Braille Monitor                                                 March 2012

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Tearing Taffany to Pieces

by Daniel B. Frye

Dan FryeFrom the Editor: Dan Frye is a longtime Federationist who edited the Braille Monitor before taking his current position with the Rehabilitation Services Administration. In the following article he has written what many will recognize as his personal version of "Why I Am a Federationist." It is a moving and passionate account that may be rough reading for some people because his path to Federationism involved the issue of racial prejudice and the charged language and emotion that often surround it. He has not sugarcoated the language of his experience, and, while readers living in 2012 bristle at certain words and the attitudes they represent, they are central to Dan's story. Our job is to report and not to rewrite history. With these warnings issued, here is Dan's moving story about why he is a committed member of the National Federation of the Blind:

The unvarnished truth is that my grandparents were bigots, representative of many people in their generation and deep Southern heritage. My consciousness of racism was almost nonexistent before I moved in with my paternal grandparents in July 1980, following the death of my parents, but I soon learned that the divide between black and white in society was large and all-pervasive. Despite my youth and relative inexperience, I vividly recall feeling an intense intuitive emotional reaction, unequaled until that point in my life, that the racial views of my grandparents and extended family were irrational and unjust.

Sunday dinner after church was a tradition in my grandparents’ home. I looked forward to the weekly pleasures of Southern home cooking lovingly prepared by my grandmother. Chicken and dumplings, fried chicken, stewed beef, catfish, field peas, collard greens, and potato salad were some of my favorites in Sunday afternoon's culinary rotation. The younger children were seated at a card table in the living room, and the older youth, who had graduated to eating with the adults several feet away at the proper table, knew that we could be excused to go outside and play after my grandfather, without exception, declared, "Those were sure some good groceries.”

When my sister and our cousins left for outside, I frequently lingered at the table with the adults. As much as I anticipated Sunday dinner, I dreaded the after-dinner conversations. Yet I regularly remained at the table to listen and on rare occasions to participate in these discussions. While the dialogue often covered matters of local interest like the comparative state of everybody's crops and the welfare of the neighbors, the talk regularly strayed, to put it as politely as I can in today's parlance, to a series of invectives about the character and capacity of black people. I remember one of my aunts saying, "Niggers are fine as long as they stay outside and mind their own business, but I would never have one of them in my house, especially for Sunday dinner." These and other equally offensive remarks set the tone for these afternoon discussions.

Having been enrolled as a student at the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind, where the vast majority of my fellow students were black, I quickly confirmed to my own satisfaction that my family's racial views were without merit. In a residential school, where one lives and learns with classmates twenty-four hours a day, one is easily able to ascertain the quality and character of friends.

Accordingly, I recall challenging my aunt one autumn Sunday afternoon when she again affirmed her distaste for dining with black people. I explained that I ate with black friends daily at school and that I could not understand why our family so rigidly subscribed to her opinion. Following an uncomfortable silence, my aunt finally sputtered, "Well, blacks are just different from us, Son." Imprudently perhaps, I retorted that I was different too; I was blind.

After our guests left, my grandmother came into my bedroom, backed me up against the wall, and told me that I made her so furious that she could only see black, and she promised to knock me "through that there wall" if I ever "popped off" to my elders again with my big city talk. “Besides,” she continued, "Black people are dirty. Everybody knows that."

Just before Christmas season that year, I was invited to be the preacher for the annual Youth Sunday program at our country Baptist church. Youth Sunday ceremonies saw the children of the church presenting the Sunday morning worship service, complete with a youth minister, song leader, and choir. Being a Christian at that stage in my life, I eagerly accepted the honor, and I considered how I could most effectively convey a message about human tolerance to a congregation who disproportionately shared my grandparents’ perspectives on racism. Unfortunately, as a young teenager, I lacked the maturity and sophistication to broach this complex cultural topic, one that was particularly inflammatory in the Low Country of South Carolina, in a way that would resonate with and persuade this Southern congregation of the injustice of racism.

Nonetheless I attempted to convey my general indictment of prejudice by speaking euphemistically of “human tolerance.” I cited love as a motivator of kindness, and I made passing references to the value of showing understanding and acceptance toward the full diversity of humanity. My message seemed well received if the positive observations offered by exiting congregation members was any measure, but my grandparents were not a bit impressed with my attempt at subtlety. When we got home, I received a severe beating with a limb from the "whipping tree" in our front yard, and I was reprimanded for the content of my sermon. My grandparents indignantly explained that everybody understood that I had been promoting the mixing of the races, and they said that I was an embarrassment to our family and that my comments reflected poorly on them. Of course, they were right to the extent that I was not by any means promoting racial separation or condemning interracial relationships.

I have always been fascinated by politics. As a junior in high school in 1984, I was finally old enough to participate seriously in the presidential campaign. During this year I was scheduled to participate in a unique study experience in which I would observe firsthand the operations of the United States government and political system in Washington, D.C., as part of the Close-Up program, an annually sponsored School for the Blind activity. On the weekend, before I was to leave for this adventure, my grandfather saw my jacket, boasting a "Jessie Jackson for President button," and he threatened not to drive me to the airport unless I immediately removed "that Nigger's" button from my coat. My grandfather went on to explain that this was a threat on which he would not hesitate to act and one which I was sure to appreciate since I was blind and could not drive like other "young’ns" my age. Poorly imitating the Rev. Jackson, my grandfather repeated, "I got the power, I got the power." I was devastated to realize that, as a blind person growing up in a rural community, I in fact had limited options and that I did not have the power to extricate myself independently from the situation. In retrospect I realize that part of my limited liberty in this situation may have been simply attributed to my youth, but I also recall understanding for the first time that my inability to travel independently as a blind person was being maliciously used against me to make a point about my inherent inferiority and to keep me from achieving my objective, getting to the airport. Shamefully, desperate to visit the nation's capitol for the first time, I removed the button from my jacket and hid it in my suitcase.

In the spring of one of the first years after I was sent to the school for the blind (I was probably somewhere between thirteen and fifteen), like many others of my age, I fell susceptible to youthful adoration. Taffany was an exceptionally beautiful and talented young woman. She agreed to be my girlfriend, and we shared a several-months-long teenage relationship. We walked the campus after school, chatted in the dormitories, and went to the occasional on-campus social together. Having saved a little money from my on-campus job as the evening switchboard operator and my allowance at home, I organized a driver and took Taffany to a local steak house for dinner. I am sure that these plans represented my best teenage attempt at arranging an extravagant date, calculated to impress her and demonstrate my affection. Using discreet sign language and Braille notes, we secretly exchanged messages.

As the school year came to a close, many students prepared for a performance or two in the end-of-year recital. It was a big deal. Our parents or guardians were invited to come, watch the show, and take us home for the summer. We all dressed up in our nicest clothes so that our proud families could take photographs of us. Taffany and I both had parts in the end-of-year concert. I spent $7 on a simple silver chain for Taffany which she wore on the evening of the school-wide program. I was pleased with my purchase, and Taffany seemed genuinely happy with it as well.

As I recall these distant events, I escorted Taffany from her dormitory to Walker Hall, a stately Civil-War-era building which served as the main administration building and which housed the program. I had planned to introduce Taffany to my grandmother, an aunt, and my sister in the lobby of Walker Hall before entering the auditorium for the show. To my absolute astonishment and utter embarrassment, when my little sister saw us approaching, she turned to my grandmother and blurted in our hearing, "Grandma, that silver chain Dan bought for his girlfriend sure shows up good against her dark skin. I didn't know she was black." To be fair, my little sister was quite young at the time, and she had been subject to the undiluted influences of our home. In short, I do not share this anecdote as a criticism or commentary on my sister today; I offer it here only as an illustration of the pervasive atmosphere of racial prejudice that prevailed in our home life.

After hastily managing introductions, I accompanied Taffany up the stairs and returned, livid and humiliated, to collect my family for the evening's entertainment. Possessed, for some reason on this evening, with an extraordinary degree of self-confidence, I told my family that I was ashamed of them. I said that, if they could not behave any better, they were not welcome to stay for the event. I questioned their purported devotion to the principles of Christianity, and I suggested that my grandmother reflect on the influence that she was having on my little sister, since she had no qualms about making such public remarks. Instead of an apology, though, I received a quiet lecture about how disappointed my dead parents would have been at the sight of their son with a "Nigger girl" on his arm. They were sure that my parents were rolling over in their graves right then and there. Appalled and exhausted, I walked away. In retrospect I am sure that I should have handled the situation differently and more diplomatically, but I fell prey to the pitfalls of impetuous and idealistic youth.

During the summer my grandmother discovered a picture of Taffany and me in my wallet, taken I believe on the evening of the school program, and she cut the photograph into a hundred pieces. My grandmother explained that she destroyed the photograph for my own protection because, if my grandfather ever found it, he would have beaten me to within an inch of my life. My grandmother probably spoke the truth. Even so, I cried like a baby when my grandmother tore Taffany to pieces. I cried because I loved Taffany. Mostly, though, I cried because the destruction of Taffany's picture finally crystallized for me the fact that sometimes right and reason, the strongest tools that I thought I had at my disposal with which to effect change, would not always be sufficient to animate someone’s humanity in the eyes of another.

My early exposure to these and other overt instances of racism no doubt helped mold my sense of social responsibility and strengthened my resolve to champion the civil rights of blind people. The parallel struggles that members of racial minorities and blind people experienced struck me as significant.

Differences unquestionably exist that distinguish the roads travelled by those who are black and those who are blind, but fear, ignorance, and the seemingly compelling need of most people to feel superior to somebody else--anybody else--the fundamental building blocks of prejudice itself--represent several common obstacles which cannot be ignored by either of these communities. Both blatant and subtle efforts to disempower black people and blind people demonstrate yet another telling example of our shared social journey.

My youthful experience with the corrosive influences of bigotry and prejudice taught me to feel empathy for people. More important, my recognition that I too was a member of a population likely to be subject to the irrational whims of society convinced me that possessing empathy alone would not be enough to survive where right and reason could not reliably fashion just results in an unjust world. I concluded early on that I had an obligation to join with a group of like-minded people to promote positive change for the blind community, using right and reason where possible, and more forceful means where necessary. This motivation, in large part, accounts for my membership in the National Federation of the Blind. Doing anything less, when I am now fully aware of the social dynamic faced by blind people everywhere, would surely render me complicit in the act of again tearing Taffany to pieces.

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