Sam Washington of Cheverly might be called a master of coping. He still remembers that, as a boy in rural Texas some 40 years ago, he had to wait until all the white people were served before the storekeeper in the nearest town would take the money his father had sent by him to pay a bill. If he got hungry while shopping, he remembers, his mother would tell him to wait until she could take him to a food stand on the outskirts of town.
His parents didn't know how to answer his questions of why things were the way they were, so he coped by calling those who discriminated against him "ignorant," and he determined that in his own life he would "do it the American way."
When he served in the Marine Corps, rising swiftly to the rank of sergeant, the men at first didn't want to be taught by him. He coped. Later, he came to Washington and got a job as a searcher-examiner in the Library of Congress. He took a second job bartending to help support his five children. When a bar patron greeted him, "Hello Sunshine," he demanded respect: "My name is Mr. Washington and if you can't conduct yourself as a gentleman, I won't wait on you." He moved his family to the suburbs, where, he believed, things would be better.
Last week, his 17-year-old daughter had her first overt brush with racism and it blew her mind. It blew Sam Washington's mind, too.
Lorita, who wants to be a nurse, had just graduated from Crossland Senior High School and it was the first day of her summer job as a home health aide. The agency sent her on her first case and Sam Washington drove her there. When they arrived, the white woman Lorita was supposed to care for refused to let her enter. "I can't handle this, this is a white home," the woman reportedly said.
Sam Washington still remembers the hurt on his daughter's face, the hitch in her voice and the tears in her eyes when she returned to the car. It was a "crushing thing," he said. "I've lived through it all my life, so I could deal with it. She had never run into anything like it before. There've been subtle things . . . but this let her know she's getting ready to step into the real world."
In the real world there's a backlash, and racism has returned. A recent ad for a nurse's aide in "The Sound of McLean" magazine stipulated, "White Only." Two all-white fraternities at the University of Cincinnati celebrated Martin Luther King's birth with an affair billed as a "Martin Luther King Trash Party," and urged partygoers to "bring a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken" or "your father . . . if you know who he is." The Biograph Theater in Georgetown features "The Birth of a Nation" with its celebration of the Ku Klux Klan. A Dartmouth paper wrote an article recently in racist dialect.
Will kids like Lorita, with their softer upbringing, have the toughness they will need to cope with the racial backlash with its blatant, biting edge?
Unlike some other first-generation, middle-class blacks, Sam Washington has not tried so hard to forget the tough times. He remembers, and recounts, his humiliations in Texas and his fight to survive and to provide for his children.
If his daughter, so exposed, was so crushed by this first brush with racism, how much harder it will be for some people in Washington's circumstances who have tried to raise their children with a checkbook and neglected to pass on a sense of history, struggle, culture and responsibility?
Some black parents are rightly beginning to worry about their children's ability to cope in the renewed racism of the 1980s; they worry that their children don't have a strong enough sense of self. They've gone to integrated schools and some are on an economic par with their white classmates. The parents have not taught them enough of the old toughness, enough about the ideas, customs, rituals and ideologies that will help them find the strength of self to go on with life and conquor it despite its frustrations.
The old toughness dictates that, faced with blatant racism, you don't internalize it -- you don't take it personally. The old toughness dictates putting aside vulnerability, fear and terminal pessimism and fighting instead for answers rather than resorting to tears.
The old toughness dictates that parents don't teach kids myths, but reality, not just what is but what can be.