Musings And Checkers by Kenneth Weene

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What eight-year-old boy doesn’t want to do things with his dad? When my father told me to hop in our black four-door Ford, I was happy to oblige. That we were going to the general store made it all the better. I loved roaming that store—cram packed with scythes, guns, food, ice cream, clothes, notions, even the local post office. The entire place redolent of Maine. Voices filled with flat “R”s and twang. Local folks stopped in as much to socialize as to shop.

The wood-burning stove would be cold—summer was not a time for roaring fires; but there was sure to be a checkers game in progress, the board sitting atop an upturned pickle barrel similar to the one from which I would, if Dad was in the right mood, fish a crispy dill for a special treat. Checkers was a religion almost as important as the Boston Red Sox. Its devotees were the old men who gathered at Maynard’ store; its practice was simple, red and black.

My father never asked to play, nor was he ever asked; but I loved to watch those geezers huffing and puffing their way through each game as if it were mortal combat.

While Dad and Maynard, the proprietor, worked on our order—much of which would have to come from Portland or even Boston and would arrive in perhaps a week, I wandered through that wonderland, trying as children do to soak-up everything that was being done and said.

Elvira, Maynard’s wife was talking fabrics with Hortense Clark. Usually, I would have skipped the women’s talk, but Hortense mentioned my family name. “How come Maynard lets that kike Weene order things; I wouldn’t do business with a Jew.” She spat the last word out so it hung in the air.

“Hortense,” Elvira answered, “Joe’s a White Jew.”

“What the hell did that mean?” Instinctively, I knew it was not a question to ask aloud. That was well over sixty years ago, and I am finally ready to answer my unspoken question. My answer is not, as some might expect, about anti-Semitism, although anti-Jewish prejudice certainly underlay Hortense Clarks’s comment. Rather, it is about race or at least the American concept of race and how that concept affects our social and political discourse. It is about what has been termed by some the American dilemma, but that dilemma is not about the role of Blacks, African-Americans, Negroes, or whatever term you have learned to use when referring to people who can trace their roots back to Africa. Rather it is about how early Americans came to see themselves, how those first British-Americans came to define their world.

Perhaps a bit of history would be helpful. Well before slavery had become the mainstay of what is now the Southeast United States, it took root in the Caribbean. England had discovered sugar and the insatiable European sweet tooth demanded plantation after plantation of cane. Sugar was a backbreaking crop and labor intensive; what better way to produce it than employing the cheapest possible labor, slaves. But the Africans brought to Jamaica, the Barbados, and other islands were not agreeable to the plan or to their treatment. There were rebellions. Vulnerability to French and Spanish intrusions and to the depredations of pirates and privateers added to the sense of unease in those island colonies. Better to move lock, stock, and slave holdings to the mainland where there was comparative safety. So the Carolinas were settled. If sugarcane did not do as well in the new plantations as they had in the islands, tobacco and rice coupled with fur trade with the Indians made up the difference.

However, the plantation owners still didn’t feel that safe. The slaves were no happier with their conditions in the new setting; they still wanted freedom; and the Spanish in Florida encouraged slave rebellions. The enslaved Black population outnumbered the plantation owners and their hired hands. Then, too, displaced Native Americans brooded in the forests. There was a boding sense of danger. The solution of British troops being garrisoned in the communities was too expensive and was certainly unacceptable to the plantation owners who wanted to be their own royalty. Better to find other, poorer Europeans to share the risk, to settle the lesser lands and provide the services in the towns and villages.

The attraction of the New World to impoverished working class recruits was land. If they had none in Europe, at least in America they would now have some. So they came. Of course there was a selection process that went on. French and Spaniards were not welcome. After all, England was in almost perpetual war with those two Catholic monarchies. While Scots, Welsh, and Scots-Irish were the most welcome, there were too few of these; so other Europeans were welcome: Greeks, Albanians, Germans, and so forth. They came to find themselves an economic underclass, many indentured, often burdened with debt, and seldom able to obtain land worth the farming.

The question was how to keep these poor Europeans from forming a natural affinity with the slaves who often worked beside them all for the landed gentry. How to keep them from seeing themselves as oppressed. It was in that context that the notion of a “White Race” was born.

“Why do they call themselves the human race? Do they think somebody is going to win?” The line from a television sitcom haunts this topic. Just what do we mean by race and how do the word’s two meanings intersect?

Race in the sense of rushing or competing comes from the Norse or perhaps Old English.

Race in the sense of “people of common descent” comes from the Middle French, possibly before that from the Italian. It was originally used to describe people and other things that naturally grouped together, including wines of particular flavor, a generation, a group of people with a common occupation, or people who had a common background as a tribe.

There is no evidence that race referred to people being divided on the basis of physical differences before the late eighteenth century. In other words, those colonists—rich or poor—did not come to the Americas thinking of a “White Race.” They may have thought of Africans as different from themselves, but only in the way they may have thought the same of Russians or Slavs as not being like them or perhaps of Welsh and English being different.

It was essential to the landed gentry of the colonies to alienate the poor Europeans from the Black slaves. The easiest way to do that was to play up the sense of difference and the clearest difference was the color of skin. Hence whiteness became a political tool.

That night in Maine I lay on the grass and looked up at the stars. I could see so many of them—no light pollution to interfere. I did not know even then if I believed in God or Heaven, but I do know I believed in possibilities and the future. I looked up and like many young Americans of that day I saw a world that could be better. It did not occur to me that there were many who could only see the ground beneath them, who lived in desperate fear of things getting worse.

“Keep your eye on the prize.” What a great evocation. But for those who cannot know if their children will have enough to eat, there is no prize. They cannot look to the stars; they are far too busy watching for the pratfalls along the path. For those who are living in quiet desperation there is no possibility. For them it is the simple maxim, “Look back, the Devil may be gaining on you.”

Fear becomes anger, and anger becomes rage. The Devil is coming and has to be defeated. And if that Devil is represented by the descendents of the slaves whom their ancestors were supposed to look down on, by the Black-skinned Americans whom their culture came to call a different race, why it is clear where the rage must be directed.

For a person who sees himself as a member of the White race who lives in a terror of downward social mobility, a terror known only too well by those who are just holding on to their rung of the ladder, the mythical other, the Black, becomes a threat beyond the tolerable.

From the first gleaming of the American character this terror of the not-White was mixed in— added intentionally by those plantation owners looking for allies just in case of a slave rebellion. Once it existed towards the African slaves, it was easily displaced onto other groups, groups that at some psychological level were identified as not-White. As descendents of early French settlers migrated from Eastern Canada down into Maine and New England, they became the non-Whites. The Irish who were carried to the New World by the waves of the potato blight were often labeled “Black Irish.” Obviously, to Hortense my father was not “White,” but Elvira set her straight, albeit about just that one person, not all Jews.

Today, for most Americans, the French, Irish, and Jews have been assimilated into the class of Whiteness. African Americans are still not white. Neither are those of Hispanic background. Consider those wonderful questionnaires one is so often asked to fill out, for instance satisfaction surveys after Internet purchases and services. The classifications offered for self-identification make it clear that Hispanics are not White.

A short time ago I saw a picture of four children on the social media; they were labeled Black, Yellow, Brown, and Normal. Normal, that is the label given to the white child. Perhaps there was no intent; after all the purported message of the picture was “Everybody deserves to be treated equally!” Equally to the normal, to the White.

Another recent event sends the same message. An exit poll of voters in South Carolina asked, “Are Blacks getting too demanding in their push for equal rights?” Too demanding, how can one be too demanding in the expectation of equality?

It is many years since I heard my father referred to as a White Jew. At the time, I suppose a part of me was happy with that distinction; it meant that my dad was accepted, that at least to some small degree we were part of the community. But he was not asked to play a game of checkers.

Years later I am not so happy. I wish I had known then what I know today. I would have spoken up. Voice cracking with youth and emotion I would have said, “My father is a person. He is honest and trustworthy. Beyond that, there should be no labels. We are Americans, and we should know better. We are the children of revolution, of the natural human drive for freedom, a goal that can never be realized while we are willing to classify ourselves as if we were talking about the flavors of wine.” I would have taken a bite of that pickle clutched in my right hand and added, “Besides he’s a great checkers player.” Yes, I would have added that.

At least now I know that it is my responsibility to say such things, to make those comments in the social media, to stand up for that idea in my life; that is the responsibility of a free person. For if we are not equally free, then freedom will no longer have meaning.

If there is a Devil who will gain on us, he will not be in the guise of those with a different shade of skin but in the guise of those who tell us that we must fear others in order to protect ourselves. We can defeat that evil spirit. The place to start? Might I suggest a game of checkers? Might I suggest that we set up that overturned pickle barrel and start to play—making sure that everyone gets a turn.

 

Besides his work organizing The Write Room Blog aand co-hosting It Matters Radio, Ken Weene writes and writes. His latest book Broody New Engander is now available in print and Kindle. http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B002M3EMWU

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27 thoughts on “Musings And Checkers by Kenneth Weene

    1. Yves Johnson

      Ken, you threw me for a loop. I thought you were going on one direction but you fooled me. This was a wonderful and refreshing story. I hope it helps start the dialouge going. Thanks for the history lesson. I think a game of checkers might be what this country needs.

      Reply
    2. T.R. Heinan

      Ken, I loved the way you took a complex issue and stripped it down to the fundamental elements. The notion of “race” continues to evolve in America as I discovered while writing my book about New Orleans in the 1830’s. I found it necessary to include a preface to explain how terms such as “black” and “colored” and even “American” have changed in meaning during the past two centuries. Until we can overcome the fear of others’ otherness, we will continue to act is if we are not, in fact, all closely related members of the same family.

      Reply
  1. Cathy Page

    Most excellent, thought based description of a very troubling issue in 2014 US society. I believe you are correct in the issues surrounding the racial divide. A us vs them mentality, used to divide and conquer.

    The history is much appreciated. Through my eldest child’s efforts, I now know about my heritage. Including George Metres, earliest ancestor on American soil. From Pallantine region of present day Germany/ Switzerland, he arrived in Jamestown in 1630. Sponsored by Lord DeGraffenreid, he made his way to Carolina Colony and helped settle New Bern, NC.

    Reply
  2. Kathleen Ball

    A very well written, insightful piece. It’s as though we are no longer individuals judged only by our merits but we are pigeon-holed into categories and groups not unlike pinterest where you take a picture and pin it to a board under your own categories.

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  3. Monica Brinkman

    Ken, I hope many will read this piece for it speaks to the past, to the present and to the future. As long as we retain prejudice or superiority among another race, we will never come together as a country. Time people looked into one’s heart and mind, rather than at one’s skin color.

    I must add that I felt prejudice also when I was young. You see I had an Italian name. Back East, back then, people grouped together per nationality, be it German, Jewish, Black, Irish and so forth. Slurs were common, biotry and hatred alive.

    Yet I must believe that each individual has the will of choice and if they take a moment to look inside, they will know no man has the right to degrade or offend another based simply on race. We saw the changes occur in the 60’s and 70’s and I hope our children, our grand-children and our great-grandchildren will carry on the fight of equality of all man.

    Well written piece, Mr. Weene.

    Reply
  4. Kharis Macey

    Wonderful, relaxing article. I enjoyed this read. Thanks for taking your time to write and to entertain other authors like myself. I await more of the same. Blessings. Kharis Macey

    Reply
  5. Genevieve Glasson

    Hello Dear Ken!

    Truly an open essay. Well Done!

    Filled with the stuff that sparks our brains and touches our hearts and will simply stay there. No room for argument, just the truth as you portray it.

    Fear and weakness of spirit always appear to spawn devisiveness and this may be one of the greater examples you write about. By way of this wonderful essay, with it’s softness too, a collective undoing of the past will begin to happen.

    Great work,
    love,
    Genevieve Glasson

    Reply
  6. Bonnie Hearn Hill

    Thoughtful post. I wonder how many children feel as uncomfortable as you did when you heard that first lie about your dad and others who didn’t fit the limited description of “one of us.” Many, I’ll bet.
    Thanks for your honesty and for the points you raise.

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  7. Mary Eaton

    Very good writing Ken, Your thoughts in this essay can be share with many of us. Until be stop labeling one another in this fine country we cannot come together as United America. This is not Black America, White America, Asian, Indian or Mexican America. We are blended people that could show the world how to live in Peace if we just work harder at it by treating and respecting all people in the same manner.

    It’s always a pleasure to read your fine work. Thank you for writing and sharing.

    Your Friend,

    Mary Eaton

    Reply
  8. Jeannette Mittelsdorf

    What a remarkably insightful essay on the emergence of our current understanding of the complexity of what race means and to whom and for what purpose. Congratulation on dredging from the early memories of valued family experience in conflict with the defenses built into communities to protect their fragility, and your wonderful capacity to tie it all together in its historical perspective some 60 years later. Keep us looking at the reality of what brought us here, what helped create our views of the world, and what must be our next goal. recreating the value of us to ourselves and to each other without the necessity of finding scapegoats to bolster our own fragility. Thanks again..

    Reply
  9. Marta Merajver-Kurlat

    A wonderfully written and very necessary essay, Ken. As a foreigner, I don’t think I have the right to air my thoughts about American society. However, I will say that racism seems to be inherent to man, and that even those discriminated discriminate someone else in turn. If we ever learn to see beyond the obvious and cast aside labels through which others define us, perhaps we will embrace relationships in a healthier way. Yet I don’t feel optimistic.

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  10. John B. Rosenman

    An insightful, inspiring, well-crafted post, Ken. I like the way you begin with your reminiscence of the general store and checkers game and then proceed to the history lesson about the sugar cane industry and slavery. It reminds me of the argument I used to have with my father. He used to say there were only about four major races. White, Black, Yellow, and whatever. I said there were many. In fact, after a while they ran together with minor distinctions so much they became almost meaningless. The main reason you needed to be aware of them was because of certain diseases that might be associated with them. Unfortunately, human beings seemed to need their prejudices and couldn’t or wouldn’t free themselves of them.

    Much of what you say reminds me of my doctoral dissertation: As I Lay Dying: A Study of the Poor White in Faulkner. At least poor whites could look down on blacks. That is, as long as they weren’t viewed as black whites by quality whites. You’re right that “This terror of the non-white was mixed in” by plantation owners in case of a slave rebellion. They wanted to maintain control. Power and money ran the show.

    Hopefully one day, as Martin Luther King said, all people will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. At least today, I think your dad would be asked to play a game of checkers, and one day, everyone will get a turn.

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  11. Clayton Bye Post author

    People tend to be afraid of that which they perceive as different, and how much more different can you get than another race? They look different, sound different, eat different things and sometimes they even smell different from what we are used to. In fact that’s the key to racism, if ever there was one. Only when we become used to what was once different from us, do we humans tend to become more accepting. You see this more and more on our planet as communication across the globe becomes instantaneous. And when you can fly almost anywhere in a few, short hours? Well, it tends to breed familiarity, which in turn chases away our fears. When we see cities washed away on our television screens and we see a strange people suffer as we ourselves might suffer in a similar situation, it makes it harder for the fear, for the racism to remain. So, while racism may never entirely disappear, I think the “world community” will steal its significance.

    Reply
    1. Delinda

      Ken, you and I are thinking along the same lines this week. Thank you for your personal story linked to the history of the concept of race. I hope your readers can take this to heart. Prejudice has come to form along many lines in addition to race and religion. Humans seem to be looking for others to hate.

      On my personal blog, I too, took up the topic of prejudice, its pervasiveness and destructiveness. http://delindalmccann.weebly.com/blog.html

      Reply
  12. Linda Hales

    A timely essay considering the escalation of racism happening in the USA and I do believe the media contributes to the problem more than it helps. This is the USA, not the DSA (United NOTdivided states of America) but this is one social issue that lags behind all the rest. Ken – between your new book and this article, the quality of your writing is escalating by leaps and bounds even though it was already well respected.

    Reply
  13. Steve Lindahl

    Ken,
    I found your post fascinating. The way this separation was created by plantation owners seems so cold and calculating, an exploitation of human bigotry rather than a result. You’re right about the importance of this issue.
    Steve

    Reply
  14. Micki Peluso

    Thanks, Ken for an enlightening essay on bigotry and racism. It’s interesting that blacks were bought and enslaved mostly by Great Britain who for the past hundred years or so did not harbor the racism toward blacks the way our country does. The Puritans seem to be more than a tad bigoted in so many areas. I also find it odd and always have that the word ‘black’ only refers to Africans and African Americans when many races are just as darkskinned. Odd word in any event since I’ve only seen true black people from the extremely handsome inhabitants of Nigeria and a few other black nations. I never saw a ‘red’, or yellow person either. Inspite of the horror stories of torture and murder of black slaves in the South, many were treated well, often willing concubines to the plantation owners who raised their/his offspring well and ‘Mammys’ not only wet nursed the plantation owner’s children but raised them as well. And many plantations gave the slaves freedom.

    The north, so outraged by slavery actually treated blacks with racism, in spite of the supposed reason for the Civil War caused by slavery. Today as so many interaracial marriages, especially among celebrities, racism seemed to be lessening at long last. Then of course we get into the country-wide protests toward police racism, violence, and death provoked and fueled by white racists like Sharpton. Police brutality exists but in the two incidents both men killed were breaking the law and resisting arrest. Cops are trained and ordered to shoot to kill in instances like these. I personally think many policemen don’t use good judgement, but they are following orders.

    In the coming years, if left alone by political agendas people will cease to be so bigoted toward each other. My own large family has become a melting pot with grandchildren that are bi-racial, Lebanese, black and a wide assortment of mixed races. And I love the diversity between them all.

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  15. James Secor

    Where is it today, this racism? Why has it more or less suddenly raised its hoary head? In 2002 I was at a weekend workshop for the disabled and a black guy gave a lecture in which he noted that the whites were son to become the minority and they–meaning the powers that be–were trying to find a way to retain white ascendancy. They have found it: racial profiling, dysbalanced justice, lots of incarceration thus making it impossible for blacks to get a job, creating more educational challenges to success, increasing poverty. . . how many more ways can you say “rose”? [perverting Shakespeare] In that disability caucus, I looked around at the black representatives, many sitting at my table: not a damn one of them rose up and said anything about the godawful racism of that remark and “program” of the dominant culture (whites). Keep this in mind with the rising heat of police violence and murder.

    Reply
  16. Oana

    Oh, how these little comments overheard in childhood stay with us… interesting insight, Ken. Come think of it, it makes sense… among those immigrants who were also survivors of some form of slavery, pogroms, ethnic cleansings, and so forth many must have felt relief hoping that maybe they finally counted as human beings hahaha…

    Reply
    1. James Secor

      Yes, Oana. But how has their experience shaped them, their beliefs and the country? The Pilgrims got leave to emigrate in order for Britain to get rid of a socio-religious nuisance. I suppose the powers that be figured if they died on the way, problem solved; if they died after landing, problem solved. Unfortunately, they lived and created havoc in the New World. . .and shaped the growth and policy of the colonies/nation. I count myself lucky not to be descended from this crowd; there was little prejudice for the French in the mid-17th century.

      Reply
  17. Kenneth Weene

    I am so delighted that James has responded to Oana. The idea that we should have discussion in these comment pages delights me. That my piece has elicited so many comments both here and received in emails and social media groups and so many views delights me as well. It is exciting and humbling to feel that ones words have stirred others.

    Reply
  18. Frank Fiore

    Great article Ken. I’d like to add a little bit of forgotten Black History. History that should be rived today.

    Back at the turn of the century, freed slaves came up from the South seeking a better life in the more liberal North. These Blacks were looked down upon as uncultured peasants. But soon that view would change.

    IN the 1920s a cultural movement unique to Blacks, created by Blacks and enjoyed by both Black and White was created. It was called the Black Renaissance. One particular Renaissance took place in Harlem.

    QUOTE: “Spanning the 1920s to the mid-1930s, the Harlem Renaissance was a literary, artistic, and intellectual movement that kindled a new black cultural identity. Its essence was summed up by critic and teacher Alain Locke in 1926 when he declared that through art, “Negro life is seizing its first chances for group expression and self determination.” Harlem became the center of a “spiritual coming of age” in which Locke’s “New Negro” transformed “social disillusionment to race pride.” Chiefly literary, the Renaissance included the visual arts but excluded jazz, despite its parallel emergence as a black art form.”

    This ‘Black Identity’ came long before the current attempt of Black identity we call African-American which has little to do with Africa except that Africans were black. When asked of a Black person “What tribe you are from?” you get a blank stare. Blacks in this country were torn from their roots centuries ago by slavery.

    What is needed now is not a rebellion as advocated by the current Black leadership – but a revival of a true Black culture like the Black Renaissance.

    I explore these themes in my new novel entitled MURRAN . The story of a Black teenager coming of age and going through his rite of passage.

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  19. Leanne Dyck

    My grandfather owned a general store. Although, he passed before I could meet him, your article brought (second-hand) memories of him (and his store) to my mind. Thank you for writing it, Ken.

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  20. Charline Ratcliff

    Such a great piece, Ken! Thank you very much for sharing. Being from a younger generation than you, I appreciated learning how the whole ‘white’ segregation thing came to be. And I completely agree that, until we stop labeling each other as if we were flavors of wine, we will not free our city, our state, our country or our world from the blight that is racial discrimination.

    Reply

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