Let the record show, Joseph “Son” Robinson was an uppity Negro. In 1933, it near about cost him his life. Son wasn’t a schoolboy as his nickname infers. He was grown, 34 years old, and he was my grandfather.
After a few years performing in a traveling minstrel show, my grandparents made their home in Osceola, Arkansas. Granddaddy worked as a porter in a drug store and dug graves at the old Violet Cemetery. For the most part, he lived a forgettable life. Slow to anger, eager to forgiveness, he took each day as it came.
“It all started at the drug store,” Aunt Geraldine told me. “The owner’s name was Massengale, I think. And he hired Daddy to look after his customers.”
Her voice softened down to a whisper as she began to recount the tale.
“Son! I need you to hitch this horse!” a customer shouted over the crowd.
The Massengale pharmacy was busy that day. “I’ll get to you as fast as I can,” granddaddy replied.
“Sir,” the customer said, reminding granddaddy that they were anything but equals.
“Yessir,” he responded.
Still not satisfied that granddaddy had been sufficiently submissive, he grew angry. “You’ll do it now!”
Before Son could explain who was first, second or third, the customer drew his horsewhip and snapped it. Granddaddy caught the leather strap with his gravedigger’s hands. “I don’t want no trouble now Mister,” granddaddy said staring him in the eye.
“Uppity ni**er!” the man yelled.
And there it was.
In 1933, the word “uppity” meant nothing short of a death sentence for African-Americans living in the South, and my grandfather had been publicly marked for death. My grandparents heeded that warning, packed up and hit the railroad line north before the sun went down.
First used around 1880, uppity was a word used to describe someone who was prone to “taking on airs” or “assuming liberties beyond one’s social station”. By the early 1900s, the term was almost exclusively used to describe black people who did not show the appropriate level of deference with whites.
Forgetting to address someone as “sir” or “ma’am”, or having the audacity to look a white person in the eye, were all signs that you were getting too big for your britches. Attempting to get an education or enunciating your words were also frowned upon. Blacks needed to step off the sidewalk, if need be, the let whites pass freely. Jim Crow is dead, but unfortunately some of those social constructs live on.
To have some tell it, President Obama is an uppity Negro too. For too many, he is an “elitist” with an inflated self-esteem who doesn’t deserve to live in the White House. First lady Michelle Obama has been chided for everything from her choice in shoes to the garden she planted on White House grounds.
Certainly, according to some, they aren’t worthy of the “luxurious lifestyle” that comes with being the first family. According to Rick Perry, President Obama is nothing more than a community organizer who has never had to work for anything in his life. NASCAR fans at the Homestead-Miami Speedway openly booed Mrs. Obama as she paid tribute to those who hire and train military veterans. The next day, Rush Limbaugh blamed it all on Michelle Obama’s “uppity attitude”.
Let’s be clear, the word “uppity” has become nothing more than synonym for a “ni**er” that doesn’t know his or her “place”. For me, it’s an ugly reminder of what America used to be and, in some quarters, still is. When they say they want their country back, it isn’t a silent dog whistle. It’s a demand.
Much in the same way that the customer in the pharmacy demanded that my grandfather keep his place even at the snap of a horsewhip, so then do some believe President Obama should be deferential and humble himself before them. It is no accident that a political pundit called him a “dick” on live television because he dared speak his mind on the issue of the day.
Days later the incident in the drug store, Son and Alice settled down in St. Louis where granddaddy took a job chasing hogs in a meat packing plant. While the white townspeople in Arkansas may have called him “Son”, to our family he was known as Sweet Joe. In 1943, he died quietly in a rocking chair, singing his favorite song. I never knew him, but I’ve got to believe he would have admired our president for his grace and strength.
No one can climb on your back unless you bend down.