I saw Jim Crow in the Mirror

by

A poem by Louie Crew

I saw Jim Crow in the mirror

and I did not like him.

 

For twenty-five years I thought doors

opened for me because of who I am,

because of what I have achieved….

 

yea, like the encyclopedias my parents bought me,

like the prep school they sent me to,

like the food our maid lovingly prepared,

glad that at least they let her “steal”

enough food for her own family,

glad that riding only in the back seat

she could easily stash it under the laundry

they told her they needed washed by tomorrow.

 

I saw Jim Crow in the mirror

and I did not like him.

I could have named 100 people I

know who I thought more qualified

to play that role, but there he was

staring me in the face.

the spitting image of me.

 

I thought I was free of racism

because my ancestors were Quakers

driven from England by 1640,

because my Grandfather

would not join the Klan and

stood down his brother-in-law,

the head of the Alabama Klan.

 

When I became a man,

I had not yet seen Jim Crow in the mirror,

or had not yet recognized him.

My parents made sure that I, a carrot top,

would never hear until fully grown

that red-headed people are supposed

to have hot tempers, lest knowing

the stereotype, I would make of it

a license to rage. So too they feared

that I might glorify the Klan’s propaganda

if I spent time with my Klansman uncle’s children

who believed they genuinely defended

noble Southern traditions like honor,

Motherhood, and hospitality.

 

yea, like leading the Klan

in one of its worst years of lynching.

yea, like not paying the Colored a living wage,

yea, like not allowing me as a child to call

black people Mr. or Mrs.

or calling or knowing their family names.

 

I saw Jim Crow in the mirror

when, already 25, I first encountered

black folks who were educated

more than I was — over 100 of them

interviewed with three of us whites

for the same 50 jobs in Ghana,

all 100 of the blacks with doctorates,

mostly in animal science or agronomy,

while I had only a masters in English

and an undergraduate minor in Greek

 

Yet I got one of the jobs because

the British made the Ghanians value

Greek more than the farming skills

Ghana sorely needed.

 

I saw Jim Crow in the mirror

and winced when I thought of how much

I might have to pay if held accountable

for all the free labor, all the property,

all the spoils slavery had bequeathed me

without my ever having to dirty my white

hands or trouble my conscience one whit

as I hummed Negro spirituals

or danced to jazz

or merely winced when the Adams boys

burned the Freedom Rider bus in my hometown

or put itching powder on the stage

when Nat King Cole sang in Birmingham,

or when mother and the other ladies

at the Knox Music Club mocked Mrs. Roosevelt

as a misguided Yankee do-gooder.

 

I saw Jim Crow in the mirror

and did not like it when the best he could do

was straighten his tie, brush his coat,

and move away with all his privileges

to the North, then to England, then…..

 

I saw Jim Crow when at last I realized —

it’s awfully convenient to be a slow a learner —

that I’m part of the problem, not of the solution,

that the drama is not about me

but about justice and fairness and kindness,

about all of which I have been digressing.

 

I saw that only as Jim Crow can I play out the role

I inherited and integrate, can be in solidarity with,

the marvelous human race,

 

one smile,

one kindness,

one friendship,

one shared vulnerability,

one act of grace,

at a time.

 

Listen to the author reading the poem

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Rod Gillis
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Rod Gillis

Louie Crew, thank you!

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Michael Hartney
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Michael Hartney

Is there a misprint in this line?
it’s awfully convenient to be a slow a learner-

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