Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Remember the Past: The Men who were called Boy

I recently watched this video of Samuel L. Jackson describing his childhood in Chattanooga, TN.

In this video, Jackson recalls going to work with his grandfather as a child and his grandfather being called "boy" by the white men who worked in the real estate office his grandfather cleaned. His grandfather called them "Mr" So-and-so, but they called his grandfather "boy." His grandfather also scolded Jackson about looking the men in their eyes when he talked with them and frequently asking them questions.  Conversing with and asking questions of whites wasn't something blacks were allowed to do. Even as a child, Jackson realized there was something odd about the dynamic between the two sets of men. The white men were called "mister" by his grandfather (and other blacks) while the white men were allowed to call the black men "boy."

Boy.

Mister.

I've heard my own tales of the word "boy" my whole life. My own father often recounted the tale of hearing his grandfather being called "boy" by shop owners and of being told they couldn't drink Coke or Pepsi because those drinks weren't for blacks. Whenever my dad told me about these things, he expressed anger over the confusion he felt then because as a child his grandfather was the biggest, tallest, best man there was, but before white males, he was nothing more than a "boy."

There has been so much power and control behind such a simple word.

So many strong, intelligent, loving men belittled and made to feel inferior in front of their young sons and grandsons because of the power dynamic of the past. It hurt my dad to witness his grandfather being called a boy, but the pain and anguish that that word imposed has been lost on generations today.

In the video, Kelly Ripa is riveted and experiences chills while hearing this story from Sam Jackson, but he (just as I) shrugged it off because as he said, "it is what it is." That was life for blacks, esp. black men back in the day. Through my dad, I've heard these stories before, so I nodded while watching this. I know these stories well. It's how it was. I've been taught this by my family.

But for people who don't know, never heard these stories, it's amazing, riveting, chill-inducing stories.

Boy.

Mister.

To all the men--strong, powerful, hard-working, loving men who were made to feel less than, made to feel inferior, made to watch your father, uncle, grandfather feel less than which in turn made you feel less than, I thank you for enduring. Thank you for showing that a word, such a small but powerful word in that context did not truly make you who you are. Your actions made you who you are.

We have forgotten stories like this. We no longer pass them along. How easy it is to forget that we are but one, maybe one and a half generation removed from men being called boys, being treated as less than, being belittled.  We mustn't forget. We must remember.

To the men who were called boys: thank you for being strong and teaching us how to become misters.

Pay attention the past.
Study history.


I dedicate this to my dad and the many other teachers I've had along the way.

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