My First American Encounter With Racial Prejudice
Written By Hana Dubova, 2005
(only suitable for high school students. For younger students, please summarize)
When I was a child I had no idea that there were other races than white on this planet. Yes we heard “Eat your spinach. The children in China are starving.” So, reluctantly, we ate the detested green blob, never giving it a thought how this action helps the starving Chinese children. All we knew was that all Chinese children had slanted eyes and all were starving.
In Prague there was a famous coffee shop “Meindel” where coffee beans were roasted to your specification. The person who operated this coffee roasting machine was dressed in yellow shiny pantaloons, a red silk jacket and a huge yellow-red turban. He was black. This was the first and only Negro I have ever know. Black man roasting brown/black coffee.
While living in Denmark I never saw a black face, neither did I later in Sweden.
In 1950 while working at AGA (Actiebolaget Gas Accumulator), a big enterprise founded by Herr Nobel, who invented dynamite. Dynamite, which had the capacity of mass killing and made Mr. Nobel rich, to the point that to this day, there is the Nobel Prize Endowment given annually for achievement of science and medicine, in Stockholm, where he invented the deathly dynamite. The company was extremely generous to its employees. The working mothers brought their preschool children to work. On the premises was a well run nursery school, free of charge, and the food in the cafeteria was free to employees. We had tennis courts and a boat house and could use canoes, to row on the river, either before or after office hours. I felt I was very lucky to be able to work there. At this point, it was an engineering firm and the engineers wrote their specifications and drawings which had to be run off of a mimeo machine with its blue ink which stained terribly. This was my job. Then it was very formal in Sweden and the engineers were addressed in third person, including their title. Such as, “Please would engineer Johanson, please tell me...” and one had to curtsy at the same time. This formality doesn’t exist anymore. I was happy there. I made some friends with whom I am in touch with to this day.
One day, an exchange student from America was assigned to AGA. He didn’t speak one word of Swedish. He was very tall and black. I was fascinated by his size and color and oh such white teeth when he smiled. I asked him please to teach me English as I intend to go to America and I’ll teach him Swedish. We both lived up to our agreement. Not before long, he bought himself a motorcycle and asked me to join him on the back seat. So, my first motorcycle ride was with a black man in Sweden. His name was Mosley. We became fast friends. When finally after several years my visa to the USA was issued to me on a Czech quota, I told Mosley that his Swedish is adequate, much better than my English, he’ll fare better in Sweden than I with my poor English in America. “Where in America are you going?” “My affidavit is issued in Cincinnati and I have to go there,” I replied. “What a great coincidence” he exclaimed., “I am from cross the Ohio River from Frankfort, KY and have all my relatives in Cincinnati.” I was thrilled to find out that there was some connection. Before I left, he gave me several packages as gifts for his relatives which I promised to deliver.
After several weeks living with my distant relatives I asked them if I could use the phone to call some people I had to deliver gifts to. They asked me how come I do know anyone in the city and I told them. They didn’t like me very much. When I arrived, the lady of the house took me over to a light switch and showed me how to work it in order to light up the room. I got hysterical and laughed and laughed with tears running down my cheeks. I told her that I have never lived without electricity. She was a stepsister of my grandmother and came to the United States at the turn of the century and remembered Europe the way she left her little village.
They also wanted me to start dating their bachelor son Joe, who lived at home with his parents, but I wasn’t interested. I did make my telephone call. They had a party line, which means the same number to two or three different households (yes it existed at that time in America, but not Sweden). Their line was shared with their married daughter, who listened on my conversation and told her parents that I dialed a number which was probably in the black ghetto. I asked the person who answered the phone to come and pick up the packages and he replied, “Oh, no, I cannot do that. Why don’t we meet in center square. You’ll recognize me wearing a green hat.” I gave it no thought why he didn’t want to come to the neighborhood I lived in. When the day came, Joe, their son was assigned to accompany me on the bus. We arrived at the agreed upon place in the square and I saw a man with a green hat and went over to him. He was black. He thanked me profusely for going to so much trouble and informed me that his parents would be honored to have me for dinner. I was pleased to be invited. Joe exploded, “You are not going with a Nigger anywhere.” I said I would. He slapped me right then and there and I was more furious and went with Ken to his parents house. The father was a Pullman porter, at the Baltimore-Ohio railroad. The house was immaculate. It was also the first time I encountered plastic slip covers on top of slip covers. The meal was delicious, the conversation halting with my poor English, but they were curious about life in Sweden. After dinner Ken took me to my bus stop. When I arrived back at my house, my two suitcases were in front of it with a note, “We do not harbor Nigger lover.”
So much for the land of the brave and the free.
I wished I could sail back to Sweden.