The Good Wife Works – On race and culture

Elizabeth Ellis Square  “There are no ni**ers here. The people here, they still have their self-respect, their pride.” Richard Pryor (1940-2005) 


There is only the Human Race; there is no legitimacy to “race” based on adaptations of human hair and skin color to geography and climate.

At a recent discussion in a Black student group at a local college the talk revolved around how our surface variations, even height and weight (too much? Not enough?) and dress, can and are unfairly used to judge our worth. Whether you’re a redhead in Iceland and hence the descendent of slaves, or a mestizo of mixed blood in South America, or the son of a U.S. soldier and a Vietnamese mother, or a Chechen despised by a Russian, or born to the lower caste in India, the distinguishing marks of your birth can be used against you.

“You can choose your son no more than you can choose your father,” Anthony Marra wrote.

Culture is real: What you learn at your mother’s knee based on the customs and traditions of your family of origin and ethnicity. “We,” Stanley Crouch wrote of all humans, “are the results of every human possibility that has touched us, no matter its point of origin.”

In the American Black culture, for example, the plastic bag takes on a different meaning when used to allay suspicion that you stole the items you carry in this sheath. A school principal, Dr. Vincent, I was told, “was followed through a store. He didn’t steal anything.”

The American Black culture has been traditionally poked, prodded and provoked. Privacy is only a recent acquisition. Culturally speaking, Black people keep things to themselves. Black people draw their blinds. “You don’t know what a man is going to do unless he tells you. “ (Source: Scottsboro Boy) Black people also know the prevalence of gossip, wanting to peek, wanting to know, he said she said.

Sociologists may want to study Black people. “That would mean someone cared.” (Walter Mosley.) Black people may not want to be studied, to have their privacy invaded. “Never trust a white man, ‘Old Time’ (aka Leonard Combs) told a sociologist who came to study (Gang Leader for a Day), “and don’t think Black folk are any better.’”

What will come of the results? What purpose? What good? “They show up for the news, but a week later it’s a ghost town, wind whistles through.” (Source: Ghetto 101.)

A young Black man once said of an esteemed Black leader, “He can’t do nothin’ for me. He ain’t on a dollar bill.” Black Americans are 12 percent of the U.S. population, but unemployment rates among North Minneapolis Black men peaked at over 40 percent during the recent American economic downturn. People take what low wage jobs they can get.

A woman who worked with children in both privileged and poverty day care centers said each had his or her problems, just in different ways. Black children and White children resort to violence to solve disputes. June Jordan said, “From my childhood in Brooklyn I knew your peers would respect you if you hurt somebody.” (Source: Civil Wars)

“We share hatred,” Ralph Ellison wrote, for the power of institutional racism that stifles and strangles. After all, Medgar Evers’ brother wrote, “No White person would take for an hour what most Black people take all their lives.”

John O. Killens once wrote of an American Black man, “The anger deep inside of [him] the anger she had tried so hard to reach and to know and to understand and to feel and to hold and to caress and to soften into tenderness [is] because he is a tender man. He is a tender human being. I have known his tenderness.” Yes, we know this tenderness.


Elizabeth Ellis is the mother of three grown children, a college graduate, a 10-year veteran of the Foreign Service and a native of the Twin Cities. She welcomes reader responses to