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During a guest spot on the PRI show “Smiley and West,” iconic actor James Earl Jones discussed his grandmother’s prejudice against other races, as well as her own, and how she tried to indoctrinate Jones with similar views during his childhood:

I do understand racism, because I was taught to be one, by my grandmother. My grandmother was part Cherokee, Choctaw Indian, part black. She hated everybody. She taught all of her children and grandchildren to be racist, to hate white people, and to distrust black people.

It’s an experience that profoundly affected Jones’ upbringing, and one he’s referenced many times during the course of his long career. Given the era in which he grew up (Jones was born in 1931), it was likely a lot more common an experience than some of us have with our grandparents today (provided those grandparents are Jones’ age or younger).

His reflections got me thinking about the indelible opening of Lawrence Otis Graham’s Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class. The first chapter of Graham’s book discusses his own grandmother’s views on which blacks were to be revered and respected and which were not:

All my life, for as long as I can remember, I grew up thinking that there existed only two types of black people: those who passed the “brown paper bag and ruler test” and those who didn’t. Those who were members of the black elite. And those who weren’t.

“You boys stay out of that terrible sun,” great-grandmother Porter would say in a kindly, overprotective tone. “God knows you’re dark enough already.”

As she sat rocking, stiff-lipped and humorless, on the porch of our Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, summer home, she would gesture for us to move further and further into the shade while flipping disgustedly through the pages of Ebony magazine.

“Niggers, niggers, niggers,” she’d say under her breath while staring at the oversized pages of text and photos of popular Negro politicians, entertainers, and sports figures who were busy making black news in 1968.

Though Jones’ and Graham’s characterizations of their grandmothers’ bias are different, the fact that they were quite vocal about separating themselves from other blacks (based on skin color, social status, or unfounded suspicion) is apparent. While Jones flat-out calls his grandmother racist, Graham frames his grandmother’s bias a bit differently:

An outsider might have looked at this woman and wondered whether she liked blacks at all. Her views seemed so unforgiving. The fact was that she was completely dedicated to the members of her race, but she had a greater understanding of and appreciation for those blacks who shared her appearance and socioeconomic background.

Certainly, views similar to those of each of these grandmothers still can be heard in some family circles. Whether the matriarchs are older and wistful for different times, or the younger inheritors of their mothers’ bias, some grandmas are still warning their grand- and great-grandchild to “stay out of the sun.”

Have you ever received prejudiced or stereotyped messages from your older relatives? How did you handle them?

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  • Apple

    My grandma is prejudice against white folks because of her past. From being attacked by their dog and no one doing anything about it, to a white photographer who told all the blacks in the neighborhood that he could enlarge their family photos ,and taking their money and throwing the only pictures they had into a river. She just doesn’t trust them

    • Mikela123

      Your grandma wasn’t prejudiced. She had developed a mind-set and a skill that every SINGLE LIVING CREATURE on this planet develops when attacked – self preservation. Something that Black Americans lost along the way.

    • apple

      oh yea but she often rants on them and calls them slurs so i thought that meant prejudice.. but not as much as my mom and white people never did her nothing but yet every single day, every 5 mins i have to hear about white people. god its so annoying lol

  • Befree

    James. Earl has been telling this tired story for a while. First it was only whites the new version added black folks.
    Let’s take his granny off the table for a second.
     What I find odd is his jockeying to postion himself as the black man who mentally and emotionally connects to white racist. He’s claiming to Have been the black equilvent  to a white racist. Not possible.
    What he fails to realize is  the source of white racism is not simply based on hating a group but a deep rooted notion of supremacy based on flawed history, economics and junk science. He is confusing black rage and white racism.

    James doedn’t have the foggiest idea how white racist think.

    • dirtychai

      Ditto.

    • TheBestAnonEver, Part 2

      I wish there is a like button on here.

  • Samira

    My grandfather is a Somali man, I love him with all of my heart and he’s an amazing man but he hates black people who aren’t east African. He doesn’t consider himself to be black and when I tell him that he is, he gets really angry. He brings up the hair, the nose, the slavery and points out that we’re very different. I wouldn’t call him racist, he was born in the 30’s and he was taught this so I could never in a million years call him racist. Most old people aren’t, it was the way they were raised. However, in this day and age racists have NO excuse.

  • Shirl

    Never met my grandparents. Unfortunately they died before I was born. I can say that my mom was prejudiced. She favored my sister and her children over me and mine (my sister has light skin and I have dark). It was also absolutely forbidden to bring home a “white boy”. The thing that I like most about my sons generation is that when they talk about their friends you never know what race they are until they bring them over to our house. I hope that the way I raised them has something to do with that.