Friday, June 17, 2011
This is a repeat. Unlike other repeats, which came on days when I was just too damned lazy to write anything new, this one comes at the request of a friend. Michelle Hickman (more about her below) suggested that we both re-run our pieces concerning race relations and our personal experiences involving same. So, here's mine, and Michelle's will be available at her place.
Even though I was the one to originally suggest a dual posting on the subject, it is somewhat hard putting it out here again. It's one thing to confess to idiocy originally, which - if scary - makes you feel somewhat clean afterward, but it's another thing altogether to resurrect it and make yourself a dope all over again. I do so for two reasons:
1 - Michelle is my friend, and I love her.
2 - The whole point of publishing it in the first place was to possibly do some good, via making folks think (or re-think) their prejudices. That may have been an optimistic outlook, but it's still worth a shot. If this makes one person a bit more tolerant, I suppose it's worthwhile looking like a moron again.
Here's what I originally published on June 19th, 2009.
MDGF (which stands for "My Darker Gray Friend", which is what I call Michelle Hickman, much as she calls me "MLGF", which stands for "My Lighter Gray Friend", which goes back to a comment Michelle once made concerning race relations and how it would be so much nicer if, instead of black and white, we thought of skins in terms of varying shades of gray, and... Hmmmmmm. It seems my parenthetical got away from me. They often do. I start with the best of intentions, hoping to relay a bit of useful information, but end up confusing hell out of you, instead. I'll start over, assuming you’re still here.)
I had some correspondence with Michelle Hickman. During the course of that correspondence, we asked each other a few interesting personal questions; questions that might have been considered too personal by more-easily-offended people, but we pretty much understand that the other one won’t shy away from such stuff. Anyway, one of my questions to Michelle concerned the subject of race. See, she’s an African-American, and I thought I knew from reading her past writings that she had grown up in an area where her family was the only African-American family for miles around, and I wondered what that might have been like for her.
(Here’s another parenthetical, but I promise to keep a firm hold on this one. I use the term "African-American" because, as I recall, that’s how Michelle self-identified in her reply to my question. In addition, she used the term "Caucasian" to identify those NOT African-American. For the sake of flow – and because the others are just plain too much work to type - I’m going to use the simpler "black" and "white" from here on out. I realize that this somewhat negates Michelle’s lovely sentiment concerning shades of gray, but she knows where my heart is at.)
Here was my question to Michelle:
Were there any puzzling racial episodes for you? Was your neighborhood - your part of the world - multiracial? Was there some instance when you thought, "Huh? Why is this person saying that?" or "Am I missing something here?" and you were brought to a realization concerning skin tone that was either enlightening or painful?
She answered in a stark and truthful way, and it was fascinating reading. So much so, as a matter of fact, that I asked her if she might like to do a sort-of joint posting concerning our racial experiences while growing up. She could expand a bit on her original e-mail, while I would write something about what it was like to be a white kid from an almost wholly white neighborhood in Boston. I offered the suggestion that we could co-publish on Juneteenth, an unofficial holiday on the American calendar which is celebrated pretty much exclusively by blacks and the very existence of which is unknown to many whites.
(For a detailed explanation concerning Juneteenth, please go HERE.)
Michelle agreed to write her piece; I said that I’d write mine; and we agreed to link to each other on Juneteenth so that our readers could read both of our pieces and (I hope) enjoy them. And so, here we are, finally, at the point of this thing. Sorry for the delay!
Michelle's piece is HERE (or soon will be.) Mine is below the pretty asterisks.
I expect that, as with many a tale concerning American history, the white person will come off sounding like more of an ass than the black person. And, as is the case in many of those tales, I’ll aver that it isn’t so much a matter of the white person being hateful as it is just abysmal ignorance coupled with societal conditioning.
When I was growing up, my part of Dorchester (a neighborhood of Boston) was Leave It To Beaver land. Today, when I tell people that I grew up in Dorchester, they go "Ooh!" and make a scared face. This is because the Dorchester of today has the highest murder rate in the city. I’ll trade on that for street cred, but the truth of the matter is that my neighborhood was as devoid of trouble – and of anyone unwhite – as Theodore Cleaver’s Mayfield had been.
I’ll give you an idea of just how lily white my childhood was. When I was perhaps three years old, I was outside in the front yard when a black woman walked down our street. I stared at her in amazement. I had never seen such a person. And, after she was out of sight, I went into our house and asked my mother about her. I offered the suggestion that perhaps she had fallen into some mud. I was puzzled as to why her clothes looked clean, and only her face and hands still had mud all over them, but my young mind, uncluttered by any thoughts of diversity, honestly couldn’t conceive of a better explanation for how she looked.
My Mother, never one for prejudice, set me straight. She explained how people came in different colors, and that this, in and of itself, didn’t necessarily make them better or worse. I was fascinated. I soon learned from other relatives, however, that niggers were an inferior type of human. Having been inculcated with similar information from many of their relatives, I received even more bad knowledge from my friends. We grew up mostly reinforcing each other’s ignorance. General neighborhood consensus was that they smelled different. Also, we were willing to concede that there were some good ones. We decided that there were black people and then there were niggers. Basically, the more like a white person you were, the more you were accorded the honor of just being black.
I vividly recall an incident with my grandfather, my father's father. I’ve written at least one story that shows him in a wonderful light – Solomon The Milkman – and it was a nice story, a true story, and he was a decent family man with good core values. However, as with so many of his generation and in those times – the early 1960’s - he was of the firmly-held belief that black people were from a lesser breed than he was.
I had just become aware of baseball, starting my lifelong love affair with the game. Being a young kid, I had my heroes on the local team, the Red Sox. My grandfather, an excellent ballplayer in his youth and also a huge Red Sox fan, was thrilled to hear that I liked baseball. One night, as we visited him and my grandmother, we talked about it at their kitchen table. I said I wanted autographed photos of my favorite players and had written away for them. The first one I named was Tony Conigliaro, who was always my favorite. Nice Italian kid who had grown up locally in Revere. No problem. He asked me which other players I wanted a picture of. I told him Earl Wilson.
He got a look on his face as though he had just discovered me finger-fucking a dog. He put down his drink, grabbed a nearby piece of paper and a pen, and drew a big black squiggly blob. He pushed it toward me and said, "There’s Earl Wilson!" And then he laughed.
I didn’t understand, at all. I liked Earl Wilson because he was a pitcher who had thrown a no-hitter, and he was something of a rarity in that he was a pitcher who could hit well, sometimes actually being used as a pinch-hitter by the Sox. I had never even considered the fact that he wasn’t white.
Again, My Mom was the one with the explanation. Later, when I asked her why Pa had done that, she explained about Earl Wilson being black, that Pa was making a sort of joke – something to do with an old musical group called The Ink Spots – and it didn’t mean I had to stop liking Earl Wilson. Nor did I, until he was traded to the Tigers.
Of course, as you've gathered if you've been reading me for any appreciable length of time, the Boston Celtics were my favorite team. Despite having a leprechaun for their mascot, the team often included more black players than white players. They were the first basketball team to draft a black player; the first to have a starting five comprised of solely blacks; and the first to have a black head coach. As you might imagine, I didn't mention my love for the Celtics to my grandfather. And I was the only kid in my neighborhood who liked them. Everybody else adored the whiter-than-white Boston Bruins hockey team (and so did I, I might add. Boston was very much a hockey town, and the racial make-up of the team was NOT the leading factor. Folks just liked hockey. However, had the team had any black players, it would have been interesting to see how they would have been received.)
Then there was the time I bought a comic book and... well, here's the story.
Luke Cage (Hero For Hire) was the first black superhero character to have a whole title devoted to him. I remember visiting an older female relative at her house in Brockton and lying on a bed reading that first issue. She came into the room where I was doing so, looked at Luke Cage on the cover, and got a look on her face as though she had been physically violated. She said, "Is that a comic book about a nigger?"
Until that point, I hadn’t thought that what I was reading was all that unusual. Luke Cage just looked really cool on the cover; that’s why I bought it. The story was good, and made sense, too. He had acquired some special powers – I forget exactly what and how - so he decided that he’d hire himself out, for money, to solve folk’s problems. I figured that’s what I might have done, too, if I had somehow gained superpowers. Anyway, thoughts concerning the race of the main character hadn’t entered into my decision to buy it. Her comment, however, made me feel very radical for reading literature that had such a startling effect on grown-ups. I became a big Luke Cage fan. I bought every issue during its short-lived tenure, and whenever I was outside with one, I made sure that I carried it with the cover showing, just in case anyone was unsure of my credentials as a freedom fighter.
Back and forth chronologically... bits as they come to mind.
By the time I reached the fourth grade in elementary school, it was 1965 and steps were being taken to integrate some of the Boston Public Schools. Our neighborhood school, the Gilbert Stuart, had nothing but white students prior to 1965. That year, however, some black children would be put into the classes, arriving by bus from their own neighborhoods. This was mostly a curiosity to us kids, but a cause for alarm to some of the parents.
My Dad was not a member of the NAACP, but neither was he a Klansman. He had a couple of close black friends from work, and he'd go golfing with them or otherwise socialize, but he wasn't averse to throwing around words like jigaboo and spook, either. Generally, I think he understood that being black wasn't an advantage in America. When discussing some darker-skinned person whom he felt was trying to do the right thing, but who had gotten the short end of it, he would often say something akin to, "The poor black bastard!" with the idea being that the person's blackness was already a strike against him and it was entirely unfair to have the added indignity of whatever else had occurred. His heart was in the right place.
Anyway, on the first day of school that year, he (not so) surreptitiously trailed Stephen Murphy and me as we walked the third-of-a-mile to the Gilbert Stuart. He tried to stay hidden behind trash cans and whatnot, a half block behind us, but we knew he was there (and I can only imagine what the neighbors thought he was doing, skulking along in the shadows.) The idea, of course, was that he would be on the ready to scoop us up and carry us away should any trouble develop, though what trouble might have been instigated by a half-busload of eight-year-olds is still a mystery to me. Needless to say, no trouble developed, he went home, and we kids got along OK.
[Photo from end of school year, 1966. I'm the red-headed kid, whose pants and socks don't quite meet, in the front row. Snazzy bow tie, though!]
The major racial memory I retain of the black kids was of us discovering, one day during recess, that the palms of our hands were all more-or-less the same color. Oh, and they smelled pretty much the same as white kids.
I wasn't an innocent lost in a world of hate, floating along on a cloud of my own pure thoughts. Lest I leave you with that mistaken impression, I'll admit to a few reprehensible acts. I won't admit to them here and now, however, as this is already entirely too long for one day's post. I'll be back on Monday with the darker side of my journey towards enlightenment. It won't be heroic, but it will be the truth. And, I hasten to add, it is NOT where I'm at now. I've learned that...
Enough. Come back then, please.
(Remember to read Michelle's piece!)
Soon, with more better stuff.