Braille Monitor                  December 2021

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Reflections on Race, Religion, Disability, Sex, and Broader Issues

by Kenneth Jernigan

Kenneth JerniganFrom the Editor: This is the piece Maurice referenced in the article that precedes this one. It originally appeared in 1994, so some of Dr. Jernigan’s perspective would certainly be different had he been in the audience when “Not Blind to Color in the Federation: A Panel on the Experience of Black and Blind in America” was presented by Ever Lee Hairston, Denice Brown, Ron Brown, Bobbi Pompei, and Tarik Williams at our 2020 National Convention. Those who believe they can predict how he would alter this article in 2021 fail to appreciate how often we who tried to guess his positions on things turned out to be wrong because he had more perceptiveness than we gave him credit for at the time. If we ever find ourselves in the position of not being able to read or consider articles, books, plays, television shows, and movies simply because they reflected how things were or how they were perceived when written, we will certainly subtract from not only our understanding of history but all the ways in which it has influenced the building of what we now consider to be the reality of today. I hope you enjoy this article:

The opponents of the organized blind movement have never understood our strength and unity. Failing to comprehend, they have made a mystery of it, hinting at all kinds of sinister controls and machinations. But the secret is no secret, and the mystery is no mystery.

We deal with only one set of issues--those related to blindness. As an organization we deal with nothing else. Moreover, if a thing is not a problem, we refuse to call it one even if somebody insists that it is. Finally, we treat each other like brothers and sisters--not the way some folks treat their brothers and sisters but the way they should treat them. We care about each other; we defend each other; and we consider each other's feelings.

Recently two Federationists (a husband and wife) wrote to me about something I said at this year's National Convention in Detroit. They felt that my comments about Doris Johnson when I presented the Distinguished Service Award to her at the banquet were inappropriate. They felt (and, incidentally, they are White) that the comments were racially insensitive. Despite the attempts of some of our detractors to create a race problem in the Federation, we have never had one, and I doubt that we ever will.

In the circumstances I might have answered these two Federationists superficially or simply have brushed their comments aside, but this is not the way we treat members of the family. These are sincere, thoughtful, dedicated Federationists. They deserved a reasoned response, and I did the best I could to give them one. I also took the occasion to expand the question and to write for a broader audience, you who read the Monitor. Here are the letters and the remarks I made at the banquet:

July 20, 1994

Dear Dr. Jernigan:

Greetings. We are both still catching our breaths after the whirlwind week of convention. We hope you had as wonderful a time there as we did.

We are writing to you concerning the Service Award presented to Doris Johnson at the convention banquet. While introducing her, you described her at length as an unsophisticated "self-effacing" volunteer who cheerfully toiled at "humble" tasks with no expectation of recognition or thanks. In our opinion, the portrait of Ms. Johnson was stereotypical and degrading, like the portrayals of Black women that have appeared in the literature for hundreds of years.

Our objection to the language used to describe Ms. Johnson stems from our fear of the repercussions that may come from such racially insensitive comments. It doesn't matter if Ms. Johnson is in fact exactly as she was described; she could even have written the portrait herself. What matters is the political message that such a description sends. We fear that some people may come to the conclusion that the Federation thinks all Blacks fit the stereotype of the introduction. This could only lead to a weakening of our organization, both in membership numbers and internal harmony.

Thank you for considering what we have said. We welcome your response if you have time to put it to paper, but all we ask is that when someone is introduced in the future, that the audience not be able to identify without a doubt the race of the person before they step onto the stage.

Respectfully,

cc: President Marc Maurer
Baltimore, Maryland
July 28, 1994

Dear:

Thanks for your recent letter. I have given careful thought to your comments, and it is hard to respond without sounding defensive.

As you know, I am not much for political correctness. What was said of Doris Johnson during the presentation of the award could with equal accuracy have been said of my daughter, who works by Doris's side doing the grueling preparation of seminar and similar meals. Except for the fact that she is my daughter, Marie would also have received a Distinguished Service Award, and the comments would have been the same.

In your letter you say:

"... [A]ll we ask is that when someone is introduced in the future, that the audience not be able to identify without a doubt the race of the person before they step onto the stage."

Surely you are not implying that what I said could not with equal accuracy have been said of a member of the Caucasian race, for that would imply that Whites are too good to work in the kitchen and that only Blacks can do such work--an insult to both races, and a fallacy into the bargain.

Doris's family (people of culture and good taste) were present at the banquet and heartily approved of what was said. In fact, they provided much of the background. They were deeply moved and, I am sure, would be hurt by any reflection on the nature and content of the presentation.

Be that as it may, your letter raises a broader question, one that deserves comment. Let me begin with something that may not on first examination seem relevant to what we are discussing. We do not have a Black caucus in the Federation, and I for one will fight to see that we never do. The concept is demeaning to Black Federationists. It implies that our Black members cannot make it in competition with the rest of us. I have talked with a great many of our Black members, and (not withstanding a dogmatic few) I believe the overwhelming majority are as opposed as I am to a separate Black bloc.

At times we have had as many as two Black national board members (one of them a Vice President) and as many as nine Black state presidents, all serving at the same time--not because they were Black but because they were dedicated Federationists, who were politically savvy and had fought their way up through the ranks just like everybody else. Of course, we have seven or eight Black state presidents today. I haven't counted lately. It doesn't matter.

If every member of the national board and every state president were Black, it should not be a matter of concern. It should not, that is, unless color was the reason for the election. By the same token (token, not tokenism) it should not matter if all national board members and all state presidents were non-Black--not unless color was the reason. But there are some (hopefully not very many) who would object to either situation.

Some time ago, somebody asked me whether one of our state presidents was Black. I said that I didn't know, and I was telling the truth. How would I have known unless somebody had told me? The old tired cliche that "you can tell them by their voice" is not only racist but also provably false. We had a reason not too long ago to fill out a paper concerning the racial composition of our staff here at the National Center for the Blind, and I was told that I had omitted one of our Black staff members. This person had worked for us for several years, and I had no idea what his color was. What difference did it make? I couldn't see him; I couldn't tell by his voice; and I had never asked. The people who hire in our organization are blind, and they don't use color as a litmus test.

There is a basic premise in the functioning of the Federation, one that goes back to the very beginning. It is easy to understand, objectionable to a few, and (in my opinion) largely responsible for the harmony and effectiveness we have enjoyed. It is this: we treat each other like brothers and sisters, and we deal with only one issue--blindness. We have Black racists, White racists, and mostly neither. We have pro-abortionists, anti-abortionists, and many who don't give a hoot either way. We have right wingers, left wingers, and people who claim they are centrists. We have religionists, atheists, agnostics, and many who don't bother about it. We have elitists, red necks, and plenty of pseudos. We have those who favor women's lib, men's lib, gay rights, the Nation of Islam, the Ku Klux Klan, and Rush Limbaugh. Yet, we live in harmony with each other.

The reason is no mystery. We deal with one issue, blindness--and we don't impose our non-blindness views on our fellow Federationists. All of us are happy to have the rest of us work in any other cause we like, just so long as we don't intrude that cause into the Federation--and especially just so long as we don't try to make each other discuss it and accept our view of it.

When the Vietnam War was at its height, one of our members (he called himself a dove) wanted us to discuss and pass a resolution condemning the war. I told him I would oppose it.

"Oh," he said, "so you are a hawk!"

"It doesn't follow," I said. "If somebody wants to introduce a resolution supporting the war, I will oppose that, too. More than that: I will oppose discussing the question at all. We are an organization to deal with blindness, not Vietnam--and not anything else." He wasn't very happy with me, but I believe the overwhelming majority of Federationists would have been.

When we were organizing in Florida three or four years ago, one of the members wanted us to go on record as opposing abortion. I was chairing that meeting, and I told him that I not only objected to our adopting the resolution but to discussing it. I told him that before we could consider the merits of the question, the members would have to agree that they wanted to talk about it. I further told him that the members had the right to decide not to discuss an issue. Everybody in the entire meeting except him thought we should not consider the matter, and we didn't--but I know that many of those present felt that abortion was wrong. None of us objected to his holding his view on abortion; none of us objected to his going out and trying to get the rest of society to believe as he did; but we felt that the Federation was not the proper forum.

For my part, the concept of a disability group or caucus in either of the major political parties would be counter-productive and offensive. We are not as helpless and incompetent as that implies, and if the idea should ever take hold, we would likely forever to be limited to minority status and disability matters. This is my personal view, one that may not be shared by other Federationists--and I am content to have it that way.

Having given you this background concerning Federation traditions and practices about race and similar issues, I want to return to the specifics of your letter. When you say that the audience could identify without a doubt the race of the person receiving the award before she stepped onto the stage, I am curious to know how. I have reviewed my remarks and herewith enclose a copy for your examination. As far as I am concerned there is not one sentence or word in the entire presentation which identifies race, with the possible exception of the fact that Doris attended Morgan State University. Even that is not definitive since a few White students now go there.

Was it that she grew up in a poverty-stricken rural area of the South? That is the setting in which I grew up, and so did many others in the Federation, White and Black alike. Was it because her family were share croppers? That is no identifier. My family had the same experience, living on somebody else's land. When I was a child, my father cut and hauled telephone poles for a dime apiece, and he often worked from sunup until dark for fifty cents. He milked the cows and did other chores after the day's work. Besides the share of a crop, the pay was often in apples or molasses or whatever else was available. There wasn't enough money to do otherwise.

Is it because Doris did cleaning chores and housework to pay her way through school? When I was a boy, I shined shoes with the same objective. Is it all right for White boys to shine shoes for low pay but not all right for Black girls to do similar work? Is it perhaps that Doris came from a large family? My father was the thirteenth child in his family, and I remember a neighbor woman (White, incidentally) who had twenty-one children. Was it that Doris worked in the fields when she was not in school? My brother and all of the other children in our neighborhood did the same thing, and I would have done it too if my family had believed I could instead of thinking blindness was a bar.

Then, if it was not Doris's childhood background, was it her adult experience--her training in home economics and cosmetology, her interest in her church, her volunteer work in hospitals? If not that, was it the description of her work in helping in the kitchen at the National Center for the Blind? Obviously somebody has to cook and clean, and equally obviously the somebody has to be either paid or volunteer. Have we come to the place where it is acceptable for a White male to do kitchen work but unacceptable for a Black female to do it?

If I have still not identified the reason why it was obvious to the audience that Doris was Black before she ever stepped onto the stage, was it perhaps my description of her attitudes and behavior--that she is modest, self-effacing, unassuming, and willing to work tirelessly without expectation of reward? Surely these characteristics (though admittedly possessed by a shrinking few regardless of race) are admirable, not demeaning. You say that these traits are the stereotype of Black women, and I answer: "Not today." Unfortunately the present-day stereotype of the Black female is that she is rude, pushy, bad-mannered, long on discussing her rights, and short on considering the rights and feelings of others. Although that stereotype fits some Black women (and a great many White ones, too, as well as a lot of males of all races), I think it is false, characterizing only a minority. Humility, good manners, willingness to work, a desire to give, and a spirit of dedication without a corresponding wish for self-aggrandizement are still (even in today's society of skewed values) worth recognizing, praising, and rewarding.

Let me move to another aspect of the situation. How should I have made the presentation? I might have said that Doris was an outstanding leader and that the award was being given to her for that alone. Such a presentation would not have been believable, would not have given pleasure to Doris, and would not have helped the organization. Doris is not an orator, a center-of-the-stage planner and rallier of the troops. She is a solid, hardworking member--and she likes it that way. Her contributions are of real value, and the Federation was recognizing that fact and telling her that she is appreciated.

I could have made the presentation in such a way as not to indicate the kind of work Doris does for the movement, but this would have been vapid and inappropriate. I could have talked of her work without mentioning her qualities of humility and avoidance of the limelight, but such a presentation would not have been accurate or complete. Moreover, it would have had racist overtones, implying that a Black person cannot be portrayed as gentle and service-oriented while a White person can.

Of course, we could have refrained from giving her the award at all because of the kind of work she does and because of her unassuming spirit. But that seems unfair and counter-productive. It would have been the worst kind of elitism.

Doris Johnson is a rare human being. She is strong without being "pushy." She is humble without being weak, modest without being spiritless. Unlike so many, she does not demand constant petting, nor does she insist on forever being told how great she is. She simply sees what needs to be done, and does it. I wish we had hundreds more like her.

In your letter you say: "It doesn't matter if Ms. Johnson is in fact exactly as she was described; she could even have written the portrait herself." As you reflect on the matter, I hope you will decide that this is not exactly what you meant. It is all very well for us to care about classes of people, but I think it is even more important for us to care about individuals. What Doris wants and how she feels are important factors in the equation. If we move human beings like pieces on a checkerboard to accomplish overall strategies and to satisfy the needs of this or that segment of society, we dehumanize ourselves and the entire process.

You wrote to me in unadorned candor. I hope you are willing for me to do likewise in response. I respect you (both of you)--and for many of the qualities that earned Doris her award. I hear good things about you and believe you have a great future in the movement. It must be obvious that I have given time and careful consideration to your letter. Think about what I have said, and tell me how you feel about it if you want to. Whatever your reaction, let us work together to make the Federation better and stronger than it has ever been.

Sincerely,
Kenneth Jernigan
President Emeritus
National Federation of the Blind

DISTINGUISHED SERVICE AWARD PRESENTATION: DORIS JOHNSON

Doris Johnson was born and raised in South Carolina, the second of nineteen children--all with the same parents if anybody wants to know. She has always been a hard worker. She worked her way through high school by cleaning the principal's house before classes every morning. She then caught the train and went to school. After getting home, she would work in the fields until dark. (Her parents were share croppers.) After it was too dark to work outside, she would study for school the next day.

After high school Doris went to Baltimore, where she worked her way through Morgan State University, graduating with a degree in Home Economics in 1956. She has always been active in her church and was the secretary of the church Sunday school for many years. While teaching at a Baltimore beauty and barber college, Doris earned the Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award on two separate occasions. She also helped prepare many students for their state licensing examination. For many years Doris went to Montebello State Hospital in Baltimore and did the patients' hair as a volunteer.

Let me turn now to Doris's work with the Federation. Because she is quiet and unassuming, few people know how much she does. She does over a thousand hours of volunteer work every year at the National Center for the Blind. She does everything from erasing tapes and labeling cassettes to manning (or, if you like, "womaning") NFB booths at local events. In the kitchen she is invaluable. She comes early and stays late, until the last dish is done. When there is a seminar or a meeting of any other kind, Doris is always willing to help in whatever way she is needed. Doris, you exemplify the spirit of our movement, the best that is in us, and the essence of service to others. I have here a brass plaque on polished walnut wood that I want to present to you. It is the tangible manifestation of the love we have for you and the appreciation of what you are and what you do.

NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND
DISTINGUISHED SERVICE AWARD
PRESENTED TO
DORIS JOHNSON

YOUR ENERGY AND COMMITMENT ARE FREELY AND ABUNDANTLY GIVEN
YOUR DEVOTION AND SPIRIT INSPIRE YOUR COLLEAGUES

No task is too humble
No hour too early
No job too much

THE BLIND OF THE NATION GIVE YOU THIS AWARD
WITH LOVE AND APPRECIATION
JULY 6, 1994

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