Monday, June 20, 2011

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 on 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, by the candy company, "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 17 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 five 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.


Daryl said...

I remember those candies .. and I remember a doll someone gave my sister a doll called Little Black Sambo .. I dont know gave it to her but I do know it set off lessons on tolerance, civility and respect in our house

CiCi said...

I never heard or saw such candy. It doesn't make me proud to be white.

Sounds like you are facing lots of stuff and putting it out there and letting it go. You can't keep kicking yourself in the butt for past ignorance now that you have become enlightened.

silly rabbit said...

I think that most of us have been there, no matter which race we belong to. I grew up in a very white neighborhood, so white that we didn't get any other type of neighbors until I was in 6th grade... one Mexican family.There were a small group of other kids at my school, which was big and we all self-divided into our own racial groups. I was blessed by being raised by people who tried to be color blind. I never thought about it much until I joined a girls club at our YWCA and the intention was to blend us racially so that we could learn about each other and hopefully learn that we had more in common than not. We were about 2 days into the 2 week club when my friends, who were all white and a few began back biting the black girls and being purposely mean. It took a few more days before a fight broke out. I was a bit of a mouse and so shook up that I did nothing other than get the heck out of the area. I did not even tell an adult. That night I told my folks that I didn't want to go back and they allowed me to quit the club. I told them that it was boring. I still feel ashamed that I did nothing to dispel the situation and did not go for adult help.

Craig said...

"I didn't see a human being."

And that's the thing, isn't it? People manage to convince themselves, however they manage to do it, that certain folks - blacks, Jews, the unborn, whomever - don't 'count' as human beings, and can be treated as the sub-human entities they so obviously are. . .

Good story of what I can't help calling Moral Growth. Painful to go thru, even more painful to tell, but absolutely necessary. And of course, worth it.

The thing with so much of the (what I'll call) 'casual racism' that you and I grew up with (maybe more for me than for you, since I really didn't have any actual black folks in my actual life experience), is that it wasn't thought out, it was just part of the 'background' of 'how things were' (or at least, how folks were used to thinking of things as being). And it took a lot of contrary experiences, like yours with Kenny, to start people toward questioning what they'd just always been told was true. . . And, at least based on my own experience (and yours, as I read it here), simply having normal, daily contact with each other (ie, simply coming to see each other as fellow-humans), goes a long way. . .

Funny story about the 'color man'; reminds me of the accountant who got fired a few years ago for using the word 'niggardly' (which means, roughly, 'stingy' or 'miserly', and isn't a 'racial' term at all) in a budget meeting. . .

On one level, it will be a good day when we can just talk about 'thieves' and 'assholes', without having to indict entire classes of people in the process; knowwhatimean?. . .

Jinksy said...

It all boils down to the old adage "Handsome is as handsome does", whatever the shade of grey!! ♥

Michelle H. said...

Again, your story is moving and needed to be told. None of us are infallible. But learning to improve ourselves, improve our minds and perceptions of others, makes us better individuals.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your raw honesty in this piece.

I'm glad you had your Mom to help you set things better.

I, too, heard my father speak like your father did. My sensibilities never felt it was right.

Yay for sensibilities!

Buck said...

You have a LOT of Greatest Hits, Jim... but these two just MIGHT be your best. It's hard to decide.

Dr. McCoy said...

This was a rare, honest look into racism from a white, I'm sorry, lighter gray person's perspective. I appreciate your openness and honesty. I, too, believe that we each have a part of us that wants our race to triumph over other races. I think it's natural, but like you said, you can't let it consume you and turn you into a hateful, negative person. Good job on growing into the person you are today.

Jeni said...

I think many of us of the "older" generations maybe grew up pretty much the same with a certain amount of bias, prejudice and yes, name-calling too where this topic is concerned. Being raised in this little coal mining town, which when I was a young'un, was even purer white than Ivory Flakes -100% ya know -I had little exposure to knowing any one of a different race. I think I was about 7 years old, in 2nd grade in Jamestown, Ny before I ever had any contact with anyone of a different race other than white and my exposure there was to a little black girl in my class. We hit it off, got along nicely together in school and I remember in later years that I saw nothing different about her -other than her skin color and well, it didn't bother me, didn't seem to bother her either, so we were fine to be friends. When I came back to this village though, I had by then figured out that this was not an association that would be looked on kindly in this little town but then, there was already tons and tons of ignorance, prejudice, and bias here already but it was all based on ethnicy (Swede vs Slovak) and religion -Catholic vs protestant. And, knowing how strongly held my Grandma's beliefs were on those topics, I would never have dared to confess to having been friends with a girl who was black while I lived in Jamestown. My Mom -at least on the surface, had she known of that affiliation, probably would have been okay with that though as she tried to steer me clear of Grandma when she would go off on a rant tangent about the ethnic/religious gobbly-de-gook around us.

Chris said...

Your "Kenny was my color man" story reminds me of an incident that happened to me not too long ago.

Absolutely true story . . .

There was a black student at my school who was a really neat kid. Twelve years old, but you could talk to him like he was in his 20s. Very polite most of the time, great sense of humor, just plain fun to be around. But sometimes he would just "lose it." He'd get in fights, backtalk his teachers, mostly harmless stuff but still annoying and not what you'd expect after seeing all his good qualities.

So one day, he was in my office for fighting, and I had to suspend him. I called in his parents, and both of them showed up. I explained to them just what I've said here, what a great kid he usually was, but sometimes he'd inexplicably lose his mind. And then I said . . .

"I don't know, Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, sometimes Shawn is a bit of an enigma."

Dad just about came over my desk to strangle me.


I tried to remember . . . and then it hit me.

"AH. Hold on a minute, Mr. Rogers, I said ENIGMA. It means Shawn is complicated, confusing sometimes."

He looked at his wife, a wonderful lady.

"That's right, James. That's what it means. He didn't say what you think he said. You can apologize now."

Crazy. For a minute I thought the doctor's report was going to read, "Cause of Injury: Advanced vocabulary."

Wonderful piece, Jim, and extremely relevant.

messymimi said...

If you have ever been an a$$hole, in any way, shape, or form, it just makes you human. We all have our moments.

Striving to eliminate them is what lifts us. Those who are striving are good people.

Shammickite said...

My blond blue-eyed son went to a nursery school where he was in the minority among the other kids, it was like the United Nations in there, all colours and nationalities. The teachers were all known as Uncle or Aunt. Uncle Wally and Aunt Suzanne were Chinese, Aunt Kathy was white and Uncle Paul was black. When my son was ten, the school had a reunion of former students, and we went to the celebration. Afterwards, my son said "I never knew that Uncle Paul was black!" I guess he just never noticed.

Cricket said...

Raw honesty is worth a lot, my swell pal. Some things really ought to be reposted periodically. This is one of 'em.

(not necessarily your) Uncle Skip said...

Despite having read both of your posts... and Michelle's... I'm not feeling any better about me. I'm not one bit happy, either. Worse, I know why. It's because I went along to get along instead of following my initial instincts. Now I'm unable to get those original feelings back. Now I have to remind myself that it is important to do the next right thing instead of it coming to me automatically.

Great, thought provoking posts.

Hilary said...

I also love your honesty. It's not easy to admit having behaved poorly and that you thought as you did. The important part is that your mind and heart were open enough to see the truth and that you grew and changed and became the honourable man that you are today.

Carolina said...

I agree with Hilary ;-)