The aptly named Fibber Mc Gee had a wife named Molly. As with many couples Fibber often saw his remarks as witty whereas Molly saw them for what they were. In most of their more than 1600 radio episodes from 1935 to 1959, Fibber would spout out some lame attempt at humor and Molly would set the record straight with, “T’aint funny Mc Gee”. I dredged up this sage advice to obtuse comedians when I walked into one of my favorite shops and saw that my friends who run it had posted a sign derisive of lawyers, banker and others.
I know the owners well and find them caring and witty. That made this lapse of awareness even harder to understand. They are certainly not old but, perhaps, old enough to remember the days of “Whites Only” or “No Irish Need Apply”. We all are aware of our current pariahs, Muslims, Arabs and Mexicans. Should we not be among these groups we might not mind the plethora of movies and television shows depicting Arabs, Muslims and Mexicans as murderers and drug runners. We might even nod knowingly at caricatures of Muslims berating women or Mexicans who look like gangsters.
One of the ironies of the sign posted by my friends is it contains several pieces of advice about holding one’s tongue or not saying words we cannot take back. In other words, it recognizes my Mother’s sound advice: “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing.”
Over the years I have from time to time lost sight of this wisdom. Each time I have regretted it. One of my worst memories, and one I cannot exorcise, is from 1966 just after I got out of the Air Force. I grew up in Oklahoma which at that time was segregated by law. The dominant white culture had a lexicon of numerous “witty” sayings. One of these was sometimes used to denigrate certain products such as Spam or Vienna Sausages, etc. Men, it was a male thing, would respond to a comment about a product they disliked, “Well, a thousand Niggers couldn’t be wrong.” In other words, only a “Colored” person would eat that. We white guys would laugh.
Well, back to 1966. I was working on the night shift at RCA in Bloomington, Indiana with an African American friend of mine at a time when we both smoked cigarettes. I smoked Winston’s and he smoked a menthol type. When a mutual friend of ours commented over the lunch break about the odious smell of the menthols, unfortunately, it just popped out of my mouth, “Well, a thousand Niggers can’t be wrong.”
My Black friend looked at me with sadness and said, “That hurt my feelings.” Things changed after that.
My friends, perhaps your sign may be witty to some, but to others it hurts feelings. I know that was not what you were thinking. Perhaps you were like me in 1966 and just were not thinking at all. Perhaps, as Ronald Reagan might have said, “My friends, take down that sign!”