Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Juneteenth 2

It’s amazing how much of a jumble of crap is floating around in my head concerning racial prejudice. Here’s where I let some of it out.

(If you didn’t read the first part of this, Juneteenth, last Friday, please do so now. Really, please do. If you don’t read that, this will be even more embarrassing to me than it already is. In any case, if you don’t read part one and then you make a comment here? It’s likely to be entirely uninformed. If so, I’ll shitcan it, with no apology.)

So, as you know – if you've read part one – I grew up with vastly differing input from my family concerning race. Some tried to instill tolerance, while others taught me (via actions, rather than actual sit-down-and-listen lessons) that black people were to be considered inferior. For my part, tolerance was the winner more often than not, but tolerance isn’t necessarily something to be praised. It’s not quite acceptance of someone as an equal, is it? No, it isn’t. I was willing to live and let live, but that didn’t mean I was denying of thoughts concerning my own racial superiority. I had received more than enough bigoted input to cement that proposition in my mind.

(For what it’s worth, I think everybody harbors at least a smidgen of that inside of himself or herself. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, either – unless you nurture it and make it your entire self-identity. There’s nothing harmful in, say, watching a sporting event and rooting for someone from your own race to do well, all other things being equal. Where it becomes problematic, in my humble opinion, is when you wish evil upon the folks from differing races. Your mileage may vary.)

I had other very interesting lessons regarding race, from both sides of my family.

I’ve written about Si Rosenthal, a Jewish ballplayer for the Red Sox. He was paralyzed from the waist down while serving in World War II. Anyway, he was a friend of the Sullivans, most especially of my Grand Uncle Jim. And, when a black priest from Mississippi, Charles Burns, also a friend of the Sullivans, needed to raise some money to be used in his home state to build a school gymnasium, the Sullivans worked hard with BOTH of these men to see that it got done. The full story is HERE.

The thing of it is, the Sullivans – many of them, anyway – were very outwardly bigoted. They’d toss around pejoratives like coon and nigger, when speaking of black people in the abstract, but when it came to actions with individuals, they more often than not did the right thing. Though not to as virulent an extent as some of the Sullivans - thanks to the influence of the other side of my family - I matured with a somewhat bigoted attitude. I had black friends in school, and I played sports with black kids, but I hardly gave a second thought to casual use of hurtful words, and I generally held a different attitude towards blacks on the whole than I did to the people I knew personally.

I mentioned the influence of the other side of my family. That would be the Drowns, my Mom’s folks. On the other side of my family, there was nothing BUT tolerance and decency. I’ve already told you about how My Mom set me straight on a few things, and softened some of the nastier stuff. Her folks were… well, I’ll relate the most sterling example I can think of at the moment. Actually, I’ll let My Mom relate it to you, as I wrote to her for details when I knew I’d be writing this piece. I pretty much knew the story, but I wanted to be sure I got it right. Here’s what she told me, about my grandfather and his friend, Baron.

Grandpa was working as a claims attorney at the T [Boston public transportation system] when Baron Martin, the first ever black person hired at the T in other than a menial position, was brought into his department. I believe he was brought in as some sort of clerk and Grandpa immediately took him under his wing. Others in the office were not at all accepting of him, but Grandpa stood up for him at all times. When he learned that Baron wanted to go to law school, he helped pay for his education. They became close personal friends, going on trips and vacations together. The story goes, which I'm sure you've heard, that
one time at a restaurant, when the check came, the waitress gave it to Baron and Grandma, because Grandma's tan was so dark they assumed she and Baron were a couple and Grandpa was their guest.

Baron went on to become a judge and always credited Grandpa for his education and rise in the judicial system.

[Explanatory for what follows: Bill is my step-father, Maryanne my step-sister, and Grandpa had died by this time.]

Once, when Bill's daughter Maryanne was doing a mock trial with her law school at Baron's court, Baron saw Grandma in the audience and stopped the proceedings and took us (Bill, ME, Grandma and Maryanne) into his chambers for about 20 minutes for a short reunion with Grandma. When he returned to the courtroom, before starting the mock trial, he gave a very moving speech, pointing out Grandma and telling everyone, in detail, what an inspiration Grandpa had been to him.

Grandpa told me once (and Baron corroborated it when speaking to the courtroom that day) that Baron would arrive at work and find "nigger baby" candies at his desk. I don’t remember what he or Grandpa did, but whatever it was they stuck together through it all.

[Jim note - Yes, the candies were actually called "nigger babies". Sigh.]

So, I had those things in my family history to be proud about. And I had the other input, from family and childhood friends, that told me black people weren’t as worthy of the same level of respect and caring as I afforded to white people. I wasn’t an outright racist, nor was I ready to march for civil rights.

The scales tipped one day in 1968.

I was in downtown Boston with three friends. I was 11 years old; my friends a bit older, 12 and 13. We were at the Prudential Center. We had been bowling someplace, as I remember, and then just goofing around, nothing in particular in mind. We were walking down a stairway that led to Huntington Avenue when six black kids, all of them probably in their late teens, jumped us. They came at us from behind, shoved us down the stairs – I fell about three or four steps – literally jumped on us, and tried to take our money. We fought as best we could, having been surprised and being outnumbered, but they reached in our pockets, got what little we had, and then took off running.

From that point onward, we accepted as gospel anything anyone said that cast a black in a harsh light. And, shortly thereafter, I did what was probably the most reprehensible thing I’ve ever done in my life.

I was going to Boston Latin School at the time. In order to get there from Dorchester, I took a trolley, then a train, and then a streetcar. On the way home, obviously, the order was reversed. Well, one afternoon on the way home, my friends and I were riding in the streetcar. It traveled down Huntington Avenue, the street where the earlier robbery took place.

We always sat in the back because there was a bench seat there and we four could all sit together. In those days, the streetcars on that line had windows that could be opened. It was a steamy day and we had the windows open. I was sitting next to the window on the right side of the streetcar.

We stopped to let some passengers on. And, right next to my window, two black guys – late teens, early twenties – stood. I didn’t see human beings. I saw two representatives of a species that had recently caused me pain. I snuffled up what I could from my nose, brought it up from my lungs, and spat right in their faces. Then I slammed the window shut and laughed at their startled faces while the streetcar started moving again.

As the streetcar rolled, they took off running after it. They kept a pretty good pace, and at one point I thought they might catch it by the next stop. They didn’t. If they had, they would have had every right to get on, drag my sorry ass off, and beat the shit out of me. I almost wish they had, now. For many years, I’ve wished there was some way I could make up for that stupid action. There isn’t, really. Just as the black kids who mugged us generated hate against all black people, I wouldn’t doubt that my actions contributed to those two black guys hating all white people.

What a hideous waste of thought and energy. What a stupid life to live.

A few other things happened that kept the crosses lit on the lawn of my mind. Pa, my grandfather on my father’s side, had his apartment in the projects robbed. Two black kids climbed through his kitchen window and stole his television. He had been sleeping. He heard noise, came out of his bedroom, and saw them as they were exiting.

My home on Caddy Road was broken into. Unlike Pa, I didn’t see it happen. My Dad and I came home and found things awry. Some small things were missing. The cellar door was left open. We had no hard evidence that black folks had done it, but it was now way past my childhood, the neighborhood was more black than white, and so we assumed in favor of the odds.

As I went to Boston Technical High School, located in a black neighborhood, I was, on more than one occasion, shaken down for money as I walked in the neighborhood. "Gimme a quarter, white boy." That happened a good four or five times, at least (and once or twice, it was a dollar instead of a quarter.)

Well, all of that sucked, but it wasn't a reason to automatically treat everybody with black skin as though they were assholes, same as it’s no reason for a black person to consider all white people to be jerks because of the rotten things that happened in the past. But, I had one more idiotic deed to do before I started on the road to recovery from stupidity.

My Mom and Dad had divorced a couple of years prior to the break-in at our house. I would occasionally write My Mom – she had moved, while I stayed in the same house with My Dad – and, after the burglary, I wrote her a letter filled with racial invective. It was “niggers this” and “niggers that” and I basically blamed every societal ill in Dorchester on the influx of black neighbors.

My Mom, once again, spoke truth. This time, she didn’t defend my innocence. That was long gone. She decided to tell me, in nice terms, that I was being an ass. She told me how much that language bothered her, and she asked me to never use it again. She gave me examples of good black people. She may have reminded me of my own black childhood heroes, like Earl Wilson and the Celtics players. Anyway, she started the tide turning the other way.

A few other things happened that helped.

In school, the black kids and white kids mostly kept separate, but in gym class, everybody played basketball. Teams just formed at random, mostly, and I played ball with both black kids and white kids. And the black kids were mostly much more accepting of us white kids than we were of them. I noticed that, and took it to heart.

There was a white kid named Michael. He lived in Roxbury, the black section of Boston, and he was quite poor. He invited me to his house once and it was very rundown. His bedroom contained a mattress and that was about it. He slept on the mattress on the floor, and it was a shockingly bare home to me who had come from relative middle-class wealth. Anyway, Michael hung mostly with black kids, as they were from his neighborhood. And the white kids, behind his back, would call him a nigger lover. Well, the black kids were his friends from the neighborhood, Michael was a nice guy, and I liked him. I hated that epithet being used to describe him. Another point for not being a racist asshole went up on the scoreboard in my head.

Then, after I graduated high school, I needed work. After hanging around and not doing much – being a security guard, driving cab, a few other nothing jobs – my Uncle Jimmy used his political pull to get me hired on with the city. I was assigned to a crew that cleaned streets in Boston’s Back Bay. And I was the only white guy on our crew of eight. They accepted me immediately, in a way that I knew in my heart guys from my neighborhood would NOT have accepted a lone black guy. We shared work, we shared meals, we drank together, we smoked some weed together, we played some ball together, and they became my friends. And then another white guy was assigned to our crew.

One day, early on, we found ourselves alone together. He had seen the way I interacted with the other guys, and how they interacted with me. He said to me, "Do you really LIKE hanging with all those jigs?"

I said, "Yeah, I do. They’re good guys. And I'd really appreciate it if you wouldn't call them 'jigs'. They’re my friends."

I didn’t make much of a dent in his prejudice – he still called them jigs – but it was a big step for me. I was, more than ever before, seeing black people as human beings, not some sort of animals.

Later, I went to broadcasting school and my best friend in class was a wonderful black kid by the name of Kenny Cumberlander. Kenny was a gentle giant with a great goofy sense of humor. He could make me laugh so easily! We were partners in a few class projects, always enjoyed each other’s company, and shared one particularly funny incident.

In a class on sports broadcasting, we were teamed doing play-by-play and color commentary. Well, later on that day, we were both in another class, and somehow the conversation, with our teacher, came to what we had done earlier in the day in the sports broadcasting class. I was explaining what we did. I said, "I was doing the play-by-play, and Kenny was my color man, and..."

Another black student, a young woman named Keisha, jumped out of her seat, indignant. She snarled, "What did you just call Kenny?"

I was befuddled by her seeming anger at me. What the heck did I say? Kenny then turned in his seat, and said, "Keisha, he called me the COLOR man. That’s what they call the guy who does the commentary. Calm down." The entire class – about half black and half white - had a good laugh. Keisha, of course, thought I had called Kenny a colored man, which would have been just about a half-step above calling him a spade.

Since then, I’ve had far too many wonderful associations with black people to think of them ever again as anything lesser than equals. My teammates on the Bombers softball team, for instance, have included beautiful black souls, most notably my current teammate of 15 years, Ron Johnson, whom I consider as good a friend as it is possible to have on a ballfield. He’s shown his intelligence and compassion continually. He was my manager for a couple of years, and then he made me his successor as manager, a job I did for 10 years. As manager, he always treated me fairly and with respect, and as my player he never once complained. Now we're both old softball farts, enjoying our declining sporting years with much shared laughter.

My former teammate, Jimmy Jackson, was one of the sweetest guys I’ve ever played ball with, and he never once let me down when I was manager. He’d do whatever I asked, even to his own physical detriment. I loved Jimmy Jackson. And there were others, of course. Carl Hyman of the Flames, my former weekday team, is one of the most intelligent and classy ballplayers I've ever shared a field with, and Bobby Ridley, the ageless wonder, is still kicking ass at close to 80 years of age. When Bobby started playing the game, black folks weren't even allowed in major league baseball. I consider it a true honor to have shared a field with such a fine gentleman.

I could go on naming black teammates, but you get the point. And I never had a single beef with any of them, something I can't readily say about my white teammates.

Most recently, my nephew, Darian, was born. He’s three now. He’s the product of a white mother and a black father. And he’s a nice little guy who loves playing with me when I come over to his place. And I love playing with him.

If I ever find myself thinking a stupidly racial thought – and, I hate to admit it, but I still do on occasion – I immediately think of Ron Johnson and Jimmy Jackson and Kenny Cumberlander and the good guys I’ve worked with, and I know immediately that for me to think such stupid things about an entire race of peoples is just ignorant and ridiculous. And now, I have black blood in the family. How can I hate black people, as a group, when one of my own is black? Talk about stupid!

And, to get back to the start of this whole thing, My Darker Gray Friend, Michelle Hickman, is a lovely person, regardless of her shade of gray.

I’m not bucking for sainthood here, by any means. I’m still an asshole. But, each day, I hope I’m less of one than I was the day before. I guess that’s the best a lot of us can strive for, black or white.

Thanks for letting me get some of this off of my chest. I owe you one.

Soon, with more better stuff.


lime said...

if the unexamined life is not worth living you have proved the value in examining oneself consistently over a lifetime and the growth it can produce. thanks for your candor about the process.

Jeni said...

Great post! And an excellent follow-up to the earlier one as well.
I don't know if you've ever read this blog (it's on my favorites) -called "Burnettiquette" (here's the url for it - http://miamiherald.typepad.com/burnettiquette/
but the author of it does his level best to strike up discussions on many aspects pertaining to racism, prejudices in general and it's a site I would highly recommend for various reason, race only being one.
I think, like you have said about yourself, we've all had times in which we lost the good thinking skills we were born with and veered off in the wrong directions -about race, about lots of other things we should know better, behave better about, etc. I keep thinking that maybe, if we all put forth a more conscious effort to accept others because of the differences they bring into our lives -the "color" if you will as you pointed out about the broadcasting school comments, it will help to make us all stronger, better adjusted and more caring individuals and who knows, perhaps could lead to a nicer, kinder, gentler society some day. It could happen, ya know! Just give it a try, a chance and I'm sure there would be a whole lot of pleasant surprises in store for all of us.

Anonymous said...

Breathtakingly honest as always Jim darlin'.

there is one question I have always wanted to ask: Why-if being of a darker skin is considered enough to make one inferior to we paleskins-do we spend so much time, money and effort to get a tan?

MVD said...

You've got such a great way with narrative, to the point where I actually picture myself with you ... on the streetcar, in class, wherever. Of course, had I been with you for all those years, I might've already been dead.

Couldn't agree more with your sentiments.

Angie Ledbetter said...

Suldawg, you're one of the most honest people I "know." Great post...again!

Michelle Hickman said...

I had to find some way to be here and comment. I wasn't going to miss this.

I already read the piece before you posted it, so you know my feelings about it. But for everybody else here who comments, I wanted to give my two-cents. This is part of what I said to Jim.
You've done kind things to people, all people, despite the few times where your judgment was influenced by the things happening around you outside of your control. I could tell the moment I found your blog that you are a good man. Keep being this person for the rest of your life...
He calls himself an asshole, yet an asshole would have never had the courage to publish this. I believe a saint lurks in his heart.

Jazz said...

Another great post on the subject Suldog.

There's prejudice in all of us, whether against people of other races or our own. Hell, look at what the Irish went through...

Judi FitzPatrick said...

Another great, thought-provoking post, Suldog. Thank you for your honesty and sharing - helping us all to look at all people as people and not at the color of their skin.
Peace to all, Judi

Ananda girl said...

Very honest, which is appreciated greatly. Hard life lessons, but well learned and passed on... and you know, passing on the knowledge to help others is a big part of "recovery". Wonderful set of posts.

Congratulations on being picked at Authorblog again, Suldog. Well deserved!

Sarah said...

I may have said this before in a previous comment, but I think you're incredibly brave for posting this.

So many of us would not be willing to share with such candor. (so thanks!)

Elizabeth Bradley said...

You are very brave to expose the bare underbelly of your past. I admire that.

Chris@Maugeritaville said...

Jim, I think you speak for a lot of us white folks with this piece. I know I have moments from my childhood that I'm not proud of regarding race relations. I'm sure we all do. We just have to keep growing.

Thanks for your brutal honesty, it is quite courageous.


Buck said...

I agree with the others about the courage it takes to write something like this... and I ain't blowin' smoke up your dress, either. Damned few anonymous bloggers would write something like this, let alone someone who blogs under his real name.

Well done.

bluntdelivery said...

my grandma, still to this day, calls Brazil nuts "nigger toes." i mean, really? she also refers to them as "colored folks"

i believe you're right, there's a bit of prejudice in everyone, for some reason or another. But personally, it's just SKIN!? i mean, what the heck? where did all this come from in the first place? its really absurd when you think about it.

i learned long ago to separate the action from the person. i don't care what color you are, if you do something crappy or kill my dad - i will most likely call you bad names, okay?

Lola said...

Great follow up to the earlier post. Stop calling yourself stupid, you were very brave to say all this! And in such beautifully written prose, too.

With admiration,

Thumbelina said...

You owe us NONE because you taught us so much today. Another great post Sully. And don't forget, we are like sponges and soak up our environment. (1 Corinthians 15:33). As a child, you cannot choose your environment, You can choose who your friends are and who you listen to. You did. And you benefitted, now passing that on to all of us.
You're not an a**hole or a bad guy, you're human and one of the most honest and sincere guys I have had the pleasure to "meet".

Jenn said...

I don't even know where to begin Jim. I guess first off (and I'm sure I won't be the first to say it) good for you for coming to your senses and seeing that all people are just people. It is always enjoyable to read when someone has faced some kind of seemingly impossible odds (your family & upbringing) and has overcome them with the help of someone who truly cares (your mom & yourself).

Funny true story about me. When I was a kid my parents used to tell me I could be anything I wanted to be. When I was about 7 or 8 I told my mom I wanted to be black. She said I couldn't. I had no concept of why because it was what I wanted. Growing up my biggest hero was not only black but a female -- Rosa Parks.

People are people, some are good and some not as good, the color of skin or language they speak or deity they worship has nothing to do with that. In my opinion that is (which I hope you will not shitcan). Thanks for this great read.

Whalehead King said...

We are all people. That's grand. Pink on the inside. Thanks for your perspective.

Shammickite said...

Very honest and very candid.
And probably a description of many people's experiences with other races and people of different ethnic origins. They seem different at first, but experience will show that we are all people, somehow the same and somehow different.

♥ Braja said...

I just read the instructions to read the rest and not comment otherwise the comment will be shit-canned, and I FRIKKIN' LOVE IT :)))) Was talking to Ian, Idiots Stew, about commenting; we're doing a post on it together, and your sentence here is going in :) I love it...

Now bugger off, I've got the rest of the post to read...let me read it, dammit...

Anonymous said...

A whole lot of truth here. Well done, Jim.
Oren (FOA)

♥ Braja said...

Keisha's reaction made me remember how much relationship there is between people and their body, their color, their nationality, all that bullshit that in the end means jackshit. And good on you for pointing it out: people want to pretend that we don't need to address this anymore, that "those problems from the past" don't exist anymore. Again, bullshit. They're everywhere.

And btw, you shitcan this comment and we're finished...

Ruth and Glen said...

Your honesty and courage to post this is to be applauded Suldog. Excellent job.

Char said...

Well said, Suldog. Thanks for sharing.

GreenJello said...

It is interesting the process one goes through, realizing your prejudiced and bigoted ways...and then trying to correct them.

My grandparents were very prejudiced. My parents, much less so. I have improved upon my parents' attitudes. And I teach my children the best I can to be color-blind.

I sincerely hope it's working.

It is difficult to teach these lessons in an area that is 99.17% white, like Utah. But I see my daughters having friends who are Hispanic, Native American, Caucasian, Black, and Asian. And also that they have gay friends, and friends of differing religions.

It brings a smile to my face.

Craver Vii said...

I meant to read this earlier, but stuff kept interrupting. Work, family, etc. ;-)

"But, each day, I hope I’m less of one than I was the day before."

It sounds like you're moving in the right direction, Sully.

connie/mom said...

Grandpa joined the NAACP when he started his friendship with Baron.

These days I am hoping against hope that all the hatred once again being spewed against the jews and homosexuals as well as all "non-lilywhites" will not take hold. Those who insist that the holocaust never happened really fill me with sadness and anger.

The word verification is "motar". Is that mother in some foreign language????

Tim King said...

I've been doing my own soul-searching, writing my latest book. In my case, it's not about race relations; it's about teenage romance. I found that my early experiences with girls established some dysfunctional patterns that lasted into my 20's. And it took hard advice from my father and from a dear female friend, who had treated me differently than the other women I had known, to start turning me around.

What does this have to do with race relations? Well, I'm convinced that if I as an 11-year-old kid had been jumped by a gang of black robbers, as you had, I would have responded exactly the way you did. And anyone as an 11-year-old kid who found himself in your situation would likely have responded the same way.

I'm so glad, though, that you were able to turn around. (And probably faster than I would have.)

Really cool post.


Hilary said...

You're a gem, Suldog. I think you probably have more courage and honesty than just about any blogger I know. We're all a product of our environment and no doubt we all have some major regrets for things we've done/said from childhood through adulthood. Your telling of the subway incident made my insides lurch, but your honesty, sincerity and eloquence made my heart swell. Beautiful post.

Woman in a Window said...

Suldog, I have to admit, I was ready to put you over my knee and...whooooaaaa! Wait!! You'd like that anyway, but ya, I was pissed at you even though you were pissed at yourself. Such a smart guy and yet you did such a stupid thing. But you know that. Ok. Move on.

I'm proud of you, Suldog. Proud of you.

I do take exception with this though, "For what it’s worth, I think everybody harbors at least a smidgen of that inside of himself or herself. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that." I do think there's something wrong with that. THAT is exactly when we should stop it in ourselves.

We're all people. We're all fallible, bumbling, potentially beautiful people. Who the hell cares what we look like?

Chris Stone said...

great posts, both you and Michelle. I wish her comments were not disabled. Her post sound so painful!

I don't have anything constructive to add. except thanks!

Pat - Arkansas said...

Thanks for sharing all this. Love you, Sully! :)

Desmond Jones said...

Well doggone it, Sully, now you made me hafta put up a post about my own 'racial history'. In a lot of ways, pretty similar to yours, altho I had a lot less contact with black folks, and correspondingly more ignorance, before I got to college. . .

BTW, Earl Wilson was one of my favorites, once he got to the Tigers. I never saw a better-hitting pitcher, ever. . .

Thanks for this. . .

Urbie said...

Another great piece! ... Urb

Anali said...

Great post! Brutally honest, but really what a lot of people need to see. I think we as people are all works in progress and none of us ever get the whole human being life on earth thing totally right, but at least we can get better over time, which you are definitely doing.

Shrinky said...

Ah Jim, the voice of sanity (smile). Humans will always find a reason to discriminate, sadly, even if generations down the road everyone is a similar shade to each other, I am guessing we will just invent some other way to make ourselves feel superior to the other guy.

I loved this post. People are people, both good and bad, regardless the tone of skin.

Chuck said...

I always admire people who are willing to grow and learn from their past mistakes. Honesty is always a big plus in my book. Nice post, Jim.

Janet said...

It's definitely a learning curve. Thanks Jim.