Monday, September 18, 2017

There are none so blind. . . .


"Uncle Pelz" deserved better than this. He deserved more dignity than what you'd afford a Pekingese in a write-up about someone's dead lapdog.

In death, as in life, he deserved to be just a man -- not a "negro" or a "darky." Especially at 87.

He deserved to be written about as a member of the human race, not as slightly greater than a thing. Or a dog.

Pleasant Quitte was a man. He had feelings. He was loved by God Almighty. He knew things. He saw things. He remembered things. He possessed the wisdom of his many years.

This obituary from the Sunday edition of the Morning Advocate in Baton Rouge, La., ran Nov. 2, 1941. In the Deep South of 1941, an 87-year-old African-American almost surely would have been born a slave.

Morning Advocate, Nov. 2, 1941
Certainly, he also had an amazing story. Maybe he had children and grandchildren -- and great-grandchildren. They, if they existed -- and that, we do not know because it wasn't considered newsworthy --  did not know Mr. Quitte "familiarly" or otherwise as "Uncle Pelz." In the South of 1941, "uncle" was the patronizing moniker white people hung on black men of a certain age and fancied it respectful.

"UNCLE" was the language of those who found "the idea of a darky and a Pekinese" just ridiculously adorable enough that it might make a hell of a magazine cover. The Saturday Evening Post, perhaps.

Maybe Better Hoods and Crosses.

Mrs. J. Simon, Jr., of 617 North Boulevard -- and in Baton Rouge back then, if you had the money to live at 617 North Boulevard, you had the money to have both a Pekingese and an old black man to walk it -- presumably was who informed the newspaper about the passing of this downtown adornment with whom Baton Rougeans were "familiar" . . . but not too familiar. If you know what I mean.


Too familiar in the Baton Rouge of 1941, as well as the one of my birth two decades hence, would be acknowledging the humanity of an 87-year-old African-American. Too familiar would be acknowledging that "Uncle Pelz" had a story -- a life -- beyond walking Mrs. Simon's Pekingese and being a familiar downtown sight, like the Old State Capitol, Stroube's drug store, a palm tree or somebody's big crepe myrtle.

Too familiar would be saying hello to Mr. Pleasant Quitte, as opposed to that "darky and a Pekinese."

Would you like to know what's too familiar in my hometown in 2017? Pretty much everywhere in the United States in 2017?


How about those too delusional to think that kind of cultural memory -- that sort of cultural reflex -- just disappears without a trace in 50 years, or even in 76 years. Culture is in it for the long haul. It doesn't just disappear, or even change drastically, without concerted effort.



AS RODGERS and Hammerstein told us in South Pacific, "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught." Likewise, you have to be carefully untaught. Probably more carefully untaught.

The problem with white supremacy, however, is that it just might hurt its perpetrators more than it does its targets.

First, it dulls the conscience. Then it goes for one's human empathy. Finally, it attacks the bigot's intellect, curiosity and ability to fully perceive reality. It makes one prone to delusions, particularly delusions of superiority.

Maybe it even cripples the ability to be taught further . . . or, rather, to be untaught.

If the Morning Advocate obit demonstrates anything across the span of seven and a half decades, it's that callous, incurious and shallow is no way to go through life.

That's a lesson all too rarely taught -- or learned. Especially these days.

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