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How We Think — And Write — About Race

Reflections on black history and a Polish barber

My Monday morning began with the news that loyal reader Chuck Erskine was mad at me, at Bay Weekly and at cruciverbalist Ben Tausig.
    Please inform Ben Tausig that the pages of the Bay Weekly are no place for his ethnic bigotry. The clue for 10 down in the crossword puzzle in Vol. xxi, No. 6 [Switching Sides] is an outrage. What purpose is served by using the adjective ­[Polish] before dude? Would Ben use his own ethnicity in an unnecessary and belittling manner? Perhaps the editor should proof his work, wrote Erskine of Governor’s Run.
    The clue, by the way, is Like the haircut I just got from this old Polish dude that then I had to fix.
    Erskine’s ire reminds me how touchy an issue tribal identity is, and how personally we take it.
    Is Chuck Polish? Is Ben? Am I? I don’t know about Chuck. Ben is of Polish ancestry. Me, I’m Italian and some mixture of Irish, Scotch and English that I’d need a genome reading to sort out.
    Would I have censored Ben if his barber — who actually was Polish — had instead been labeled Italian? Jewish? Black? Would I have been censorious if the Polish dude had been a dame?
    I am sensitive to gender bias in language. He is not our default (though I confess to loosening my rules in reference to animals), and we don’t do spokesman, chairman, fireman or mailman except when a guy is doing the speaking, chairing, firefighting or delivering. Fisherman is tough; fisher doesn’t quite do the job, and angler is too specific. On the other hand, mailma’m works nicely for female letter carriers.
    My feeling on the issue are like the answer Ben sought to 10 Down: uneven.
    Were Ben, Bay Weekly and I guilty as charged of ethnic bigotry? I hope not. But obviously we crossed the line of tribal sensitivity, and so we had better step back. Let the Washington Redskins fight that battle.
    Erskine’s email also brings to the surface a tribal concern that’s been at the back of my mind as I prepared this paper with Black History as its centerpiece.
    All of us writing about black history in this issue are white. I’m white. The librarians who jumped so willingly, expertly and speedily into the project are white. White, too, are the authors of the three books we highlight.
    All of us have crossed this tribal line in hopes of increasing our knowledge, as Black History month asks. The first fact we have to confront in so doing is the white-on-black fact of slavery. The enormous black populations of mid-19th-century Chesapeake Country — 62.4 percent in Calvert County in 1850 — were for the most part not free people.
    Acknowledgement of guilt is part of the price of admission we of the white tribe pay to learn about black history. Perhaps equalization is the hoped-for result.
    Studying black history doesn’t make us colorblind. I’m thinking the better effect is becoming more color sensitive. That’s an awareness I hope I’m achieving in artist Lee Boynton’s Maryland Hall class in Impressionist Watercolor. Perhaps we’re all — artists, historians and people — striving to see color in its true light as the illuminator of our world.
    That, I think, is how all three of the authors we write about this week — Ann Widdifield, William ‘Billy’ Poe and James Johnston — have seen black history. They’ve certainly added breath, depth and humanity to my understanding.
    I think, too, that’s what Ben Tausig is saying in his answer to Chuck Erskine.
    I am myself of Polish ancestry, which perhaps made me more comfortable including the ethnic adjective, though I didn’t think about it, wrote Tausig, who lives in New York City.
    I think perhaps especially in New York City, one lives with ethnic difference in an immediate and daily way. That’s one of the reasons I love living here, though without a doubt it produces conflict as well as mutual understanding. Regardless, it is part of the basic grammar of being a citizen here. Mentioning my barber’s ethnicity was more a matter of tone (the tone of an anecdote I would normally tell about an event in New York) than any specific implication about that ethnicity. (Which, in this case, also happens to be mine). The barber who ultimately fixed my haircut was Ukrainian. Yesterday I had lunch with a Thai friend. Our baby’s nanny is St. Lucian. My wife sees patients from Yemen and Albania and the Dominican Republic. This is a place of ethnic difference, and acknowledging that fact need not be bigoted in itself.
    Chesapeake Country is also a place of ethnic difference. We need to acknowledge that fact beyond Black History month.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; [email protected]