Friday, March 21, 2008

Thinking About Ethnic Pride

It seems that I have been thinking a lot about race, class, and ethnicity.

Perhaps it is because of the election. Perhaps it is because of the call for healing Kirkwood. Perhaps it is because art has imitated life and I've had a view of both.

The other night I watched The Nanny Diaries on my pay-per-view cable channel. It struck me as a little funny how the rich, white (English ethnicity?) ladies of the Upper East Side couldn't manage to feed their own children or give them a hug. They hired out to do that, did they even have the child?

There was a scene with all the nannies picking up the chubby-faced preschoolers from one of Manhattan's designed-to-guarantee-Ivy League-preschools when I noticed all the nannies. Most were East European, Latino (Mexican, Salvadorian, you name it), Caribbean (likely Jamaican since English is the main language), or young white and fresh from college American girl. The little terrors (only because they really want the attention of their power-hungry, adulterous fathers or emotionally-absent, consumer-maven mothers) would run down the stairs and greet their nannies in everything from hugs to kicks. I said a silent humpf.

The 21st century version of domestic-servitude has changed hue (once, this was the almost exclusive domain of black women from slavery until the 1970s). The methods and reasons still exist. The movie did an excellent portrayal, howbeit funny, of the callous behavior of some people with money. It wasn't as if these society mommies were actually working. There were moments I wanted to jump in the screen and pop some sense in the mommy who would throw her shopping at the nanny and demand more and more of her time. The Jamaican nanny commented that she came to this country to give a better life for her son but she has spent more time raising these kids that her own son has essentially been motherless, being raised by his Grandmother.

The treatment of the mommy, Mrs. X., was deplorable and totally devoid of any humanity. And this is 2008 and still happens. What is it with the English? I can't even say this is behavior of all rich people and certainly not all white people but it had me think about slavery for a moment and the "house maids" who did everything for the mistress. Was it the newly arrived English maiden's ever present quest to be like the royalty of England? After all, our country was originally an English colony with its Lords and Ladies, Gents, Lords of the Manor, and servant class.

My lesson in life and other ethnicity's was also enhanced again by art and a delightful movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I was cracking up at the life of Toula, the 30 year-old maiden living at home with her "windex-cures-everything" father who was very vocal about his Greek pride. Her mother's remedy was "Toula, eat something" but she had a keen way of understanding this patriarchal society and worked her husband to benefit her daughter.

I identified with the multiple cousins and huge family gatherings. They were Greek Orthodox and my mother's family is Catholic, complete with a couple priests. I understood the male position as the one to make all the final decisions, even for his unmarried adult children.

The movie chronicled Toula's life growing up, being laughed at by the "blond girls with Wonderbread sandwiches." She was decidedly ethnic in the 1970s Chicago neighborhood. Her father insisted that she and her brother attend Greek school and learn their language, history, and customs.

I laughed at the scenes of the cousins dressing her for the wedding and the evident love they had for each other. This show depicted a genuine love and respect but also of the slice of America. The father came to this country with "only $8 in my pocket" and built a restaurant. There were family members with a travel agency and a dry cleaner all within a working class neighborhood of Chicago. The Greek flag was proudly flown and even painted on the garage. It was rich.

I thought about the Chicago Irish and the recent St. Patrick's Day festivities I'm sure included the Chicago River turning green. I never went to the parade, always having to work on March 17th. I worked at a big accounting firm with a lot of 100 Irish people and they were equally proud of their heritage and equally as Catholic as my ancestors. Dogtown here in St. Louis had their fun that included lots of revelry and beer. It was identifying with a people who shared similar background and heritage. I thought of the movie with Ed Asner as the proud, Irish father and pub owner who just wanted a heart for his unmarried daughter.

My musing turned to The Hill neighborhood with everything proudly screaming Italian. I drove through this area just off Kingshighway and Shaw and marveled at all the green, white, and red flags. I chucked when even the fire hydrants were painted to reflect ethnic pride. The quiet streets on this Sunday afternoon included little, brick bungalows, no McMansions or mammoth garages here. I saw the Catholic churches and schools, the restaurants, and all the locally-owned shops. They were a city unto themselves. Only in America. I'm sure this neighborhood would've been like the Italian neighborhood in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever.

Then my thoughts turned to my little piece of St. Louis. Here in Kirkwood there is much healing that is still trying to take place in the wake of February 8th. This is a town in black and white. Historically, some of the original settlers here were English and German. They were not working class by the size of the mansions that line Dougherty, Woodbine, Argonne and Taylor. This town was built up around the railroad and as an escape from the influx of immigrants in St. Louis over 150 years ago.

The rich of Kirkwood had nannies, servants, and some had slaves. The mother of the shooter was a nanny to one of the Kirkwood rich and even nannied his children when he grew up. These stories are not unusual in the St. Louis region. Even my husband's aunt, who migrated her from Mississippi, worked for a rich, white family as a domestic. This is the origin of Kirkwood.

Then I turn to the little neighborhood to the southeast corridor just off I-44 near Kirkwood/Lindberg and Big Bend.

Meacham Park was once 155 acres of proud, albeit not rich, blacks who were segregated from the surrounding, all white communities. They made their own. There were grocery stores, churches, beauty and barber shops, auto shops, dry cleaners, and other businesses. Teachers, insurance salesmen, even professionals were named among their number along with the domestics, blue collar professions, and the poor. Their homes were more 2-3 bedroom bungalows or shot-gun houses and not as resplendent as their neighbors in Kirkwood.

Meacham Park was an unincorporated part of St. Louis County and has a rich history. The annual, summertime homecoming event still takes place with people returning to their neighborhood from all over the country. Multiple generations can trace their heritage to this little place. Pride of self and achievement are evident as one walks the halls of the Milton J. Turner Middle School on Milwaukee Avenue. The halls ring out of the hopeful young men and women nurtured under the watchful tutelage of caring teachers. The Catholic church even had a presence among the very spiritual community.

Then Kirkwood annexed them in 1991 and promptly razed half the community in favor of commercial development like Target, Wal*Mart, and Lowe's. The hurt is still felt in 2008. I thought about how this could happen here and not on The Hill or in Dogtown or any other white, ethnic neighborhood. Is it the city was back by the police who haven't always been favorable in black communities? Is it because the neighborhood saw themselves as American and thus did not fly the red, black, and green of the black flag? Is it because they were not on the police force like the descendants of Irish immigrants? Or weren't in a stereotypical mob like Tony Soprano of HBOs Sopranos?

Some of the thoughts are because of the legacy of discrimination and segregation that forced blacks into segregated areas, even those with careers like law, medicine, and education lived among those who had blue collar jobs. It served as a rich tapestry of humanity in areas like The Ville in St. Louis where my family thrived as far back as the years before the Civil War. My great-grandparents were all educated, middle class, prosperous. They sent all their children to college, even my grandmother, a woman, was sent to Kentucky Normal, to be educated. Her mother before her was educated as well as her father.

I thought about the two families that would be the backdrop of my heritage. My grandfather, along with his two sisters were sent to Illinois to pursue college degrees. His mother, a French-speaking woman of Creole descent who's mother was kidnapped as a little girl from Hispaniola (born in the Dominican Republic, kidnapped from Haiti, brought to New Orleans with her mother, taught French, married a Frenchman) at a time before the Civil War, was also educated. The man she would marry, my great-grandfather, came here from Tennessee and was a businessman on the Biddle Street Market. It is a rich heritage, and they all lived in The Ville. There were middle class blacks along with working class blacks.

My family background made me think about my heritage in relation to the movies and neighborhoods I visited. Decidedly Catholic, definitely Creole, clearly educated, totally American. My mother's family didn't display the black-pride flags, my mother was born in 1924, a time before that was accepted. My family did celebrate their heritage and my aunt still talks about "those old Creole ladies" in remembering their refinement and social graces. They were middle class, a feat among itself in deeply segregated America.

Yet, separate wasn't equal for black Americans. I completely acknowledge that my Irish and Italian brothers and sisters also had a hard time assimilating into the American (decidedly English) culture when they make the trek from Europe. The difference is they brought their language, culture, foods, flags, and customs with them. The descendants of black slaves from Africa were stripped of their language, foods, customs, culture, religion, and name when they were forced into servitude. Even blacks like my family, who were not slaves, were subject to the discrimination of America.

The unique culture of New Orleans in the antebellum south was a three-tier, Catholic, French culture. The gens de coeulr libre had to keep among themselves, intermarrying, in order to maintain their middle-upper income status. This society still exists. The infamous Quadroon Balls turned into upper income Cotillions and are still practiced rites of passage for upper income black girls. The Jack & Jills, the sororities, and the Links all have a young woman presentation evening. It was part of upper income, free black culture that has been passed through the generations.

My thoughts have still been deeply steeped in this muse on culture, class, race, class, income, class and identity. I wonder if my neighbor up-the-street, proudly flying the Italian flag, would shudder at me with a black national flag? My husband and I discussed this and he said it is probably because of American fear that there isn't a public, visual, showing of a black pride neighborhood in a Kirkwood neighborhood because it would be deemed radical.

There is still the unwarranted fear, traced to slavery, that if black people were educated about the laws, corruption, and behind-the-door dealings, that there would be uprising. There is still the suberversion of black voting, understanding that one vote makes a difference. Police still follow black cars and eye a "crowd" of five black teenagers suspiciously on the square without eyeing the same "crowd" of white teenagers on the square.

During slavery, clearly an economic system first that was easier to regulate by instituting racism since the Africans could never blend in like the Irish, Italian, German, and English immigrants. The slave masters kept their slaves in ignorance by stripping them of their heritage and publicly beating them if they refused to take an English name, by beating or killing them if they learned to read, by segregating them, raping them (all those very light, some almost white slaves didn't happen by accident) by instilling division in them though favoring light complexion over dark complexion, by Jim Crow laws after the Emancipation to keep them further regulated. I trace the history through the Civil Rights Era all the way to the history of Meacham Park and Kirkwood and all along I see etches of proud black people enduring, surviving, hoping, believing.

So what do I make of it, this musing over culture? What do I think as I drive through The Hill or watch a decidedly ethnic-pride movie? What do I think about the Caribbean neighborhoods in New York that are able to proudly proclaim ties to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, or Jamaica? They are immigrants, even three or four generations in this country, who can still hold onto their language, customs, foods, and name because they were not subjected to the horrors of slavery and blackness in America. I wonder as black people who can only trace their heritage to bondage in this country, try to carve an identity when Africa is a vast continent with about 50 countries and hundreds of tribes, languages, customs, religions, and names. How can they fly a flag of pride when they don't know if they came from Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, or Nigeria?

I'm happy for those who can trace their heritage and proudly display it like my Irish, Italian, or Greek brothers. I think of my favorite restaurant in the Central West End, decidedly Greek, and how much pride they display. I think about St. Louis Coffee Oasis and the proud Middle Eastern owner. Then I think about Meacham Park and their pride as they fight to maintain their history, ownership, and tradition.

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