SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2002        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Scott Cerreta

The Stench Around meÖ

As I recall, it was a whim not often capitalized on by my father, but this time was different.  He had the fishing bug fueled by all the new inventions revealed to him at the Boat Show.  The poor-manís boat is what he craved.  A Port-a-Boat is an eight-foot collapsible rubber boat that gives shape to a surfboard when stowed.  When fitted with wooded sticks for saddles, the erection captures the form of a washtub.  Although not elegant, this boat has many great features.  On command, my sixty-pound, twelve-year old Twix figure coupled with unwilling assistance from my 372-day older brother, of lesser weight and greater stature could maneuver the board through the Indiana forest with great speed.  Within ten minutes a launch into the smallest of lakes or most secluded of rivers is what propelled my father to act so feverishly.  However, the day would not come for this torturous memory of mine, just yet.  A shiny new unit was too expensive.

 For you see, the Boat-Show fever within my father had calmed, but it was quickly flamed four months later with the realization that some other manís flattened log was featured in the local classifieds.  Dadís behavior was all too familiar; nightmares of slavery within me had returned.  It was confirmed. Another manís drab rubbage was soon to be our dream catcher.  And, it came at a price of one monthís groceries and two pairs of sneakers; a far more attractive hook, comparatively, to the two-month loss of wages for a shiny unit.  The only true loss with his decision was time, since anything of substantial cost, not meeting the needs of family, was often placed on the back burner; grits were served in lieu.  We set off that night to purchase ìThe Tubî from smelly black people .

The course taken to arrive at the boat sellerís home, along with time, conversation, and presence or absence of my brother--with the exception of the absence of light--have all been clouded from my eighteen year memory by the funk that was so overwhelming.  Money must have changed hands, but even that I do not recall.  What remains so vivid is the stench imbedded so deeply within the rubberized walls of the boat that my father swore would require one hundred sinkings to drown away.  This smell compounded with the extremely powerful suggestion by my father, ìI should have bought a new boat .î  His regret, not giving up two months salary for a rubber-smelling boat, has haunted me unabatedÖ until recently.

 This torturous memory is what I refer to as The Stench Around me.  For today, I have come to realize that the obvious difference in odor among people is real, however, that odor is concentrated in darkness and lightened in whiteness.  In other words, odor of black people, sensed by white people is much more offensive than similarly offensive odors of white people.  This perception exists because of socially constructed racial barriers.  Now I understand that the true stench is me, not whatís around me, and one thousand drownings has not removed the stench from me.

ÖBelongs to the Boy in the Back?

 Katherine, a friend of mine, has a personal perspective on race much different from my own based on her life experiences while living amongst the people in Malawi, Africa.  As a peace corps volunteer, she tended to the health care needs of the indigenous people of Africa. In similar conditions of the Africans, Katherine was living without electricity, central heat and cooling, a refrigerator, and hot water. Living two years in Malawi, Katherine lived as an American, but she inherently adopted many African traditions including infrequent bathing and lack of shaving, because of ease and acceptability.  Because of this cultural experience Katherine has developed a different sense of smell; a sense that is based on the individual level.  Whereas Katherine was not present during my childhood experience, she had more impact on my understanding of The Stench Around me, than my father. Therefore this story alludes to another: ...the Boy in the Back.

 I invited Scott to join me in a house-hunting adventure in Tucson.  I am searching for a small apartment close to the University of Arizona where I will begin my second masterís degree, this time in Public Health with an international focus.  During our search, I found this great little place that Scott was not too fond of.  The small home had an even smaller apartment in the back, which was currently occupied.  As we looked around the main house, I was pulled by the elegant harmony coming from the back yard.  The situation reminded me of Africa when I agreed to let a poor Malawian family occupy a shed in the back yard of my home.  We met Barakaæit means Peace or Blessing in Malawian languageæand he was a very pleasant African American college student.  Baraka invited us in and the smells of his home were very familiar and refreshing to me.

I was very settled with the idea of renting this home and allowing Baraka to continue renting the cottage in the back.  However, on the drive back to Phoenix, Scottís distaste for the home became apparent when he made a degrading racist remark regarding the ìboy in the back,î which I will never forget.  Scott complained about the stench in the home that reminded him of black people.  I was enraged with his racist ways and we argued about smells of individuals versus his racist comment that ìall black people smell that way.î

 This experience I shared with Katherine opened my eyes to the realization of my white-skinned privilege, of which I was never before aware.  In my childhood experience, the metaphors and subtle hints of blackness (Twix, slavery, grits, absence of light) were my way of showing that an individualís odor is not the issue.  Rather, my perception of those odors, the stench I described, along with the socially constructed concept that permitted me to see black people and not see white people, is what has been stirring inside.  Katherineís accusations of my racism were the turning point in my life.  The boy in the back and his distinctive odor triggered a belief that I have always carried with me and imagined to be a fact.  I have just begun to realize the depth of this problem.  Racism lives as the stench inside me, and the inherent white color of my skin, perceived by others, forever traps The Stench Around me.

I was born free, free of race.  Unfortunately, society is plagued with racism.  However, despite my strong views against racism, I still find myself cursed with racial thoughts.  With this I end: I was not born racist; I did not ask to be racist; I was taught to be racist by the same social institution that created racismÖ and now I must change the ways of my predecessors to remove The Stench Around meÖ

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