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Democrat Photo by Ted Waddell

MONTICELLO ATTORNEY AND community leader Josephine Finn stands in front of the County Courthouse in Monticello.

'Living in a Black Skin'

By Ted Waddell
MONTICELLO — May 29, 2001 – Josephine Finn doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to talking about racism and the impacts of hatred on society, as she has been “living in a black skin” since being born in 1950.
“I think using the ‘n-word’ instead of ‘nigger’ is hypocritical,” said Finn. “It’s bulls--t. Say what it is. . . . We have no qualms about using it, because we know it’s the real deal.
“I don’t like the ‘n-word’ because it doesn’t ring out,” she added. “The ‘n-word’ allows you to be comfortable, and that’s for your benefit, not mine. I want people to be uncomfortable.”
Painful Memories
Asked to recount her first recollections of being a target of racial epithets, the local attorney and president-elect of the Sullivan County Bar Association said that, while in grade school, “what they used to teach about slavery was pure garbage.”
“They had books that were pure lies and racist,” she said heatedly.

Part II of a Series

According to Finn, the schoolbooks on American history were filled with what she called “big, ugly, grotesque pictures” of people of color, portraying them to be “worthless and useless people.”
As the teachers talked to the class about slavery, white grade-schoolers would turn around and stare at Finn and her other classmates of color, she said.
Her reaction?
“Pure anger. . . . I never felt inferior to anybody. ‘What are you looking at? If you don’t stop staring at me, I’ll see you after school!’” said the daughter of Ida Mae and Solomon Buster Finn, who moved from Louisiana to NYC in the early 1940s.
In kindergarten, Finn and a “little white boy with red hair” were friends and used to share cookies, milk and naptime on the same blanket.
While she didn’t know why at the time – that came later – the sight of a couple of kids with different color skin made the teachers uncomfortable, and they were separated.
“I didn’t know why, but I got the message that something was ‘wrong’,” said Finn.
It wasn’t until years later that she realized that it was a matter of skin color.
“I remember the day my niece came home from school and asked, ‘What’s a nigger?’” said Finn of that experience many a family has learned to dread.
Her reaction?
“Here we go again!” she said. “Parents know it’s coming.”
Finn graduated from Monticello High School in 1968 and promptly enrolled at SUNY Oneonta, where she graduated in 1972.
“I went to a town where there was one black family in the whole city,” she said of Oneonta, as the black student population increased from about eight to 60 in ‘68. “They didn’t want to see us coming. . . . The town was in a bit of an uproar.
“When I went to school [college], the country was burning,” recalled Finn. “There were two different movements going on. . . . People were protesting the Vietnam War, and we were protesting racism and the lack of programs about black history that we thought should be taught in college.”
Four years later – after taking over the president’s office and half the campus – students got SUNY Oneonta to add Black Studies to their curriculum, and Finn “began to realize we’d been lied to all of our lives. . . . It was a feeling of betrayal.”
At the age of 30, Finn went to law school and got her degree from the University of Buffalo in 1983. She taught paralegal courses for several years in the local prison system before becoming a full-time professor at Sullivan County Community College, where she teaches Constitutional Law.
‘It’s a Constant Battle’
Josephine Finn likens “living in a black skin” to being a soldier under fire in a war zone.
“It’s a constant battle trying to get the message across as to what’s happening with your people,” she said. “I know how soldiers feel. . . . You just manage to keep fighting, you just manage to keep going. It’s always another battle, another hill.”
Finn said it’s beyond race internationally, but in America it was about money before it was about race.
“Slavery wasn’t about color, it was about money, and they had to make up some lies to justify it,” she said. “It’s amazing how it has been perpetuated. We still have discrimination, racism and institutional racism. . . . We’ve been set up for so much failure.”
Finn, a lawyer, civil rights activist and the daughter of a preacher (her grandmother was also a preacher) was recently part of a public forum at the local community college that discussed racism and hate crimes.
“Most people have no concept of what it’s like to live in a black skin,” she said. “You learn early in life that you live in a country that has not only mistreated but refused to recognize the fallout of hate and racism directed at people of color.
“If you’re ‘living while being black,’ you learn to develop antenna early on in life,” she added. “The one thing that offends me most about race in America is how hypocritical we are about it. . . . My mother always had a saying: ‘People throw a rock and hide their hands.’”
And a rock hit home here in Sullivan County recently.
On April 6, two teenage boys allegedly tried to torch the home of Josephine Finn’s cousin, Herbert Finn of Kauneonga Lake. The attempted arson – which endangered the lives of six kids and a woman inside the house – is being investigated by the Sullivan County DA’s office as a possible hate crime.
“I got the call from Tonya Finn, my cousin’s sister, who works as a deputy sheriff,” said Josephine Finn .
Her reaction?
“There is a part that angers you, and then you think about what could have happened, and that frightens you, because you say to yourself, ‘My God, a whole segment of my family could have been dead.’ . . . First there was anger, then a chill.
“When you hate in your life, if you’re living a life that you think is fruitless and meaningless, you look for someone to take that out on,” she added. “People like that usually pick an easy target, and black people are an easy target, because we’ve already been branded as niggers. . . . If you dehumanize a person – take the face away from them, the humor, the love, all the things that make us human – once you do that, it’s easy to kill.
“So when we call people niggers, gooks, chinks, spics – and the list goes on and on – we’re dehumanizing people and making it easy to hate. You have to think your life is pretty pitiful to do that to another person.
“I’m aware that I’m a black person living in America,” said Josephine Finn. “Every day I get up, there’s somebody out there who wants me dead because I opened up my eyes this morning, [but] I don’t know where the enemy is.
“I’m living a different life, a different reality. I ask for no excuses, no favors. We’re in a battle every day of our lives, but people refuse to see.”
To be continued...

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