” It was a huge success—became a classic. Any law that sanctified the prejudice of blacks in America, that was meant to keep blacks in their place, was labeled a Jim Crow law. And there was Jim Crow etiquette too, informal rules directed at all blacks who disobeyed them at their peril:
• Blacks do not eat at a table with a white person unless partitioned.
• Blacks never offer to shake the hand of a white person.
• Blacks do not offer a white person a cigarette, nor to light the cigarette of a white woman.
• White motorists have right-of-way at all intersections.
• Blacks do not show affection in public since it offends whites.
• And, of course, a black should never whistle at a white woman.1
Yet, ironically, while black Africans were thought of as inferior, it was because of their superior strength and constitution that they had been enslaved, forcibly uprooted and imported to the colonies. Their ingenuity was also invaluable though rarely acknowledged and often ignored.
In 1793, a slave simply named Sam came up with the idea of the cotton gin, which was later developed and patented, as provided by law, by Sam’s owner Eli Whitney. We’ve all heard of Eli Whitney, but I bet you’ve never heard of Sam. He didn’t even have the dignity of a last name. And his African name was certainly not Sam. His rights of identity and authorship are sadly lost forever.
So it’s understandable that many talented African Americans chose to migrate North in search of a more fruitful existence. In doing so, they added to the cornucopia of innovation for which the United States was rapidly becoming known. And, of course, all their talents would only have been co-opted—or worse, squelched—had they stayed in the segregated south.
• In 1821 Thomas Jennings became the first African American allowed to hold a patent that he applied for after inventing a method of dry cleaning in New York City. The son of freed slaves, he used the proceeds to help fund the abolition movement.
• In 1881 Lewis H. Latimer, son of escaped slaves, invented and held the patent for the filament later used in Thomas Edison’s light bulbs. Latimer was the only African American member of Edison’s laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey.
• In 1916 Garrett Morgan is credited with inventing the gas mask during a heroic rescue of workers trapped in a fumed-filled tunnel. The son of former slaves, he had moved North from Kentucky to Ohio as a teenager.
As early as 1835 the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville (author of the well-studied tome, Democracy in America) observed that, “The colonies in which there were no slaves became more populous and richer than those in which slavery flourished. The more progress was made, the more was it shown that slavery, which is so cruel to the slave, is prejudicial to the master.” Dr. Vincent Harding, a veteran of the modern civil rights movement and an African American, cites a bittersweet irony: those who had once been considered hopeless, useless and backward had become the creators of a new possibility for our whole nation.2