Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Displaced Person

A restaurant with a very long tradition in our small town is closing, one that we never went to. Friends and acquaintances told us that anyone who did not have the same skin color as the owners got very bad service there. So even though there aren't that many restaurants to choose from locally, we have always patronized the other, newer, places.

Meanwhile, the big city nearest our small town has one of the largest Somalian populations in any U.S. city today. I was thinking about this in light of rereading Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Other Stories, first published in 1953. The title story, of course, is one of her best, but I also like the last story, The Displaced Person.

The Displaced Person in the story is from WWII-torn Poland, and contemporary readers of the story can shake hands with themselves (a la Bill, the Galactic Hero) over the fact that people don't call each other "niggers" and "white trash" anymore the way they do in this story. But even if the subject of the story seems dated, the truths it tells about human nature are not dated enough. There are still people who can look at an animal and see how beautiful it is, while others dismiss it as "another mouth to feed." There are, more sadly, still people who worry that immigrants "could have carried all those murderous ways over the water with them directly to this place. If they had come from where that kind of thing was done to them, who was to say they were not the kind that would also do it to others?"

It's easy to read this story and feel morally superior to the characters, who are shocked by what they see as miscegenation in a proposed marriage between the Pole's cousin and a black farm worker ("a half-witted thieving black stinking nigger"). It's easy, now, to laugh when the Pole holds the black workers to his own standards and the white workers see him as "all eyes and no understanding." To laugh, though, and dismiss the jokes as dated is to miss the same thing most of the characters in the story miss--that seeing your own culture from the perspective of another demands that you reassess what is good and bad about that culture. That's what makes the melting pot work, that continual process of reassessing and retaining what is good from various cultures. Only if we are able to step outside our own preconceptions can we be a multicultural community in the best sense, because that takes an ability to value traditions that might look or sound different from what we're used to, along with the ability to refuse to condone traditions detrimental to human dignity, like female "circumcision."


Hugh said...

I see that the restaurant has the same reputation that it had when I was there. Not that it is undeserved, but I never ate there, and I didn't know any non-caucasians who ever experienced bad service first-hand.

I guess that's an indictment of me as much as the restaurant.


Alison said...

I have often wondered how deserved that reputation has been over the last several years. Granted that it's been in the same family, but the father (who was running the place when Hugh and I were in school, and when Jeanne and family arrived in the area) died in 2002, and his son took over.

How old were those stories? Were they recent, or did they come from the father's day? For that matter, did they really go back to the 1970s, when the grandfather was running the place? Had the stories become one of those "everybody knows" things that a small-town business was never going to shake?

That said, I never went there either...

Jeanne said...

Ron hears first-hand stories from folks he works with (including one who recently retired) about the restaurant.

Ron Griggs said...

In a small town, often the tar can never wear off. The long communal memory can be both a blessing and a curse.

So I talk to folks who've been there and had that experience--but how long ago was it really? And would you expect them to go back again and again, to see if things have gotten better? Of course not.

Is this objectively fair? Perhaps not. In this case, the closing of this restaurant is the most graceful end possible, I think, to a low and despicable story. One hopes it is one more tiny ending among many to that sad and disgraceful era.

Ron Griggs said...
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