Back in the days when we were protesting for Civil Rights and an end to our involvement in Viet Nam, Dick Gregory, black comedian, leading activist in both movements, came to Minneapolis. During a press conference he was asked how Minneapolis compared to other major cities as far as racial discrimination against blacks was concerned.
He said he found very little black prejudice compared to other cities; but before Minneapolitans had to chance to take bows, he explained why. He observed there were so many Indians in Minnesota that were the brunt of prejudice, white folks didn’t have time to bother with the small black population.
There wasn’t any prejudice against Indians in the village/township of Mendota where my roots were. Mendota was a settlement across the river from Minneapolis and St. Paul, older than both. Outside of a few outsiders like my dad, who married into it, we were descendants of French/Canadians or Mendota Sioux or a mix of both. No bona fide Mendota resident had to go back too many generations to find a common ancestor with any other bona fide Mendota resident.
There were some inhabitants that people did not like; but it wasn’t prejudice because they might have Indian blood, it was because they were jerks.
From the time I was a toddler, one of my best friends was Fred La Batte, grandpa’s hired hand. He claimed to be 100% Mendota Sioux; and when questioned why he had a French name, he always answered, because his Sioux name was too hard to spell. I enjoyed being around Fred and I learned a lot from him, including a few English and French words that I found out the hard way to never use within my mom’s hearing distance.
When I acted up and Fred told me to stop it, I stopped. Not to would cause him to shake his finger at me warn me what would happen if kept misbehaving. He would put me in a gunny sack and take me to Chicago. When I asked him about Chicago he told me it was a place worse than even Minneapolis. Yes sir, I obeyed Fred.
Fred also taught me a lot about horses. Come time to cultivate the corn, Fred would hitch Dick, grandpa’s sorrel gelding to the one-row cultivator. Many a hot summer day you would see Dick still hitched to the cultivator munching on the grass in the ditch by the highway. No sign of Fred because Fred had flagged down a ride to Huber’s for a couple cold beers. When I asked Fred how he got the horse to just stand there for such a long time and not go anyplace or turn around and eat the corn stalks, Fred said he warned the horse if he misbehaved he’d get a gunny sack over his eyes and…
‘and, and, you’ll take him to Chicago. Right, Fred?’
‘You learn real good, little Donny.’
The first lesson I received in prejudice was from Mrs. Benson, who taught all eight grades in the one-room schoolhouse I went to. Now even though she was a Lutheran Swede from Minneapolis, we all liked her, students and parents both. She only taught us one year because her husband got polio and required her help at home.
(Polio was the first pandemic that I lived through. We survived because the politicians united and left finding the cure and vaccine to the medical experts, like Dr. Jonas Salk.)
Mrs. Benson’s teaching of prejudice was straight forward. She said that we should accept or reject people as individuals and not because of culture or color…Prejudice was wrong. Prejudice was stupid. Prejudice hurt both the person it was directed against and the person who directed it.
In addition to her talking about it, she gave us a list of books that would teach us more about prejudice.
We were to pick out a book, read it, and then stand in front of the room and tell the rest of the students what we learned about prejudice from the book. She eliminated the first three grades as far as reading a book was concerned; but they could tell us about prejudice they had witnessed, or comment on what they heard. The lesson was in the first hour of class when someone was ready to speak.
After she finished laying out the groundwork, she handed note books she had purchased with her own money and told us we were to keep a record of what we were learning about prejudice, starting with what she had said that morning.
‘Now any questions?
About six hands went up.
‘Mrs. Benson, how do you spell ‘prejudice’?
I reread Huckleberry Finn from the school’s library, which had about two hundred books in it and which I had already finished reading all of them. I gave my report on the relationship between Huck and Jim, the runaway ex-slave about five days into the project. I was the first to make a report.
So to keep me actively involved in the project, Mrs. Benson lent me her personal copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Now that really showed me a world unlike the one grew up in. I read it twice before I gave my report.
Mrs. Benson suggested I read yet another book. She gave me some suggestions but this time I went out on my own read my dad’s copy of The Vanishing American by Zane Grey. I had heard it a radio program once. Since she wasn’t aware of the story, she consulted with her husband, who was a Zane Grey fan. When he told her it was a tale about the loss of Indian culture and of love between a Navajo man, a white woman.
Mrs. Benson suggested that she and I talk over my report before I gave it. She wanted to make sure her project on racial prejudice did not turn into a sex education class. She didn’t have to worry. I concentrated on the prejudice and loss of the native culture, not the mushy love stuff. I also tied in a lot of things that Fred LaBatte had told me, like why he had a French last name.
( Today the Navajo nation is vanishing, not the culture, the people. They are hardest hit segment of the killer virus in America. In the early days of the virus, those days the president assured us not to worry, within a couple weeks the few virus cases in the US would disappear, a prominent Navajo leader died and people came from all over the Navajo reservation, the largest reservation in the US. The lack of early knowledge and prevention, the arid harsh land, the abject poverty, the scarcity of medical facilities, and the total disregard of the Federal government have fueled the virus wildfire and the vanishing of the Navajo is another type of genocide that has permeated the our nation since the first day Anglos set foot in New England.)
So my growing up in Mendota and my education from Mrs. Benson, pretty much laid down the foundation of my feelings about racial prejudice. I never had much experience with blacks those early years , except for playing against some in sports. Then I went in in the Army!
Oops! What started out as one blog post has gotten away from me. Par for the course. I will close out this post and will continue my experience in prejudice in the Army, deep in the heart of Dixie, in another post.
I will close out this with a quotations I was introduced to last week in one of my favorite blogs:
Playamart – Zeebra Designs A blog of beautiful art, great photos, and fine prose by Lisa, a talented Mississippian now living in Ecuador.
Blacks and Native Americans share one thing. Native Americans had their land stolen, and their culture systematically crushed. Blacks – it’s the opposite; they were stolen from their land, and they had their culture systematically crushed. We can’t begin to imagine what it takes to come back from that…” – Greg Iles – excerpt from 2017/National Writers Series interview –
And that’s a wrap for today. Stay Safe