An old family yarn Pt. 3: Those strange black folk

I chuckled heartily while reading the part of Willis Brubacher’s Shunned in which he recounted my grandfather getting his bootleg liquor from an old black man down the road when he moved to Southern Maryland. But I outright guffawed when reading JoAnna Stauffer’s depiction in Harry’s Journey of my great-grandfather’s family’s reaction to seeing their first, real-life brown skinned man in 1940s Maryland:

The children were wide-eyed when they met Negro people for the first time. “Mom, we saw a man who was black all over!” one of them said in an awed tone. They had never seen any in Pennsylvania.

“But why are they so dark?”

“That’s how God created them,” Magdalena explained. “They’re just like everyone else otherwise. Don’t stare at them.”

“But their talk is different too.”

“They do speak a little different from what we’re used to,” their mother agreed. “But so do the white people here in the South. You’ll get used to it before long.”

There are so many reasons why this is funny, starting with cousin JoAnna’s use of the term “Negro people,” which would get her more than a few impolite stares of her own at an NAACP meeting. It’s also reminiscent of Chris Rock line about how there are only five parts of the country that have black people.

But the thing that made me Laugh Out Loud was my great-grandmother Magdelena’s admonition about staring at black people. Stauffer Mennonites are spectacular starers. It’s not meant to be intimidating or hostile. They are just easily awed and not very good at hiding it. They stare at outsiders, unfamiliar vehicles, gadgets, “English” girls – you name it. It’s a family pastime and a consequence of living in an insular community. And black people fascinate the hell out of them.

They are getting better at hiding it. For my 30th birthday, I invited some black family friends as well as my Mennonite relatives to a party. I caught the Mennonites staring from time to time, but only the children were obvious about it.

The final reason I find this funny is that racism is not an institutional thing in my family the way it is in some of my white friends’ families. That is not to say that I have no racist relatives, but it’s not part of the fabric of our culture. JoAnna later recounts in her book that my great-grandparents treated their black workers the same as whites, eating with them around the family table at the noonday meal. This upset the local white workers, who threatened to not come an thresh the Stauffers’ wheat fields if they had to eat with “darkies.” The book has Harry Stauffer telling his wife, “Apparently, the Civil War isn’t over yet.”

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3 Responses to “An old family yarn Pt. 3: Those strange black folk”

  1. Thanks for your story. I enjoyed it!

  2. magdalenaperks Says:

    Lovely and funny story – tho not Mennonite, my Northern family had not seen black people until sometime during World War II. Their reaction was much the same. My father was in his teens before he met an African-Canadian – in Montreal. before that, he thought “black” just meant anyone with a darker skin tone than Scots-Irish pale! And I am thrilled to see one of your relatives had my name, since it is unusual. Bless you!

  3. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but
    I find this matter to be really

    something that I think I would never understand. It seems too complex and extremely broad for

    me. I am looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!

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