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Mountains and mammies


Driving back from the N.C. Writer's Network conference in Asheville, I stopped at an all-American gas station. I knew this was an all-American gas station because there were four or five huge American flags in front of it. I was feeling pretty all-American, too. I was with my girlfriend and we were driving a brand new Mustang with the beautiful mountains behind us. We walked inside and saw all kinds of down-home souvenirs and trinkets, and then we saw one shelf that was filled with huge figurines of black mammies and sambos complete with redhead rags and watermelon lips. They were next to the wooden Native Americans with large, hawkbill noses.

All I wanted to do was pay for gas, which I wouldn't have pumped if I knew what the store was selling. Basically, I was paying for the privilege of being demeaned and insulted. I was envious of the white customers who were oblivious to the racist nature of these objects as they stood around discussing the weather, waiting to pay for gas and cigarettes. Now if I smashed the figurines to the floor I'd be arrested, and papers would read "Crazy Black Man Acts the Fool in Local Gas Station."

It's perfectly legal to sell caricatures that dehumanize people of color. Lots of folk don't see these objects as racist or even offensive--slavery really wasn't that bad, there was lots of singing and dancing. And the wooden carvings are a tribute to Native Americans, stoic on their horses, lips pressed to release a "How," eyes ready to shed a tear as someone drops an empty beer can on the forest campground.

Ever catch an old Tom and Jerry cartoon where the black mammy in red house shoes chases Tom through the house? Remember the African cannibals in the old Bugs Bunny cartoons? The gas station was no more guilty than the Cleveland Indians with their emblem of a big-nosed Native American smiling a toothy idiot grin, or the Washington Redskins with their emblem of the noble savage.

The problem is people like me and other minorities who are just too sensitive. Surely white Americans would have no problem if a Native American owned a franchise and called it the Colorado Pale Faces or the California Peckerwoods or if black people came out with a set of porcelain dolls portraying white people with distorted features. It's evident that not many people have a problem with the tomahawk chops at Florida State and Braves games. Most fans would throw blows at the mere mention of changing their beloved mascot to something, shall we say, not so racist.

We drove away from that gas station not really surprised by what we found but still a little stung. All I wanted was some gas. I didn't need a knot in my stomach. I didn't want to feel the need to smash things.

See LitLocal on page 40 for an interview with local poet, playwright and educator Howard Craft.

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