I grew up in an extended Italian American family in Jackson Heights, a ten minute drive to New York City. No one married anyone in our family who was not Italian. I did not meet a black person until I was in sixth grade. Our neighborhood was a a melting pot.....of white people. We had Jews, Irish and Eastern Europeans.....everyone was white.
While I lived a life free of considerations about race unbeknownst to me, my sister and our cousins......... one of our Aunts had given birth to a black baby....... meaning she was half white and half black and of course that meant she was black.
A common law marriage followed which was strike two with our extended family. Family honor (?) was at stake and a post WWII era love affair meant nothing in the context of those days.......the common law marriage had no chance to survive.
I was aware that I had a cousin who I had never met. Unfortunately I had other issues to deal with....my father died when I was 13, my mother became a Witness and I at age 16 was Baptized.
My step father was not a Witness but a violent alcoholic so I had other things on my mind like going to the KH with my hands swollen from a bout of fisticuffs with him. While a mild mannered gentleman under normal conditions he turned into a mean and abusive drunk ........ then it got ugly.
By 17 I could return the beatings in kind. One night I fought him (I had taken up boxing and was pretty good at it) and I am sorry to say I broke him down piece by piece. That ended the beatings. My missing cousin was not even a consideration in the context of my teen years.
My Aunt came to live with us and all I knew of my cousin was a formal portrait (black and white) that showed her to be very attractive. I put her color off to a great tan. Any conversation about my cousin was deflected.
Fast forward to age 40. Now an ex witness. One night I received a phone call from my sister who was an uber witness but who never shunned me.
“ Cousin XXX is black!” she said. “Did you know?” “Hell no” I replied. “How do you know” I asked. “Cousin Johnny was doing a family history and he called her up.”
“ I never knew'. I replied, “I just thought she was never interested in being part of our family.”
“ She was never invited to be a part of our family.” my sister said. Followed by a long silence.
Damn I thought......she's black and has been shunned by the entire family of aunts and uncles and unbeknownst....... her cousins. What must she be thinking about us?
Long story short........ I, as well as all of my cousins....contacted her immediately and a series of visits took place. We tried to make up for her treatment at the hands of our parents and she tried hard to look past that treatment. She was a noble woman. To a high degree she became a part of our lives and we hers but how do you get back all of those years that were wasted?
I think in large measure by doing better with the next generation.
My sister-in-law, raised as a witness from birth, married a black man (also a witness) and had two children................. our families stayed in touch and we maintained a relationship with them and their two children. There was no separation....no 'other'.
Even after we all moved to different parts of the country there were weekly phone calls and visits back and forth. We and they never thought twice about not being in one another's life. About not being family.
When they decided to exit the religion they fell on hard times since he worked for a company that was run by JW's. They arrived on our door step with two children and $7 to their name. It took so little, a bedroom, a few bucks, driving someone to a job interview.......... 3 months latter they had jobs and moved into an apartment near by.
They began to live a different life and have done very well for themselves.
My Cousin Johnny and his wife, firm Catholics, took in Vietnam refugees and helped many families get a good start in this country.
I am making those points because I believe there is, among many people, a clear delineation between generations in this country. That we can grow and temper our understanding about people. That generations are free to make a great and positive leap forward or stay confined to their upbringing and all of the hand me down prejudices. But over all I feel....hope....... there has been progress.
I tried to talk to my Mom when we discovered who our long lost cousin was. She could not articulate why our family never offered a welcoming or helping hand. Even as a Witness she never invited our cousin to be a part of our lives. I concluded that she could never get past her families prejudices which set aside compassion and family love. Even as a witness she could not step away from her upbringing.
Which brings me to my final point. Along with stepping away from the JW construct we also have to stop indulging our parents bias'. We have to understand that sometimes our parents got it wrong and sometimes we have to separate ourselves from the way they reacted and thought about issues.
My sister, the witness, paid my wife and I the ultimate compliment. She said “I don't know how you managed to raise your son to become the fine person he is without being a Witness!”
Some mind sets don't change..........go figure.