OLEAN, NY — In her nonfiction book "Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race," author Debby Irving makes frequent mention of her ancestors having been New England colonists.
When the Race Unity Circle of Olean Book Club gathered under the shelter in Lincoln Park on the last Tuesday of July to discuss Irving's book, Jil St. Ledger-Roty of Franklinville named one of her ancestors: Alexandre Dumas, author of “The Count of Monte Cristo" and "The Three Musketeers.”
She found out, she said, after she came home from grade school in a Southern city and used a word she had heard from friends: "The N word."
She recalled, "My father went ballistic."
When he calmed down, he let her know that as white as her skin is, she has Black ancestors from the Caribbean and that she is a direct descendant of Dumas.
The next day, she went “trotting” into her school's library and told the librarian about her ancestor, the noted author. And the librarian told her, “You can't tell anybody in this school that he's your grandfather. No people of color are allowed here.”
Niki Kronenwetter of Portville remembered saying that same word out loud at home after picking it up from friends in South Buffalo.
“My mother washed my mouth out with soap,” she said. “My parents tried not to teach prejudice.”
Ola Mae Gayton of Olean said Irving's narrative of realizing she leads a privileged life made her think of "Amazing Grace," the 18th century poem by former slave trader John Newton, which has become an anthem. "He got salvation and became a minister," she said.
And Gayton commented on Irving's journey of self-discovery: "The things she had to find out, how this society is telling stories, histories, errors and omissions making racism real."
The group made note of the fact that the author asked "good" questions of her readers at the end of each chapter, that she "put her finger on racism" and how it "was built and maintained."
St. Ledger-Roty commented on being a "white liberal wanting to help" and pointed to a statement Irving made on pages 43 to 44 that she had "long 'othered' people of color, wanting to help and fix them."
Growing up Black in Florida and attending segregated schools, Gayton said she learned early on about "rules and regulations" and that "superiors made the rules. “In so many cases, she added, people are "not seeing the other person's experience."
And she added, “There are people who really think they saved the Black man, that they taught him Christianity and saved his life.”
Kronenwetter noted that "people have a great power of rationalization."
The group also spoke of limitations put on women who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, such as being discouraged from college majors that did not promise job opportunities.
Gayton remembered learning she should "conquer your world not the world." And she said the election of Barack Obama as president has had a positive effect on younger people of color, who “kept moving the yardstick.”
At the end of the meeting, the book club chose its August book, "Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own" by Eddie S. Glaude Jr., the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. The date will be set soon, Kronenwetter said.
When the club met for the first time in June, they discussed “The Water Dancer,” a novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Persons interested in attending the August book club meeting should reserve a spot at email@example.com, and they should plan on wearing masks and bringing their own chairs.
If attendance is large, club organizers may divide attendees into two or three groups for discussion, Kronenwetter said.
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