Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Lyman T. Johnson, March 27, 1979

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:00 - The beginning of integration of government positions

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Partial Transcript: --Johnson was conducted on Tuesday, March the 27th between 1:30 and 5:00--(coughs)--in the afternoon at the home of Lyman Johnson on Muhammad Ali Boulevard in Louisville, Kentucky.

Segment Synopsis: Hall begins the interview by bringing up the fact that at one point in time in Louisville the fire department had all white units and all black units. Johnson explains that this was the beginning of "doing what was right", in other words integrating the cities facilities and services so that no one was left out of the equation. The end goal of this being blacks and whites working together in positions that provide a public service. Johnson also mentions that the police service was not segregated into different departments, but black police officers did not have as much power as white police officers, especially when it came to making an arrest of a white person. Black police officers were almost never taken seriously by white people, which led to a large occurrence of disobedience towards black police officers. Sadly most of the time black police officers were forced to threaten white lawbreakers with violence in order to get them to obey the law, or stop the criminal activity, Johnson says. Johnson says that even though legally a black police officer has the same authority over a white citizen as a white police officer would, the psychological fear of getting yourself in trouble is enough to restrain the black police from completing their duties.

Keywords: Black police; Fears; Firefighters; Laws; Police; Psychological fear; Public service; Race relations; Racial superiority; Racism; Stereotypes

Subjects: African American police; African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Social conditions.; Authoritarianism; Fear.; Law.; Police.; Public works; Race discrimination.; Racism.; United States--Race relations.

00:09:09 - Race and the transportation system

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Partial Transcript: That time when I was on the bus and my father says, "Son, will you please move to the back of the bus?"

Segment Synopsis: Johnson recalls a time when psychological feelings of fear took over for him when it came to segregation. He recalls a time when he was determined to sit at the front of a bus with the white people, but was swiftly persuaded to move back to the back of the bus where his father and other black people were sitting. Johnson knew that it was wrong for him to sit on the bus, but he didn't know why it was wrong fundamentally. Johnson mentions that even the white people on the bus looked upon him with pity and most likely wondered to themselves about why they enacted such a disgraceful policy. Johnson also tells a story of a trip to Alabama, where he noticed the far superior quality of roads compared to the roads Johnson knew in Kentucky and Tennessee. Johnson quickly learned the dark reason for the good quality of the roads he noticed. A local doctor invited Johnson to visit some of his patients out in the country where the roads have been constructed. In Alabama, the police would oftentimes abuse their power, especially in black neighborhoods, to basically exploit free hard labor out of anyone they desired. The police could arrest a black person for basically nothing, fine them, and when they wouldn't be able to pay the fine, the police would simply take them out to the roads being built across the state and work them.

Keywords: Abuse of power; Jim Crow laws; Manual labor; Police; Racial superiority; Racial tensions; Racism; Roads; Transportation; Violations; Workplace safety

Subjects: Abuse; African Americans--Segregation; African Americans--Social conditions.; Authority.; Labor; Race discrimination.; Racial profiling in law enforcement; Racism.; Segregation in transportation; Transportation.; United States--Race relations.

00:23:26 - Being black in the South

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Partial Transcript: If you didn't get out, uh--if you didn't get across the Ohio River, what the, what the, the, slave always referred to as 'Mas'n-Dixie Line.'

Segment Synopsis: Johnson remarks that the past border between the slave states and the free states, the Mason-Dixon Line, still applies to the degree of freedom and equality black people can experience today. Johnson says just like how slaves would desperately try to get north of the Ohio River to freedom, black people today will go north, given the opportunity, in order to escape segregation and Jim Crow laws. Johnson compares the police at the time of the interview to slave owners during the period of slavery; white people with some sort of legal authority over black people exploited them into doing hard labor so that they could be paid less, and white workers would have to do less hard work, meaning they would be able to work a lot longer. This comparison is further solidified when the hard labor performed by black "criminals" to improve the roads is taken into consideration. Johnson then begins to rank the Southern states in terms of which are the worst towards black people and which are the best. Johnson states that of course the states in the deep South (Alabama, Georgia, etc.) are the worst places to be if you are black. Johnson says that after visiting and being in the deep South, Tennessee is actually not too bad, and black people can live relatively good lives there without too much infringement on the part of white people. Johnson describes Kentucky as somewhere that was in the middle between Tennessee and the deep South. Kentucky varied in treatment but Johnson says it was never really good and basically the only good part would be Louisville, because it looks to the north in terms of racial ideals.

Keywords: Free states; Inequality; Jim Crow laws; North; Poor; Racism; Segregation; Slave labor; Slave states; South

Subjects: African Americans--Civil rights; African Americans--Segregation; African Americans--Social conditions.; African Americans--Southern States.; Crime; Economics.; Inequality; Race discrimination.; Racially mixed children; Racism.; Segregation.; Slavery.; United States--Race relations.

00:37:47 - Johnson's background in foreign language and history

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Partial Transcript: Although in my college days, my major in, in college was, of all things, uh, Greek. Foreign language.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson reveals that there has always been a importance to old languages in his family. He remarks that both his father and uncle studied old languages in college. Johnson says that although his major in his undergraduate career could have been beneficial, he knew that in order to be more successful he would need to examine newer languages in his graduate career. Johnson states that he decided to focus more on history, as it would give him something to teach if he couldn't find a career in an old language. Johnson remarks that the majority of the work he completed in graduate school dealt with Southern history. Because a lot of the history written about the South was written by educated white men who may not have even been to the South, Johnson says he had to debunk a lot of what he read because he knew from experience and what he observed about the South for that not be true. Johnson recalls how he received a lot of opposition when he stood up to correct the information written about the South. He recalls that the information written could be completely false, and even though everyone knew it, it was seen as fact because it made the South look better. Johnson recalls the broken PhD system in place for history at the time. He notes that if the reviewers disagreed with any of the information put forth by the presenter, your dissertation would be rejected. In a sense, one man was able to control what kind of history was being recorded and studied, which left many important facts out of history, and likely will never be covered in order to hide how brutal the South was. Because Southern history was so embellished by white Northern scholars, Johnson compares it to a movie of sorts, quoting "it is the propagandized fantasy of the old South, 'Gone With the Wind' style."

Keywords: College education; Doctorate degrees; Education; Graduate; Greek; Hebrew; Historical records; History; Latin; Old languages; Racism; Segregation; Southern history; Undergraduate; University of Michigan

Subjects: African Americans--Civil rights; African Americans--Segregation; African Americans--Social conditions.; African Americans--Southern States.; Education.; Higher education.; History.; Inequality; Post-secondary education; Race discrimination.; Racism.; Segregation.; Slavery.; Undergraduate; United States--Race relations.

00:51:12 - The overwhelming whiteness of history

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Partial Transcript: Now as I say, um, much of my history colors--much of my process in debunking what had gone in the name of history, uh, is, uh, is the, uh, the thing that sort of makes me, uh, shift my opinions as to what was, what is, or what might be.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson remarks that many of the ideas present in history, the ideas that give a reason for the movement of white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant peoples, such as Manifest Destiny are related to religion. The belief that it is God's will for the white man to be the "owner," so to speak, of the land on earth. Johnson notes the important difference between English protestants and other groups of white colonizers and settlers. He mentions that the Spanish and Portuguese people have no right to say they are better than the people in Africa, because they are "just about as mixed race as any." Johnson mentions that he has debunked most of white history, saying it really isn't as white as the scholars think, due to the intermixing between white people and people of color. Johnson discusses the difference between English colonizers and French, Spanish, and Portuguese colonizers, saying that their differences in religion led them to treat the indigenous people they encountered very differently.

Keywords: Age of exploration; Catholicism; Catholics; Colonization; Colonizers; English; Europeans; French; Indigenous peoples; Manifest destiny; Mixed race; Native Americans; Native peoples; Portuguese; Protestantism; Protestants; Racial intermixing; Racism; Spanish

Subjects: Catholicism; Colonization; Europeans; Genocide; Indigenous people; Mixed race people; Native Americans; Protestant; Racism.; United States--Race relations.

01:06:56 - Anglo-Saxon relationship to people of color

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Partial Transcript: The white Englishmen fighting against a few French, but many Indians. And the Indians just despised the uh, the English white man.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson mentions that the French and Indian War was fought because of the need for the Anglo-Saxon white settlers of the colonies to expand into Native American territory. Johnson notes that the Native Americans fought alongside the French because they were never bad to the Native Americans. In other words, they coexisted peacefully for the most part. This is due to the principle that followers of Catholicism should treat others kindly to appease God. This belief taught followers of Catholicism that no people are inferior, which resulted in a nicer relationship between master and servant. Johnson says that this belief is not accepted by the powers that be in the world of historical scholars, however he knows it to be correct because nothing about history points to the Anglo-Saxon protestant peoples as the favorite white people among people of color. Another way Johnson says he can tell this is because other white groups, in his words, "did not abandon their children they had with the black women." Johnson also mentions the conditions present in current day South America, namely Brazil, where he says people of color do not look at white people as superior, like people do in North America.

Keywords: British; British colonies; Colonial times; Colonies; Colonization; Early America; French; French and Indian War; History; Minorities; Native Americans; Racial superiority; Racism.; Violence; Violence against minorities; War of 1812

Subjects: British; Colonialism.; Colonies; Colonization.; French; History.; Minorities; Native Americans; Racism.; United States--Race relations.; War of 1812

01:14:22 - The end of Anglo-Saxon racial superiority

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Partial Transcript: Are you suggesting that the era of the, of the northern European, northern--o, orr the--and the white Anglo Saxon Protestant American is coming to an end?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson says that although white Europeans have viewed themselves as superior to the people of color in the world, they still further divide themselves into more superior and less superior groups. Johnson says that the modern day Greek and Italian people are known as the "poor whites," which means they are less superior, and theoretically are "closer" to people of color in the eyes of rich northern Europeans. This ideology of ranking or making a tiered racial structure has always existed in Europe, and Johnson attributes Hitler to be the first to really make it something tangible that people would follow. Johnson says Hitler created a delineation between classes of white people, which can clearly be seen through his treatment of Jewish people and people that stray further from an "Aryan" complexion. However, Johnson does remark that all of the white people described are still considered to be above the people of color, and the non-black people of color are above all black people, according to Hitler's ideology. Johnson says the English are always ready to point out that they are the "purest white" and they don't have any of the mixture of races seen in Spain and Portugal and maybe even France. The English have always had a disposition to people who are willing to marry outside of their nationality or ethnicity, which Johnson says explains why they are always to ready to tell southern and central Europeans they are better than them because of their pure white blood. Johnson says this cultural ideology of the English may also explain why they treated slaves and people of color so much worse than the French or Spanish treated slaves and people of color.

Keywords: Adolf Hitler; African Americans; Africans; Black people; Ethnicity; Indigenous people; Mixed race; Nationality; People of color; Racial mixing; Racial structure; Racial superiority; Racism; Slavery

Subjects: African Americans.; African.; Ethnicity; Europeans; Hitler, Adolf, 1889-1945.; Indigenous people; Minorities; Nationality (Citizenship); People of color; Racism.; Slavery.

01:27:16 - The stain of white colonialism on non-white countries

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Partial Transcript: But the battle waged between England and France in, in modern times, uh, between the English and the French for the possession of these foreign territories in Africa, Asia, uh, which includes, uh, Asia--which includes India.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson says that the English have completely different views towards how slaves should be treated when compared to Catholic-centered countries. Johnson says the English believed that if you treated slaves with more sternness rather than generosity you would have a better, more obedient group of people to do your work for you. The English, with their Protestant beliefs, also thought that treating slaves with less generosity and less equality would make you a better steward in the eyes of God, which Johnson said is because they thought God made white people to be superior over black people. This ideology and belief is also strengthened by the literary work "The White Man's Burden" which said it is the burden of white people to force people of color out of their "primal" ways and show them how to live a better life, completely envisioned by white ideals. Catholic-centered countries took a completely opposite approach to the narrative, believing that people are all created in the eyes of God, and because of that they should be treated with respect. Johnson remarks that yes they did have slaves, but Catholic whites oftentimes were not responsible for erasing culture and forcing their slaves to act and behave a certain way. Johnson says that in non-white countries, the American flag can be seen as a symbol of white supremacy, and played a role in the Vietnam War. Johnson says that when Vietnamese soldiers saw the American flag, it meant white supremacy and white control over the land that they had fought for centuries over between neighboring nations. Johnson says that many black soldiers knew that what they were fighting for was not right, and they related more with the Vietnamese than to their fellow white soldiers in many cases. Johnson says that outside the United States, white people are not as protected as they are inside this country, saying that people of color aren't afraid to stand up to white people. Johnson says that the United Nations is composed of officials from countries whose majority populations are people of color, and states that white people on the world stage are a minority, but they just happen to control the majority of the means of production, which gives them their power.

Keywords: Colonial era; Colonialism; Majority; Minorities; Minority; Non-white countries; People of color; Race; Racial structure; Racial superiority; Racism; United Nations; White supremacy

Subjects: Colonialism; Colonization.; Minorities; Race; Racism.; United Nations; Violence.; War.; White supremacy movements

01:41:39 - The Vietnam War as a turning point in white supremacy in the United States

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Partial Transcript: Do you think the Vietnam War was a turning point?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson agrees that the Vietnam War marks an event where white supremacy is somewhat invalidated, but he does not agree that it was the first time it had occurred. Johnson also remarks that white supremacy is very far from gone, and is still a very prevalent ideal in the South. Johnson does believe that the Vietnam War puts a "nail in the coffin" of white supremacy, however. Johnson says one of the only ways white supremacists can now invalidate people of color is by accusing them of what would be considered unforgivable acts, or releasing humiliating information about them, true or untrue. Johnson himself is a victim of this, as he was accused of supporting the ideologies of socialism and communism many times. Back then, it was a cardinal sin to be a socialist or communist in a very capitalist America. Johnson also remarks that there is a growing dependence on people of color for certain materials, such as oil. However, white leaders and owners of the means of production are still wary and do not view these people as equal to them, Johnson remarks.

Keywords: Africa; America; Arabia; Asia; Factories; Means of production; Middle East; Oil; Resources; Vietnam War; White supremacy

Subjects: Africa.; African Americans--Social conditions.; America; Asia.; Factories; Government.; Natural resources.; Oil; Race discrimination.; Racism; United States--Race relations.; Vietnam War, 1961-1975.; Violence.; War.; White supremacy movements

01:54:12 - Active white supremacy in higher education

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Partial Transcript: I still have quite of an opinion about the origin and therefore the philosophical background of Vanderbilt University.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson brings up the dark and racist history of Vanderbilt University, saying it promotes a book written that supports the idea that white people are superior. The college released a book that gave a detailed plan for a future for the South, but completely glorified and magnified the terrible treatment of black people. The book was given the seal of approval by the university and was hailed as a great work. Johnson remembers reading it and being completely disgusted, wishing it could be completely removed from all of human knowledge. Johnson says that black people are not responsible for being black, and so obviously should not be looked down upon and treated unequally.

Keywords: Education; Embellished history; False history; Higher education; History; Post-secondary education; Racism; Vanderbilt University

Subjects: African Americans--Civil rights; African Americans--Education (Higher); African Americans--Social conditions.; African Americans--Southern States.; Education.; History.; Post-secondary education; Race discrimination.; Racism.; United States--Race relations.; Vanderbilt University

02:05:43 - Figures that influenced Johnson

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Partial Transcript: Now DuBois, W.E.B. DuBois, Dr. DuBois carried the ball during the thirties.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson remarks that he is passing his "project" onto the next generation, saying that during the thirties, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois served as a great example for what Johnson would be able to do when it became his time. Johnson even says that DuBois had already written everything that Johnson was wanting to say, reminiscing on a story where a University of Michigan professor told him DuBois had beaten him to the chase by about 20 years in terms of things Johnson was saying and writing. Johnson says that this work of Dubois was largely discredited because of the given state of racism and segregation at the time at which he started work on a civil rights movement. Johnson says if he would have had the gift of writing as well as speaking he would have probably followed in the footsteps of DuBois, and written many works for the civil rights movement. Johnson says he is not dissatisfied with his performance with regards to his involvement in the civil rights movement, however he mentions that everyone involved could have done better.

Keywords: Black historians; Black history; Black people; Historians; Lecturers; People of color; Professors; Southern history; W. E. B. DuBois; W.E.B. DuBois; White history; Writers

Subjects: African American history; African American history and culture; African American leadership; African Americans--Civil rights; African Americans--Segregation; African Americans--Social conditions.; Books; Civil rights movements--United States; Historians; History; Professors; Race discrimination.; Racism.; Teachers; Textbooks; United States--Race relations.; Writers

02:11:49 - Johnson's post-graduate studies leading up to his teaching career

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Partial Transcript: Now when, when the Depression came--just before the Depression came, I graduated from college.

Segment Synopsis: Johnson recalls the onset of the Great Depression. When Johnson graduated college, he found work as an employee at a summer getaway cottage in Virginia Beach, where he earned enough money in tips to further his education. Johnson recalls going out and buying an entire new wardrobe, practically making himself broke in the process, but he knew it would be worth it because his professional value increased. Johnson says he graduated with a degree in Greek. Johnson found it incredibly ironic that he was getting a degree in an ancient language and all the while the entire nation was being laid off from their jobs and were forced to find other work. Johnson said it was also ironic that he himself was looking for a job, even though the field was so narrow and so incredibly uncommon, given that the only places he could really work were universities and maybe high schools. Johnson recalls that during his last year of schooling he could take six hours of electives. He was told by the dean of the college at that time that by taking education classes he would be better off in terms of being able to find a job. Since no schools were hiring full time scholars given the depression, the dean told Johnson his best and probably only option would be working as an educator. Johnson recalls being told by employers when he did apply for positions that he was told he had everything they were looking for, minus any type of education background. Johnson remembers regretting not taking the education electives because now he would have to go back to school to take them. He would also be required to obtain a teaching certificate, which requires some education courses, and then and only then would employers consider hiring him.

Keywords: Degrees; Education; Employment; Graduates; Great Depression; Higher education; Post-graduate education; Studying; Teaching; Teaching certificates; The Great Depression

Subjects: African American teachers.; African Americans--Economic conditions.; African Americans--Education (Higher); African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Social conditions.; Careers; Depressions--1929; Education.; Job security; Post-graduate students; Post-secondary education; Studies; Teaching.; Undergraduate

02:22:59 - Odd jobs Johnson held and the role of segregation at those jobs

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Partial Transcript: This was the year after you were graduated from Virginia Union?

Segment Synopsis: Johnson brings up the work he did at the summer cottage in Virginia Beach. He explains that he was a waiter there and would have to provide the most excellent service because the guests would be part of the more affluent group in society, and being that this was the Great Depression it was even more important. Johnson said his job there provided him with food, a place to stay, and paid him $1.25 a day, which would be equal to about 20$ a day in today's economy. With this income, plus any tips he received, Johnson was able to pay off an entire year of schooling. Of course, Johnson says, he would be serving white people, and he worked under the supervision of white people all the time. While he was the head waiter at the cottage, Johnson does say that the cook was probably the highest tiered black employee, and whatever she said goes. He remarks that she was a wonderful cook and had a loud personality, which sometimes resulted in arguments with the owners. Johnson also remarks that he and the cook were very popular among the guests of the cottage, and people would often ask specifically for him and always send compliments to the chef. Johnson also acted as a handyman for the cottage, fixing plumbing, doing electrical work, painting, and other general maintenance activities. While working over the summer months, Johnson would be applying to several post graduate programs, which he reveals were at Yale, University of Michigan, and the University of Iowa. He remarks that he was able to save up enough money to apply for the programs, choose one, and pay tuition for the entire year. Johnson says he was pulled into getting another job while going to school because the tuition rates ate through his savings that he had built up over the summer. He became a janitor for a fraternity at the university, of which he was also a member. Even though Johnson had his housing and classes covered due to his own due diligence, he was still forced to ask for money from family members in order to cover the miscellaneous costs of college.

Keywords: Employment; Financially stable; Financials; Great Depression; Handyman; Jobs; Racism; Resort; Segregation; Summer jobs; The Great Depression; Tuition; Vacation; Working

Subjects: African Americans--Economic conditions.; African Americans--Education (Higher); African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Segregation; African Americans--Social conditions.; Careers; Depressions--1929; Financials; Race discrimination.; Segregation.; Summer; Tuition; Work.

02:33:57 - Race relations at his job in Virginia Beach

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Partial Transcript: Let's go back to Virginia Beach. You said you had something that you might--[phone rings]--

Segment Synopsis: Johnson begins this segment by glossing over more details about the summer cottage he worked at in between years of schooling. He mentions that the cottage was run by three white women, but there were also seven black staff who worked full time in the summer. Johnson would guess that out of the black workers he was second in command after the cook, given that the cook was such a staple for an establishment like this. Johnson remarks that the white women who owned the cottage were wary to show disrespect towards the cook. Johnson remembers guests would always mention how good the food was, or how fast and good the service was. This became a draw for the cottage and began to increase business. Johnson calls himself an asset to the cottage because of his work as a handyman and also a bookkeeper at times. In those times, even the beaches were segregated, and black people were only able to utilize them after a certain time in the evening. Johnson recalls a story of one night where he was the only black worker left in the cottage while the rest had gone to the beach. He was reading when he began to hear a child crying. Johnson followed the noise to a little girl who had been hidden under the steps of the house. The little girl, who he describes as only a toddler, explained that she had gotten lost and did not know where she was. Johnson says he did what he thought was the good thing to do. He began to tell the child to calm down because he would help her find her parents. Johnson said he held the girl in his arms and carried her to the area where the three white women lived in the house, so they could notify the police and help the little girl find her parents. Johnson recalls how upset his coworkers were when they found out he had helped the little girl. They began telling him he should consider himself lucky no one saw him carrying the girl until he found the owners of the cottage. They told him all it takes is one person to accuse him of assaulting or kidnapping a little girl and then lynch him the next day, whether he was helping her or not. Johnson begins another story of a time where he and his employer got into an argument. However this time, Johnson had had enough of this woman paying him nearly nothing and treating him like a complete servant. He told the woman that they could not run this place without him and they needed him there more than he needed them. He finally decided to stand up to his boss, and he said nothing more happened after that event. Johnson remembers however that later that the same boss who had yelled at him prior attempted to seduce him. Johnson is not sure if this was a ploy to get him in trouble with the police, or if she was genuinely interested in him. Johnson remarks that this made him feel extremely uncomfortable, and he is glad he did not act on her advances, for it could have ended horribly and he could have been accused of any number of crimes.

Keywords: African American; Black people; Crimes; Employees; Employers; False accusations; Handyman; Police; Police brutality; Servants; Servitude; Sexual assault; Sexual relations; Waiters

Subjects: African Americans--Economic conditions.; African Americans--Education (Higher); African Americans--Employment.; African Americans--Segregation; African Americans--Social conditions.; Crime; Depressions--1929; Police; Police brutality.; Race discrimination.; Racial profiling in law enforcement; Racism; Servants; Sexual assault; United States--Race relations.