The following essay ("The History Lesson") is one I posted on my own blog "Lori's Old School Mix" in June of 2008. Recently, while re-reading the piece, I realized I'd neglected to mention the race of the teacher in question. For the record, the teacher was White. While pondering my original omission of that bit of information, I realized something--for the most part, it didn't really matter. In all honesty, had the teacher been Black, Asian, Latino or Other, the internal angst and discomfort I felt in that particular situation would have been the same.
THE HISTORY LESSON
Back in high school, I had a favorite teacher, who, with his big grin, jerky movements and small, wiry frame, reminded me of a cricket--Jiminy Cricket to be precise. He was an older fellow whose wisdom and intellect I'd accepted without question, until the day he opened his mouth and spat out the words, "Those dirty Japs!"
The first time I heard him say it, I was stunned. I thought to myself, Surely, I must had misheard him. I didn't want to believe that my favorite teacher, a man whom I'd admired for his quick wit and keen sense of humor, not to mention his command of American history, had actually made such an offense comment.
But it was true. Again and again, while covering the U.S. involvement in WWII, one of my high school teachers used the terms "Japs" and "dirty Japs" in reference to the Japanese. And each time he uttered the words, I squirmed in my seat, made uncomfortable not only by his use of the ethnic slur, but by my own hesitancy when it came to voicing my objections.
Some memories stay with one always.
No, I'm not Japanese. I'm not even Asian. (Well, as far as I know *smile* According to the hubby, I do sorta kinda look Asian when I'm asleep). By self-definition, I am an African American of the female persuasion.
But if it matters, and in this instance it did, there was a young woman of obvious Asian ancestry in that particular high school history class. I don't recall her name. She and I weren't friends or even acquaintances. The possibility exists that she was no more Japanese that was I, as does the possibility that she took no offense to our teacher's comments. But the fact remains that we were both young women of color, bound together in one sense by our vulnerable status as the only two visible minorities in a classroom full of young, White students, and bound together in another sense by our silence.
I can't help but think we should have said something, if only to one another. Why didn't we? Was it youth? Shyness? Fear? Ambivalence? Embarrasment? Or was it simply too far an emotional distance for either of us to cross. Twenty-plus years later, I still don't know.
Looking back on the incident, I now find it both unnerving and somewhat ironic that the teacher in question reminded me of a cricket. The truth is, I have a fear of crickets, a fear that involves my not knowing where the little critters are bound to jump next.
And indeed, it is a small jump from Jap to nigger/from faggot to coon/ from spic to jigaboo/
If I, as an African American, wait until the slur turns from slanty-eye bastard to big-lipped baboon, then have I not, in fact, waited too late? Of course, I have. I think even way back then, I somehow sensed it was so.
"In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't Communists. Then they came for the Jews and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn't speak up because I was Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up for me."
(Rev. Martin Niemoller, 1892-1984)
"If they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night."
(James Baldwin, 1924-1987)
And for those who still don't get it, the "History Lesson" here is--just as there is no safety in silence, there is no safety in drawing the lines of intervention around our own ethnic, racial, sexual or religious identities.
(Written while listening to Erykah Badu's "Honey," "The Healer" and "Master Teacher" from the CD entitled New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War). Check the refrain from "Master Teacher":
"What if there was no niggas only master teachers?"
"I stay woke . . ."
What about you? Have there been times in your life when you wish you'd spoken up? What were your reasons for not doing so?