If Your Skin Isn’t White

Tales of Vashon

Sean and I were discussing the ‘origins ‘of our mutual understanding of ‘race’ as we might have seen developing over our many decades. We agreed that our early concept of ‘race’ was really not so much ‘race’ as it was ‘ethnic’ differences.. The difference being whether one was ‘Swede’.. or ‘Norwegian’ or the silent and notoriously tough Finns.   Today nobody could understand our concept of ‘ ‘ethnic’ differences.. And it did not help at the time that the snooty Danes remained aloof and supposedly made much superior Aquavit, according to our parents.

In the early days Sean and i could find little remembrance of distinct racial awareness. Our Japanese friends and neighbors were not referred by to as ‘Japs’ or at least not by us kids. What our parents said to one another during the war was maybe another thing. Our mothers tended to regard racial language to be derogatory and a bit obscene.

It must be mentioned that ‘derogatory’ language toward Swedes.. Norwegians and Finns.. Was ok and could be used in front of those to whom ‘derogatory’ was intended. Typical childhood banter and nothing more.  It would come right back to us except for the Finns, who were usually too silent to respond in kind!

The Danes never responded to ethnic asides because they always concentrated on devouring the abundant smorgasbord.. very practical people that they are.

I can remember my first encounter with a black person..

“Mommy!  Why is that man dirty??”

As a young lad I exclaimed after arriving from the Island and getting ready to take the trolley up to Olive Way.

My mom and i were outside the ‘olde curiosity shop’ by the Bainbridge ferry terminal..
I cannot remember all the story, as the childhood memory was later re enforced by my mother.  The essence of the story was that I, as a small child noticed a person unlike our usual assortment of physical types.

I think it was the first black person i had ever noticed.

After my outburst, my mother looked down at me and without a word took me up to a large dark appearing person and after a few words.. The giant dark person took my small hand in his large hand and introduced himself.  I think he worked for the Great Northern Railroad.
My mother patiently explained to me that this person was a negro and His family had come from Africa many years ago and now lived in Seattle. I remembered his gentle handshake many years later and the soft look of his eyes.

My questions served to jog John’s memories for his Mother’s exact words.

Down at “Run down Ranch” where we lived a half mile south of Cove, things weren’t quite the same way.   It wasn’t just our steep driveway from the peach orchard to Cove road; Dad could never catch up with the demands of a five acre spread and was making fun of his inability to keep up while he held down a job in town.

“Mom, can we open Aunt Lila’s present yet,” Molly yelled from our living room at Cove.  Aunt Lila was our Grandfather’s sister or cousin, I can’t remember which, because she was very old and owned a pecan farm in North Carolina and the people who lived and worked in her orchards were descendants of slaves from 150 years ago and had never left the farm.  Molly tore open the box and we had pecans for Christmas.

We called our  Grandfather, Papa Jim who was the west coast middle weight boxing champion in past times.  When we were kids at Portage, Papa Jim was busy training black boxers to win and make money for him in Seattle.   “Why just black fighters?” I asked one day.  “Because my fighters hit hard and are fast on their feet,” was his prejudice toward black people.

There were no black people on Vashon except for one family and they weren’t really black but came from Jamaica. Dean Miller was a big man and worked in the steel mill in Seattle.  When  my Great Grandfather Mattson died and they tore down his house, it was Dean who took the lumber and built his family a fine home.

From the 1939 August News-Record: “Twenty-five neighbors and friends of Mr. and Mrs. Dean Miller surprised them Saturday night when they walked in on them at their home, the Falcon’s Nest, at the Heights. The evening was spent in dancing.”

Both of us agreed that it was only much later that we developed any concept of ‘race’ and that seeing things in terms of race was something acquired and not really native to our young minds.