Stella Cretek

The Flip Side of Life

By - Oct 20th, 2008 02:52 pm

I’m wondering what would be revealed if the small town where I spent (until 1951) the first fifteen years of my life, had its skin peeled off? When I speak of “skin,” I’m talking about churches, schools, farms, and various other signifiers of the good life in rural America. Until we moved to Kansas City at the beginning of the Civil Rights era, I had not a clue that the world wasn’t populated by people like me: fair of skin and blue of eye. Yes, I’d sat through many a news reel at the town’s lone Rialto Theater, where I saw images of “Japs” float by during WWII. Some of those news reels spilled over into the cartoons too…caricatures of foreigners not to be trusted by the likes of Bugs Bunny. Cartoonist Al Capp kept us laughing on Sundays, though little did I suspect that his take on cigar-chomping capitalists, was anything but fun. It was years before I realized Al was an activist in disguise.

During WWII, a Jewish family moved to our town to open a butcher shop. “They’re selling horsemeat,” floats through my head to this day. There was a German family who immigrated (foreigners!) to our space and opened a bakery, and although there were numerous Germans, Irish, and Swedes populating the valley, it was those Germans recently arrived who got the shaft.

In 1912, the town became the site of the axe murder of eight sleeping on a quiet Sunday. The local paper covered it in gruesome detail, and the event gained national notoriety. It’s informative to flip through the pages of a reproduction of the various Axe Murder issues. The case was never solved, but the suspects were always described as “dark of skin.” During a class reunion, I remarked about this to a local woman, who shot back, “We still have a law on our books which states “all blacks are to be out of town by sundown.” It’s doubtful that her smug statement was true (at least in the 70s & 80s), and well, when she died of a heart attack a few days following the reunion, I can’t say I was among the mourners She also told me that she locked the doors to her home each and every night, because “foreigners” might cause trouble.

Yesterday I visited an installation (at inova/Kenilworth’s current exhibit). Standing in front of the superb photographs by Kevin Miyazaki, photographs detailing the internment camp in the United States where his father and his father’s family were sent during WWII, I recalled the news reels at the Rialto. There I sat with my popcorn, a uniformed kid soaking up the undercurrent of racist thinking

Anyone who thinks that racism isn’t thriving in America is either a fool or is brain dead. Peel back the skin and take a good look. As we near the election, I find myself fretting that perhaps I’m casting my vote for Obama simply because he’s black. Am I the only person wrestling with this?

Categories: Dem Bones

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