I was mildly surprised when a family member made a comment to me after I posted a memory from my twelfth year describing an incident that revealed my adoptive grandfather as a racist. Somehow this individual felt that my post contained a lack of respect for my grandfather’s memory. This comes from a person with whom I have had limited interaction for almost thirty years, not so much due to geographical constraints, but because of social incompatibility.
The comment started me thinking about the general capacity that some people have for personal shame. It’s not enough that I didn’t name my late grandfather in my recollection. Though a witty and beloved patriarch, he was nevertheless a victim of his upbringing. Now, one of his descendants has inexplicably deemed an ancestor’s attitude of racial intolerance to be my fault. Sadly, it’s far easier to transpose outrage in one’s progenitor into disdain for the whistle-blower.
I won’t even consider that had my grandfather known about my own racial heritage, he might have been horrified in me by default. That’s beyond a leap of faith, and I trust in my heart that he was a better man than that.
But on the opposite side of the coin, is my grandfather’s ignorance. The truth is, he treated me as his own, and loved me, because he, as well as everyone else in my family, had no inkling that both of my birth parents had Cherokee blood. And I’m positive that the concealed bloodline wouldn’t have merited much weight, except to a certain family faction.
I must thank this disgruntled family member for reminding me of another memory I have of my grandfather. This is one no one will dispute. In this, he was curiously a victim of his attitudes about “colored people” (which is how he categorized non-whites), but also a casualty of the shifting attitudes caused by the Civil Rights Movement, media coverage of the Black Panthers, and the general unrest of the Bay Area in the 1960s.
My grandfather was a dentist, and although he lived in the Peninsula suburbs, he commuted during the week to his practice in San Francisco. The train was his chosen mode of transport. On one such mundane commute – I can’t recall if it was going into the City, or coming home – he was punched in the mouth by a young man, and required stitches to close the gash.
At the time, I didn’t understand why anyone would be compelled to sock my grandfather in the mouth. As I was told, all that my grandfather was doing was assisting a woman on the train. Perhaps this young man was acting boisterous, or maybe he was blocking the aisle. Either way, it was required that my grandfather would interact verbally with him. Once he called the young man, “Sonny,” that’s when my grandfather was popped in the mouth.
It was shocking to me, but I didn’t fully understand the event until I was twelve, and experienced the revelation of my grandfather’s hidden racism. And then I recalled facts that never clicked into place when I was a small child.
The young man on the train was African American, and whatever the circumstances, my grandfather called this person “Sonny”. It wasn’t “Boy”, which is what my own husband has been called, as recently as the late 1980s, by a Wyoming State Trooper. Only a person of color can fully understand the derogatory intent of “Sonny” and “Boy”. Certainly I couldn’t comprehend the dynamic. I was raised in an insularly white community, where some of the families of local law enforcement chose to live. I attended school with white classmates, until I went to middle school. It was in Taylor Junior High School when I met my first African American girl.
Nobody wants to believe that they are derived from a racist patriarchy. I have been told that my own maternal birth grandfather, though part Native American, had little tolerance for African Americans and Hispanics. Maybe I can go back even further, and prove that some of my Cherokee ancestors were slave owners (Google “Cherokee Freedmen” to get the scoop).
As I wrote prior, and still firmly believe, we are all as flawed as we are biased. Despite these very distinct memories of my grandfather – neither of which bode well for the family member who strongly chastised me for lacking respect in my grandfather’s earthly memory – I know without any doubt that he loved me. That particular truth is a lot more real than the knowledge of his human frailties.
Shortly after my grandfather died, I had a dream about him. He was seated in a chair in the bare room of a high-rise hotel. It wasn’t a fancy room by any means, as it was completely bereft of any excesses – just that chair, and a beige wall-to-wall carpet.
Soon my adoptive father entered the room through a door, and told my grandfather he’d come to get him, and take him to Heaven. My father, who passed away in 1983, was quite the opposite of my grandfather. Dad was genuinely interested in humanity, quite colorblind, though with a frustrating tenet of non-confrontation. I would characterize my father as the epitome of forgiveness. When Dad died, I had no worries whatsoever about where he would end up.
When Dad came for my grandfather, it put my fears to rest about where my grandfather would go when he died, too. After all, my grandfather was a good man, who left behind a collection of watercolor art, and vibrant photographs of the Sierra Nevada. He was a self-taught pianist, who could ragtime any song so well that I remember dancing along to his music when my feet were still innocent, and I didn’t shy from laughter. I remember the good man much more vividly than I remember his racist failing.
And had this family member not decided to disown me, to rant the inevitable “I don’t want to talk about it”, it would have opened a dialogue, and a forum in which to share positive memories. Because, like it or not, it’s who my grandfather was, and to some extent, who he used to be is also who we all are. The change comes when we’re conscious of the defect, and decide not to carry on a fractured legacy.