Anna Hamilton Reminds Me of My Grandmother
Listening to Anna Hamilton’s most recent Rant n’ Rave show on KMUD (Friday, Feb. 1, 7:00pm) reminded me of talking to my Grandmother. I love my Grandmother, God rest her soul. She was a great cook. She was full of love for her family and friends, of which she had many, but she made no secret of her bigoted, racist views, especially when she drank, which was continuously. My Grandmother’s views were extremely common among white people of her generation, and all of her friends, so far as I could tell, echoed her sentiments.
These racist views were extremely common among white people, even well educated white people, before the Civil Rights Movement, but most people would find them offensive and embarrassing today. My Grandmother very much resented the Civil Rights Movement for the changes it brought to her world, and although this movement changed people’s attitudes on a broad cultural level, as a individual, my Grandmother took her bigoted, racist attitudes to the grave.
My Grandmother, a lifelong resident of South Philadelphia particularly resented the changes that the Civil Rights Movement brought to the Philadelphia Mummers Parade. The Mummers Parade, held every New Year’s Day in Philadelphia, is not unlike Mardi-Gras in New Orleans, except with less nudity, probably because it is very cold in Philadelphia in January.
The Mummers Parade features extravagant floats,
string bands in elaborate feathered, sequined and mirrored headdresses,
and brigades of clowns in brightly colored costumes carrying specially decorated, multi-tiered parasols.
People all over Philadelphia work all year on these costumes and floats to prepare for this one day of wild, drunken revelry that turns the streets of Philadelphia into a massive street party.
One major difference between Mardi-Gras and The Mummers Parade, is that Philadelphia’s Mummers are almost exclusively white, and traditionally, they would all wear black face makeup for the parade.
You can imagine how offensive Philadelphia’s Black Community found this. Thanks to the Civil Rights Movement, Philadelphia’s Mummers can no longer wear black face paint.
Many older Mummers, and white residents of Philadelphia, including my Grandmother, deeply resented the ban on black face paint in the Mummers Parade. For the first few years of the ban, people on floats refused to wave, clowns refused to dance, and string bands would play only Taps whenever the parade passed through a predominantly black neighborhood. For the Mummers, black face paint was not about racism, it was about tradition, but the ban on black face paint starkly revealed that racism was also a cherished tradition in Philadelphia.
According to my Grandmother, Caucasians were better than Black people, Hispanics and Native Americans because of civilization. White people deserved the privilege they enjoyed, not because of any genetic superiority, but because white people were more civilized than Blacks, Hispanics or Native Americans. She explained this to me many times as a child.
According to my Grandmother, Black people, Hispanics, and Native Americans all came from savage, brutal, backwards and uncivilized cultures. These people were just learning to behave in a civilized manner, and they still had a long way to go before they could be considered the equal of Whites. All of the racial violence, oppression and discrimination that non-white people faced was justified, in her eyes, because civilized people needed to beat the savagery out of them, so that they would learn their place in society. In other words, my Grandmother justified institutionalized racism on the same grounds that she justified beating her own kids.
As outrageous as this sounds today, these attitudes were extremely common 50 or 60 years ago. When Anna read the definition of “Civilization” from her 1947 dictionary, I could easily hear my Grandmother’s voice and attitudes channeled through it.
I don’t believe that Anna harbors the same kind of racist sentiment that my Grandmother did, far from it. I know that Anna is a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement and the Peace Movement and I know she believes in equal rights for everyone, but her attitudes and beliefs sound as dated and embarrassing to me today, as my Grandmother’s did in the 1970s.
Anna’s blindness to her own cultural prejudices about civilization allowed her to read that stunningly racist, and xenophobic definition of civilization without the slightest hint of self-consciousness, not unlike a Philadelphia Mummer strutting around in black face to the cheers of white onlookers lining the streets. The problem with the definition of civilization that Anna read, was that it defined civilization by who it excluded.
According to the definition she read, civilization excludes savages, brutes, uneducated, unsophisticated, rude and unruly people, implying that only good, noble, sophisticated and well educated people could be counted among the ranks of the civilized. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Civilization is chock full of savages, brutes and rude unruly people. In fact, civilization produces them in greater numbers than any other culture in the history of humanity.
Here in California, Native Americans were deemed “savages”, and it was legal for civilized people to kill them, just a few generations ago. Elsewhere, civilized people kidnapped millions of Africans, to keep as slaves,
and just a few short years before the publication of Anna’s dictionary, civilized people exterminated seven million Jews, Blacks, Gays, Gypsies etc. in an extremely sophisticated national operation aimed at cleansing civilization of “mongrel races” and “degenerates”.
Even though we now recognize the American holocaust, the European Holocaust, the brutal history of slavery in the US, as well as thousands of other examples of institutionalized violence, as horrible atrocities, we still perceive civilization as superior to the cultures that those, oh so civilized people, so passionately and violently sought to exterminate. We somehow convince ourselves that all of these crimes against humanity were carried out by “bad apples” like Hitler, but that the core of civilization remains a paragon of high ideals, and represents the highest expression of our shared humanity.
Civilized people are like the mafia. They wear nice suits, keep their fingernails manicured, and behave like gentlemen, until they have business to attend to. Then, they become cold-blooded killers.
Here in Humboldt County, civilization looks more like the mafia than in many places, with so many greedy dope yuppies cynically using their civil and property rights to conceal their criminal activity from law enforcement and their obscene incomes from the IRS. They’ve gotten used to making a living from the violence of the drug war, and enjoy their privileged status, as white people with money, within civilization. Consequently, they remain unwilling to face the reality of their situation.
So let’s define civilization by what it is, rather than by what it calls its victims. Civilization is a way of life characterized by cities, hierarchy, division of labor, inequality, violence and environmental degradation (and writing incidentally). It’s high time that we stop pretending that civilization is something to celebrate and face the reality that civilization is an affront to indigenous cultures everywhere.