White like me – or, seeing the world through "Black Like Me"
As America celebrates the 50th anniversary of John Griffin's "Black Like Me," a writer recalls more recent scenarios that Griffin would have found only too familiar.
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"He really likes the care he is receiving," she added. Then she paused. "But I told him he must stopping throwing the 'n' word at the staff, or he is going to be asked to leave."Skip to next paragraph
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"The 'n' word?" I asked, trying not to sound too alarmed. "The 'n' word? To the staff?"
O"h yes," she said, "I gave it to him straight. He told me, 'I'll shut it up right away.' And he better."
"Oh," I said, blinking in disbelief.
"I grew up in a family that used the 'n' word all the time," said my white doctor, pulling back the long shiny mane of brown hair that encased her face. Her grandfather was a KKK member and a police officer in Washington D.C. Then he became a preacher and moved to Mississippi, she explained.
"When I married my husband 20 years ago – he's black and a surgeon – well, I tell you, I got it from both sides."
I had noticed the doctor's husband's medical flyers in the waiting room. He smiled confidently from a glossy professional photo, decked in medical scrubs.
"Both sides?" I asked.
"Yes, my mother was shocked. My mother-in-law was horrified. My mother-in-law said, 'If my son were a trash collector, you wouldn't have anything to do with him, would you?' I told her, 'You're probably right that I wouldn't marry a trash collector, but that's because I don't think we'd necessarily have much in common. But I love your son.' "
My ankle was badly sprained. But the doctor was not done excavating her past, mixing medicine with memory, triggered by a phone call. Her mother and father did not want to have anything to do her and her husband, she added. When Grandpa – "the Klansman“ – died, her mother told her not to come to the funeral.
" ''The family won't accept it,' my mother said. I went anyway."
It was a storyline right out of "Black Like Me."
"Until my dad's funeral, my brother severed all ties with me," she said. "Then he finally came up and thanked my husband, hugged him. Do you know why? Because it was my husband who had taken in our parents when they got older. It was my husband who built an extension on the house to care for his white parents-in-laws until they passed away."
My doctor's skin was as pasty white as mine. But there was a hint of something non-Caucasian. "I'm part Native American, part Scotch-Irish, part Italian, who knows what else – a true American, a mutt," she said.
Race had touched my doctor's life in other ways. She received a medical degree from the same historic black university from which her husband matriculated.
She was an anomaly on campus. "In class a teacher requested that I stop raising my hand. Apparently I wasn't supposed to ask any questions. A student came up to me once and asked, 'I know you're probably sick of being asked this, but are you white or are you black?' "
When I got home that day something moved me to open up "Black Like Me." As another page crumbled, I read: "The real story is the universal one of men who destroy the souls and bodies of other men (and in the process destroy themselves). It is the story of the persecuted, the defrauded, the feared and detested. I could have been a Jew in Germany, a Mexican in a number of states, or a member of any 'inferior' group. Only the details would have differed. The story would be the same."
Journalist Priscilla Hart lives in Annapolis, Md.
[Editor's note: an earlier version of this story used the wrong middle name for Lyndon Baines Johnson.]