Confronting Racism at Home




Dr. Christina Berchini, Guest Writer

As a white teacher educator who has taken on the “daunting” (Sleeter, 2008) work of antiracist education with preservice teachers, the work of critical family history is beginning to play a key role in my classroom. Importantly, critical family history is giving me insights into my family’s complicity in the fight against multiculturalism, as it took place in New York City. For me, the work of confronting racism at home, and teaching students how they might also do this work, begins with an understanding of the role my family played in some of our city’s earliest acts of resistance against multiculturalism.

The Beginning of a Journey Toward Critical Family History: Meet “Pop”

Like Jessica—the white teacher at the heart of Sleeter’s novel White Bread—my knowledge of my family stops with my grandparents and some scattered details about a few great grandparents. The paternal side of my family tree is staggeringly complicated: Because my father never knew his father, and his mother never knew her father (these marriages did not exist, and children were born out of wedlock), surnames and countries of origin—in most cases—are simply not known. In fact, my own last name (“Berchini”) is a product of convenience: It is the name my grandmother chose for my father, to match his older brother’s name (my uncle’s father was named Pablo Berchini, a man I’ve never met, and with whom I do not share any DNA whatsoever). The words “evil” and “bastard” also had something to do with this decision.

My explorations at this time are thus narrowed to my maternal side, which is a little easier to trace. This choice is both a matter of convenience but also a function of having spent a great deal of my childhood with “Pop” – my beloved maternal grandfather. My family took regular trips from our tiny apartment in Gravesend, Brooklyn to Jamaica, Queens (a neighborhood in one of New York City’s five boroughs), where we’d visit my grandfather, his sister, and brother (my second aunt and uncle). By this time (the late 1980s to early 90s) Jamaica was a predominantly black neighborhood.

I have recently begun situating my family in  social and historical context by having a series of conversations with my grandfather about race. Upon undertaking this work, I knew right away that my family tree and the history in which it is situated was going to look rather different from that produced by other white academics, and possibly many white preservice teachers. I begin this work knowing some key components about my grandfather, his family, and his life as it intersected with my childhood:

  • My grandfather was poor as a child; he grew up in Jamaica, Queens, and has spent the last couple of decades living in a trailer park in Florida.
  • Homeownership and other assets were negligible, and never passed down as any form of a meaningful inheritance from which later generations would benefit. Indeed, there wasn’t anything to pass down. In fact, I am not aware of any inheritance, large or small, from which any one person in my family may have benefitted. I remember how my mother told me that her grandmother (Pop’s mother-in-law) suggested that, upon her death, her five grandchildren take themselves out to dinner, as she was not able to leave behind much more than the price of a meal.

Some of my most powerful childhood memories of my grandfather, however, are narrated by his racism. As I was growing up, Pop would make his beliefs about people of color known. From his point of view, the influx of people of color into Jamaica, Queens was solely responsible for the neighborhood “turning bad” (his words) prior to his exit from Queens to Long Island in the mid-sixties.

More recently, when hurricane Hermine was on track to hit Florida in the fall of 2016, I remember my stunned reaction to Pop’s decision to remain put, even after authorities declared mandatory evacuation. Although his trailer is inland, he is surround by trees. Trailers and trailer parks are notoriously vulnerable to extreme weather events. But his reason for staying put was simple: There were too many people of color staying at the shelters (my words). It should not have surprised me, that he chose his racism over his safety. I am used to such comments, now, as it is not often possible to have a conversation with him without some criticism centered on “the blacks” or “the Puerto Ricans”—I find myself quickly changing the subject back to family when this happens. I vividly remember hanging up the phone in tears when Hermine was about to hit. I was worried sick about his safety. He said that he was worried, too—even scared. But too racist, it seemed, to seek shelter from a deadly storm.

However, my strongest childhood memories of Pop involve threats of abandonment. As a white child born and raised in the inner-city, my experiences are anything but racially isolated. And this meant that I attended school with racially, culturally, ethnically, and linguistically diverse children. My grandfather threatened both my sister and me with abandonment had we ever decided to marry a person of color—the very friends who comprised my daily experiences. I remember observing his body tense up during these conversations; his jaw muscles twitching. He meant business. My mother would admonish him for saying such things. After all, she had not raised us to believe that interracial marriage was wrong. But the damage was done. My relationship with my grandfather seemed conditional, and rested upon my compliance with his wishes. I grew to avoid conversations about race. I think I even feared them. While I knew he was wrong, confronting racism at home, as a child, did not seem to be an option.

My reason for undertaking this work, then, is to grapple with and make sense of a paradox. Despite his racism, my grandfather’s lifelong friends—people with whom he remains connected—are people of color; his family came to the aid of black neighbors who were fearful of their white neighbors; and his brother (my uncle) maintained a serious relationship with a woman of color leading up to his death in 1991. As I recall, the only white people in attendance at my uncle’s funeral were those related to my uncle. Pop has also been outspoken against Donald Trump’s racism; and I, his own granddaughter, have designed a professional and personal life that is committed to antiracism—in spite of, or maybe because of, my upbringing. How to make sense of these contradictions?

Pop is my only surviving grandparent—he turns 83 this year. And while I vividly remember my parents’ attempts to shield my sister and me from his problematic stances toward people of color, my childhood memories are comprised of much more than this. He is a man who remembered every single birthday—and still does. He recently mailed me a twenty-five-dollar check for having turned 37 years old—as grandparents are wont to do. I remember how he diagnosed my car troubles nearly ten years ago when the transmission blew. Watching him stand over the hood of my car was like watching a magician: Electric sparks came and went on command, and otherwise dead components under the hood came to life with Pop’s bare hands. You never quite knew how he made it all happen, you just knew that he did. Like a magician. The army would make good use of his skills for six years, where he worked for the missile outfit and repaired military vehicles. During a recent conversation, he talked about the separate barracks assigned to people of color.

“Even when I was in the army, black men had their own barracks, and we had our own,” he said.

“Why do you think that was?” I asked. Of course I know why, but I wanted his perspective.

He told me of how he would go to the bar with people of color—friends he had made while in service. He recalled asking them about the separate barracks. “That ain’t right,” he had said to them. “You’re fighting for our country.”

I remember the annoyed and disappointed tone he had taken, as he shared this story. He was critical of how the army treated people of color, and this came through in his voice. These contradictory stories, coupled with my own experiences, have given me a complex view of my family’s history, as told through my grandfather.

A Sense of “Place”: Revisiting Jamaica, Queens

“Pop”

Pop was born and raised in Jamaica Queens, New York — a working-class/poor ethnic enclave consisting mostly of Italian, Polish, Irish, and Hungarian immigrants. He remembers when the first person of color moved to the neighborhood.

“The neighbors didn’t like it,” he said, during a recent discussion. “The white people in my neighborhood were very prejudiced.” He paused. “We weren’t.”

Pop’s family befriended the neighbor, who I’ll refer to as Flo. Flo asked for his family’s help when the neighbors had taken to harassing her with racial epithets and other forms of emotional violence. He witnessed his father (my great grandfather) get into fistfights with white neighbors over their treatment of Flo. Interestingly, this was his family’s way of confronting racism at home—with fists. I was surprised to learn this.

“They [the white neighbors] didn’t talk to my mother and father for years and years, but they apologized after a while,” he recalled.

Jamaica, Queens – courtesy of Google Maps

Flo and my grandfather would maintain their friendship across the years. Because of personal hardships, he came to live with my family in Brooklyn, where he slept on the couch in our tiny apartment. He would borrow my parents’ car and take the half-hour drive to Queens to spend several hours with his old friend Flo.

His stories are dotted with memories about the Great Depression, his childhood job as a shoe-shiner making about three dollars per day on Jamaica Avenue (and running from the police who threatened to dismantle his shoe-shining box), and pigeon soup—his mother’s go-to recipe during tough times. She would actually capture a pigeon that stood perched on a nearby ledge, decapitate it, and prepare soup for her large family.

Pop’s Jamaica Avenue shoe-shining location on Jamaica Avenue

Racial events also narrated his stories. He told stories about racism and racial tensions that played out in Jamaica, Queens as though these events had happened yesterday.

“If you sold your house to a black family,” he said, “they [white neighbors] would burn your house down.”

Whites policed their neighborhood’s home sales, and reacted violently when real estate transactions defied their expectations for white ownership. Journalist, political commentator, and former White House Press Secretary Bill Moyers operates Moyers & Company, a media website that brought me to the story of the Spencer family. A black family, the Spencers moved to Rosedale, Queens in 1974—approximately five miles from my grandfather’s neighborhood. Whites doused the house with gasoline and set it on fire (with an audience of about 200 white spectators); whites later ignited a pipe bomb on the property. According to Moyers, the bomb came with a note that read: “N*****, be warned. We have time. We will get your firstborn first.” It was signed: “Viva Boston. KKK.”

Moyers explains how, since 1971, more than ten instances of similar violent acts—instigated by whites—were aimed at black families living in Rosedale. Despite the violence and destruction that whites brought to Jamaica, Queens and its surrounding communities when people of color attempted to move in, it was the demographic change that—for my grandfather—pointed to how the “neighborhood was turning bad.” His family moved out of Queens in the mid-sixties to a “whiter” neighborhood in Long Island. My grandfather admitted that his decision to move was a function of white flight.

“Jamaica wasn’t safe,” he said. “They tried to break into your house.”

My grandfather, like many whites, located the neighborhood’s crime rates in the incoming black community—wholly ignoring the emotional and physical violence their white neighbors committed against people of color. Historical accounts point to how Jamaica, Queens was, like much of New York City at the time, a site of political, economic, and racial unrest—chaos that seemed to culminate in the shooting death of Officer Edward Byrne, a white rookie police officer who was murdered in the middle of the night for protecting an eyewitness to felony drug crimes. This murder, according to Charles Blow, presented political opportunities for white politicians to leverage white votes, manufacturing the war on drugs as their rallying cry. Blow argues that white politicians—Democratic and Republican alike—have long scapegoated black populations in order to further their political agendas.

I do not wish to minimize my grandfather’s concerns for his safety and that of his family (including my mother, who spent the first few years of her life in Jamaica, Queens). But I am forced to wonder whether Pop’s fears were just another symptom of a successful political campaign against people of color. Moreover, a burgeoning civil rights movement was occurring at the same time. According to Moyers, the violence against the Spencers mobilized civil rights activists outside of Rosedale—a group that was committed to helping families of color move to the neighborhood. Did my grandfather—like so many others—flee the effects of a civil rights movement that was brought directly to his home town? It is likely. Not surprisingly, he does not conceptualize his choices in this way, and if he does, he’s remained silent about it. Fleeing the “bad” neighborhood for the safer suburbs is the story that has maintained itself across four generations.

Critical Family History, Silence, and Future Plans

I have only just begun to uncover the details of my family history, and for now, I remain equal parts intrigued and perplexed. I do not yet know how to make sense of a man who critiques racism about as much as he embodies it.

During one of our discussions, he recalled a warning that his mother imposed upon her daughter—his sister: “If you ever get pregnant by a black guy,” his mother had said, “you’re not my daughter.” Recall Pop’s attempts to strongarm his granddaughters by influencing our life choices with threats of abandonment. As it turns out, his mother is guilty of the same behavior—he, too, witnessed threats of abandonment, albeit not directly.

And yet: His mother is the same woman who welcomed Flo into her home for what my grandfather describes as “Polish food.” Flo would then cook for his family, and relied on his family for support when other white neighbors retaliated. As more black families moved into the neighborhood, they learned that they could trust my grandfather’s family as friends and neighbors. My grandfather’s brother would eventually begin dating a black woman—their mother had died before this relationship came to be.

I remember attending my (second) uncle’s funeral. I was eleven years old. By then, Jamaica, Queens was a predominantly black neighborhood; many residents came to the funeral to pay their respects to my uncle. I sat in the front row, my uncle laid out in his casket only a few feet away. I vividly recall how a woman of color limped toward the casket, bent down, and kissed my uncle’s forehead. As she walked away, I was struck by the sadness in her face. The Jamaica, Queens community came out in droves to support my grandfather’s family, and to see my uncle off. I can still recall the love that permeated that small room.

I am not attempting to portray my family as uncomplicated heroes loved by all in a larger story about whiteness, racism, and flight, nor do I find my grandfather’s perspectives excusable—such as when he describes Flo as a “very, very good black woman,” as though the general expectation is for the opposite to be true. As is the case for all whites, there is plenty of evidence that my family was, and remains, located in racist dynamics, in both formal and informal ways. One of these informal ways include silence about who we are and where we come from. Historical records, academic scholarship, and media accounts are helping me to unearth of a bit of that silence.

I plan to continue the conversation with my grandfather for as long as time allows. I am hoping to learn more about my great grandparents, and perhaps their parents, through historical records but also my grandfather’s memory. My wish is to also touch base with the Queens Historical Society, whether in person or virtually, for more perspective about the history of Jamaica, Queens and its surrounding areas. Gaining a sense of place seems important to the work of confronting racism at home, and as it played out in my family’s history.

Like many whites, I used to be of the mind that, having grown up in the inner-city and attended diverse city schools, I was not implicated in the larger picture of race and racism. My family, in many ways, continues to uphold this belief system. Uncovering the silences maintained by generations’ past, coupled with a sense of place, has provided entrée into confronting how, in many ways, my family is located in some of my city’s earliest acts of violence against multiculturalism.

References

Flynn Jr, J.E. (2015). White fatigue: Naming the challenge in moving from an individual to a systemic understanding of racism. Multicultural Perspectives, 17(3), 115-124.

Sleeter, C. (2008). Critical family history, identity, and historical memory. Educational Studies, 43(2), 114-124.

Christina Berchini is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire, a scholar in Critical Whiteness Studies, and a frequent contributor to Huffington Post.

Comments

  1. Barbara Schonborn says:

    Christine, thank you for posting Christina Berchini’s essay; I found her research and insights intriguing and inspiring. She encouraged me to wonder about my family’s possible complicity in racism.

  2. Hi Barbara, This would certainly be worth looking into!

Speak Your Mind

*