During a guest spot on the PRI show “Smiley and West,” iconic actor James Earl Jones discussed his grandmother’s prejudice against other races, as well as her own, and how she tried to indoctrinate Jones with similar views during his childhood:
I do understand racism, because I was taught to be one, by my grandmother. My grandmother was part Cherokee, Choctaw Indian, part black. She hated everybody. She taught all of her children and grandchildren to be racist, to hate white people, and to distrust black people.
It’s an experience that profoundly affected Jones’ upbringing, and one he’s referenced many times during the course of his long career. Given the era in which he grew up (Jones was born in 1931), it was likely a lot more common an experience than some of us have with our grandparents today (provided those grandparents are Jones’ age or younger).
His reflections got me thinking about the indelible opening of Lawrence Otis Graham’s Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class. The first chapter of Graham’s book discusses his own grandmother’s views on which blacks were to be revered and respected and which were not:
All my life, for as long as I can remember, I grew up thinking that there existed only two types of black people: those who passed the “brown paper bag and ruler test” and those who didn’t. Those who were members of the black elite. And those who weren’t.
“You boys stay out of that terrible sun,” great-grandmother Porter would say in a kindly, overprotective tone. “God knows you’re dark enough already.”
As she sat rocking, stiff-lipped and humorless, on the porch of our Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, summer home, she would gesture for us to move further and further into the shade while flipping disgustedly through the pages of Ebony magazine.
“Niggers, niggers, niggers,” she’d say under her breath while staring at the oversized pages of text and photos of popular Negro politicians, entertainers, and sports figures who were busy making black news in 1968.
Though Jones’ and Graham’s characterizations of their grandmothers’ bias are different, the fact that they were quite vocal about separating themselves from other blacks (based on skin color, social status, or unfounded suspicion) is apparent. While Jones flat-out calls his grandmother racist, Graham frames his grandmother’s bias a bit differently:
An outsider might have looked at this woman and wondered whether she liked blacks at all. Her views seemed so unforgiving. The fact was that she was completely dedicated to the members of her race, but she had a greater understanding of and appreciation for those blacks who shared her appearance and socioeconomic background.
Certainly, views similar to those of each of these grandmothers still can be heard in some family circles. Whether the matriarchs are older and wistful for different times, or the younger inheritors of their mothers’ bias, some grandmas are still warning their grand- and great-grandchild to “stay out of the sun.”
Have you ever received prejudiced or stereotyped messages from your older relatives? How did you handle them?