Owing to the fact that I have recently watched Lincoln and Django Unchained, the subjects of race and slavery has been on my mind.
The concept of slavery being tied to someone’s race is, historically speaking, a recent one–only a few hundred years old. In ancient times one became a slave when one warring party defeated another, and then made the losers their slaves. The City-State of Sparta had a ratio of 7 helots (slaves) to every Spartan; helots being other Greeks from conquered territory. Equally, the origin of the American slave is based on conquest and not race. American and European slave traders did not go into the African hinterland in search of Africans to capture and make slaves, but purchased them from other Africans who conquered them. Only later did the concept of race and superiority come into play.
And what of race? Leonard Pitts, Jr. of the Miami Herald states, “Race is the stupidest idea in history. It is also, arguably, the most powerful.” Genetically there is no difference between a White, Black, Asian or Hispanic, but because of the concept of race we are indoctrinated to certain stereotypes. My views of race have evolved as I have, not because I more educated but because I know more people. I know more people who have come from different places, have different customs and are not like me. And I have learned that though we are all different, we are all also the same. No one group has a monopoly on intelligence or ignorance, work ethic or sloth, being nice or an asshole.
But who am I, where do I come from, and what is/was my environment.
I’m Cuban-American, thirty-nine, gay, have a forty-two year old husband from a college town in the Midwest, and have lived in Miami my whole life. My parents came from Cuba in 1961 to escape a communist regime and created a good life for me and my sister. Miami today is a metropolitan city where sixty percent of the population came from somewhere else, fifty-six percent is hispanic, everyone thinks English will be lost to Spanish, but if you head to Sunny Isles you better know English because your other option is Russian.
My mother was from the upper class and my father the upper-middle. Neither had black friends in Cuba, and their main dealings were with their servants and housekeepers. Early in my life I was exposed to comments such as “we didn’t have these problems in Cuba, they knew their place.” I was also exposed to racist jokes, and told them on occasion. When my older cousin came back from college with a black girlfriend my aunt made sure my father was aware of it so he would not offend. My grandmother told me stories of how the household prepared for hurricanes in Cuba: my grandfather would bring in black gardeners at the last possible moment to trim the trees and then paid them with rum and sent them on their way before the storms would hit.
Growing up I went to private catholic schools. There were only a couple of black kids in my entire grade school and none in my grade. In high school there were more. But even there, either between classes or after school I remember a black student who lost a bet which resulted in him having to tell every black racist joke he knew, and he knew a lot. College wasn’t much different from high school, only bigger.
It wasn’t until I started working in construction did my prejudices really start to change. On a regular basis I dealt with all different types of people from all different types of backgrounds–from wealthy developers to poor laborers, the well-educated to the drop-out, the upstanding citizen to the guy who could only leave his house to go to work because of his parole. On my first project I had to visit a vendor at a location where my bosses insisted I take Naimen, one of our laborers, because he is black and I was going to a “bad” area. After going there and coming back I didn’t see what all the fuss was about.
But I have also experienced and heard things that are wrong; witnessed to a lesser extent the persecution of the “other” and the “them”; been in a subcontractor meeting where the superintend of the project bragged that in his hometown they had a banner across the main street that on one said read “such & such a place, home to the greenest hill and the blackest dirt”, and on the other side it read, “Nigger, don’t stay here overnight.” I have played golf with the brother and friend of the company owner I used to work for, where they proudly bragged the year they graduated high school was the last year before desegregation. I later found out the brother, a Florida Highway Patrolman, was suspended with pay for two weeks after calling his first black partner a nigger within ten minutes of meeting him. An old big boss of mine, a man I respected and considered the best builder in the city, a man who worked with and employed the same black man as his lead foreman for over thirty years, a man who continually employed the same Haitian for over fifteen years who was injured on a job, pulled me aside when he learned I was going-off with my own business and proceeded to tell me, “a nigger will always be a nigger.”
I was quite for all the above. Not so much anymore. An old fraternity brother of mine and Facebook “friend” posted on his wall before the election a photo of Michelle Obama with a caption reading, “don’t forget to vote to throw the monkeys out of the White House.” I called him out on it and he removed it. When I hear derogatory remarks I speak-up. When I receive an e-mail of caricatures of all the Presidents showing forty-two white faces and one black face with a caption asking which one doesn’t belong? I reply-all and call that person out on their “joke”.
And what about the city I call home, Miami? The melting pot of diversity it is today is a recent identity. In the past on Miami Beach Jews could only live South of 5th Street or in North Beach, and blacks could only work on the Beach but not live there. The only black beach was on Virginia Key between Miami and Key Biscayne. The vibrant black area of Overtown was purposely gutted when the course of I-95 was shifted to cut through its center. (If you are driving on I-95 just North of Downtown Miami and you notice the interstate shifts East for about a mile and then shifts West again for apparently no reason, well then, you just went over Overtown.) One of the largest race riots in the country occurred in Miami in 1980, and another would happen in 1989. The city today is better than what it was, but it still has a long way to go. As with any area that has a large population from many different places, there is always an us vs. them atmosphere. But over time as we live together and become more assimilated, the lines begin to blur. The us and them become we.
Below are two links to columns and posts much more eloquent than mine:
Click on image to read column
Click on image to read post regarding “Django Unchained”