Tag Archives: “The Blackest Land and the Whitest People”

Are Race Relations a Verbal Agnosia?

The celebration of Martin Luther King Day along with several reader posts on my earlier blog piece, Greenville, Texas: The Blackest Land and the Whitest People, have made me think more deeply about race relations. Let me share a definition and then coin a new term that hopefully will contribute to racial understanding.

Agnosia: Loosely defined, it’s a perceptual state of looking but not seeing, or hearing the sounds but not hearing the meaning.

   Prosopagnosia, for example, is a neurological condition in which a person looks at a face but is unable to recognize the person, even when it is a close friend or relative.

Let me introduce a new phrase, verbal agnosia.

(What did you expect with a neurologist writing this blog. Hang in there, I’ll get around to making my point.)

From comments made regarding my earlier blog piece, the same word “whitest” from the famous sign in Greenville has different perceived meanings from either black or some white commentators.

Now, I realize some folks are unalterably racist and beyond redemption.  Some other folks, no matter how much progress toward racial harmony has been made, will always feel aggrieved. These are not the people about whom I use my recently minted term, verbal agnosia.

I instead refer to people who are simply unable to perceive the term “whitest” has any racial overtones whatsoever and who fail to see how it might offend others black members of their community. Alternatively others are unable to appreciate that some folks use the term in a non-racial, highly regional form. I know some who are not racist but merely verbally agnostic to the negative perception of this term. I suspect the black residents of Greenville have all heard the benign interpretation of the sign but may remain unconvinced. Might honest communication fix this state of affairs and enhance understanding?

A number of comments from white Greenville residents exist on my blog. I believe they honestly believe “whitest” refers to honest, true, or best. Indeed, growing up in Texas, I heard this word used in this very way. But one only has to research the development of the usage of “whitest” before coming across its origin in a very racist society where white clad Ku Klux Klan rode unhindered and lynchings of black men occurred.

Outside of Greenville, Texas my brother-in-law, a native to Greenville, discovered he could not find a person of either race who thought the term anything but offensive. So too thought the then Governor of Texas, John Connally, when he asked the City Fathers of Greenville to remove the famous (infamous) banner that hung across Main Street. It was taken down “for repair” and never put back up. This “for repairs”, I suppose, was a necessary euphemism as many white Greenville citizens were verbally agnostic to the offensive way the sign was perceived by many others.

Only through communication can we become aware of the verbal sensitivities of others. We simply may not recognize what we say or how we say it, may be offensive to others.

Simply waiting and hoping that things will eventually get better, merely delays the understanding necessary to reduce racial prejudices and delays getting over our miscommunications. I have been criticized for writing about the banner, an old and negative aspect of Greenville (an adopted city I love), that some would choose to keep buried. The Chamber of Commerce undoubtedly would not be keen on resurrecting remembrance of the banner., yet it needs the sanitizing effect of daylight.

Good folks who hold different perspectives on this famous sign or on other flashpoints of race relations need to communicate in calm, rational voices. Might discussions over civil war statues fall into this category? Let’s have interracial discussions. Hopefully my blog pieces on this topic have offered an opportunity to do just this.

Through our improved understanding we can begin to make the progress called for by the great Martin Luther King, Jr. I remain inspired by so many of his appeals to our better natures including the following which is one of my personal favorites:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character– Martin Luther King, Jr.

Reflections on Greenville, Texas- Part 2: “The Blackest Land and the Whitest People”

My earlier piece on Greenville, Texas (“The Blackest Land and the Whitest People”) attracted a surprising number of hits. Since writing it I attended my wife’s 50th high school reunion and learned additional information.GreenvilleSign-1

Among the nostalgic celebrants from Greenville High, Class of 1965 was a single African-American and his wife. Thomas, who now lives in Brooklyn and has been successful in his career, was greeted warmly and was obviously well-liked by his classmates. I had a brief visit with Thomas and learned his intriguing story.

He shared many years ago when he left home to register for high school, his parents assumed he would attend the all-black Carver High School. Instead and without their knowledge he made a bee line for Greenville High. Thomas was, if not the first African-American, among the very first to integrate the school.

Thomas had delivered prescriptions for the local pharmacy and, in the process, had become friendly with people of all races in Greenville. He had developed a comfort level with all types of people.

From my brief interaction with Thomas, I felt  a better person could not have existed to break down the color barrier. He was affable, intelligent, and while an athlete, hardly the star of any of Greenville High’s sports teams. He was, in my estimation, the perfect “Jackie Robinson” for Greenville High.

He recalls no negative feelings from students or staff at Greenville High. While bowled over by his choice of school, his parents were not concerned enough to force him to change his mind or his registration.

While racism remained rampant in the south in the early 1960s, the young people in Greenville proved far more welcoming than perhaps the older generation would have been.

In such matters, leaving integration matters up to the younger generation seems to have worked better than attempting to change the minds of the entire populace. Just my thought and would love to hear yours.

Oh, and for what it is worth, the white classmates fifty years later still think “whitest people” refers to virtue and honesty and carries with it no racial overtones. If only the former Governor of Texas, John Connally, and legions of others around the U.S.A. saw it the same way.