I thought I had completed the mini-bios of all members of the Mahlou clan when the image of George’s face came to mind. Now, how could I forget George? He was another one of those accidental clan members like Vanessa (and her three children), Ksenya (and later, her mother Zina), and Shura. Ours, but not ours. Clan, but not kin. Nonetheless, clan George was/is, and so I include his mini-bio on this blog. (I am clearly delving into a pleasant past in order to avoid too much thinking about the current unpleasant present -- we all have our coping strategies!)
George worked at the same copy shop where Donnie served as the design center (yes, Donnie was referred to as “the center” since no one else worked there). I don’t recall just what George did. I think it was photocopying, folding, and stapling or something else along the lines of what machines, not people, do today. George and Donnie began work at about the same time, worked in close proximity, and had to consult occasionally on the end result of design products. So, they became pretty good friends pretty quickly.
It was at the newly formed friendship point that Donnie learned that George had no long-term place to live. The only landlord who would take him in was the owner of a skid-row-type flophouse, where George lived in a dayroom. The problem was not George’s meager copy-shop salary or his specific job. That would have been quite sufficient to pay rent on any simple efficiency in Salts, and many, if not most, people in Salts worked in blue collar or agricultural jobs. No, the problem was not the color of George’s money; it was the color of George’s skin. George was black. It seemed such an anomaly: Salts has a majority population that is Hispanic, grudgingly accepts Caucasians, and tries to dissuade other ethnic groups from settling in. (I wish I could say that it is better today, but I cannot say any such thing with any certainty.)
At this time in our lives, Vanessa had just moved out. Donnie and I had been discussing whether or not to move back into our master bedroom suite. Moving back would not have been that much work, but we were already used to our bedroom on the ground floor. (The master bedroom suite was below the ground floor and had a separate entrance and bath, neither of which we really needed, being the only people rumbling around in the 13-room house in which we had raised the large Mahlou clan.) George’s appearance on the scene was a great alternative: we could rent the master bedroom suite to George for whatever he could afford. Like Vanessa, he would have to share kitchen facilities, but being a New Englander, for me all life takes place in the kitchen, not the living room. So, I welcomed company in the kitchen again. Life would be back to, well, life – a place where people interact.
George agreed with alacrity and pleasure. We all lived together cozily as a mini-clan . George was very quiet. Mostly, he kept to himself, occasionally coming upstairs to watch television. Months later, when Shura arrived with his father, who stayed with us until we had Shura’s surgeries arranged, I did not have a chance to introduce George, who was usually around only for a while after work and before going to bed. The plane carrying Shura and Lyonya arrived very late, and so we all tumbled into bed upon reaching the house. I showed Shura and Lyonya, who would be getting up after Donnie and I had gone to work, the location of the important things – bath, towels, kitchen, television, etc. That first evening Donnie and I both had to work late. Arriving home around 6:30 (Donnie was still at work), I found Shura and Lyonya sitting on our stone-step entrance. I thought that they had decided to soak in some sun rays, but no, not exactly.
“Beth,” said Lyonya with wide eyes and great excitement, “est’ muchshina na divane.” (There’s a man on the couch.)
“Muchshina? Kakoj muchshina? Otkuda on poyavilsya?” (A man? What kind of man? Where did he come from?)
Then Lyonya whispered, nearly in terror, “on chernyj.” (He’s black.)
I wanted to laugh, but I controlled that urge. Imagine the scene! Up from the downstairs at the end of the day (I guess he had been there about a half-hour) comes a tall, brawny, African American, who turns on the television and sits down, not knowing that there were two Russians in the kitchen. George could have guessed who the Russians were when they popped into the living room from the kitchen because he knew that we had gone to the airport to pick them up the night before. However, I had forgotten to say anything to them about George. Moreover, George spoke no Russian, and they spoke no English. They fled to the outdoors! Once things were straightened out with an interpreter (yours truly) available, we all had a good laugh.
The most disconcerting aspect of George’s appearance for Shura and Lyonya paralleled that of the people of Salts: his skin color. African Russians are quite rare. Most of the Blacks I personally knew in the Soviet Union came from Africa and attended Patrice Lmumba University (the informal nomenclature, the full name literally being the University of Nations’ Friendship Named After Patrice Lmumba). Otherwise, I never saw anyone of African origin, and neither did the Robert Robinson, the author of the book, Black on Red, a well known biography of an African American (Robinson) working temporarily in Russian before the 1917 Revolution and being trapped in the Soviet Union for many years afterward as a result of the Revolution.
There is more to be said about skin color, prejudice (even when people don’t think they are prejudiced), and how coming to know people as individuals washes away the surface differences, such as ethnicity and race. How well we know! My son-in-law gets picked up nearly daily for DWM (Driving While Mexican) in South Carolina.
For now, I will stop with saying that George lived with us, accepted by our neighbors, until he had to return to Chicago to tend to ill parents. We enjoyed having him as a member of our clan, and he seemed to enjoy being a member of the clan.
Perhaps I have remembered him at this time because of the passing of Ray. Ray was another African-American member of the Mahlou clan, which, with Hispanic (Lemony and Blaine, and, of course now, Nathaniel and Nikolina) and Native American (me through my father's line) blood swished into the mix, is becoming quite colorful!
I have no pictures of George that have survived our multiple moves, including to the Middle East and back. Therefore, I cannot even promise to post some later -- and then forget to do it!
What I do have, though, is a very interesting film about a teacher demonstrating the effects of prejudice to grade 3 children, an amazing study in how easily it is to develop prejudice, how insidious the effects are, and how to train people out of it. It is called A Class Divided. It is a famous study, so some of you may have seen it. (I had not; a student of mine while teaching in Lithuania told me about it.) If you are not familiar with it, click on the title. You will not regret it it. It is a fascinating and awesome study and good documentary.