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“The Blackest Black Man…”

June 22, 2013

(This is an anecdote from way back, a memory triggered by a recent post by L in the Souheast on Open Salon)

Back in 1964 while a student at San Francisco State, I answered a spot job ad on the student employment board.When I called, the lady explained it was just one-day’s work cleaning up and cleaning out their garage which she and her husband had converted into an arts and crafts studio. It was just one day’s work but she assured me it would not be unpleasant work and that she and her husband would provide lunch as well as the $15 payment.

When I got there I met two very pleasant old folks each with deeply lined faces and a shock of unruly white hair. Each of them appeared to be in their late seventies. In retirement they had taken up creating crafts of various materials that they sold in area craft shows. They needed someone to scrape gunk off the work bench and the floor, to climb a ladder and move some boxes down from the loft and put other ones up. Easy enough for me, while ladders and lifting were a bit risky for people their age.

The woman explained that once a year they advertised for a college student. They had usually had very good experiences but last year was very strange. A student with a clipped British accent had responded and, as with me, she hired him over the phone without meeting him face to face. She assumed from his speech that he was an Englishman, perhaps a Londoner.

Imagine her surprise when a black African exchange student showed up! He was from Kenya and having learned English from British teachers, spoke with a British accent. She was surprised, shocked even! She had no idea he was black! “And he was the blackest black man I’d ever seen,” she went on. “You know most colored people are various shades of brown but this man was really black-black!” She went on, searching for words to describe how very, very black he was. “He was so black….”

I could feel my body stiffening and strong emotions welling up within me. Oh shit, here we go, I thought. I can see where this is heading! I just know this is leading up to some ugly racist punchline I don’t want to hear. Damn! I don’t want ot dispute this woman who’s paying me but I can’t let racist attitudes pass without challenge. I have to say something to her…but what can I say that might get through to her? I wracked my brain for a response that would not come across as an angry put-down but would cause her to reflect on her assumptions, her racial attitudes, something that would make her think…

Just then, this deeply wrinkled, slender old white lady perhaps 77 years old, suddenly rubbed her arm and said, “his skin was like…like burnished ebony. It was beautiful!”I laughed out loud. I felt a great sense of surprise and a great release of tension. Of course, I was laughing at myself. I had seriously misjudged this woman. I had made some wrong assumptions about her. She taught me a lesson.

She went on to talk about how only in recent years she had come to notice how physically beautiful certain black people were and how in her earlier years she had just never thought in those terms.

We had a very pleasant lunch.

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