Saturday, September 6, 2008
I think we all will agree that probably the most damaging effect of segregation has been what it has done to the soul of the segregated as well as the segregator.
When I was about eight years old, I lived with my parents and sister in a small house that we “owned” instead of rented. The house was located in a city, but actually on the outskirts of a part of town that we always called “the inner city.” Our own neighborhood was racially mixed, and the most distinguishing feature of the inner city for me was that it was less mixed—the inner city was where “black people” lived. That part of town was also different from “downtown,” which was where my Dad worked, at a job that was good enough so that Mom didn’t have to work at all. We did not think of all the effort she put into our home as “work,” because it didn’t bring money into the house.
When I look back at that time, I realize that I had an awful lot of freedom for an eight year old. I remember wandering wherever I wanted to, often far away from home, and sometimes for an entire day. I once returned and provoked oddly startled looks on my parents’ faces, by telling them about the man who’d invited me into a bar and told me all sorts of interesting stories, while I drank the many sodas that he’d so very nicely paid for.
Usually, my only time and space obligations were to be at school, and to be home at 5:30 for dinner, and then in bed by some reasonable time at night. My favorite place was a “creek,” which was actually an extensive series of concrete channels and tunnels that city planners had built for storm runoff. I think it took me until the age of nine to work up the guts to go far enough into the tunnels to emerge on the other side. When I finally did, I discovered that the field full of abandoned houses my older friends always raved about really did exist. Most of the houses still had broken doors and a few windows left, with decaying furniture, torn-up clothes, cigarette butts and empty beer bottles inside. My friends and I felt a little nervous about getting caught as we poked around in them, but we never encountered any adults there.
In school, though, adults were everywhere, telling us exactly where to go and precisely when to be there. Even gym class offered little real room to move. The playground was better, since the one teacher out there mostly left us alone. On the hottest days, my friends and I would put our feet together, raise the inside edges of our shoes, and then push the outer edges down into the softened tar. I don’t remember any adults blaming us for the long rows of paired divots we made.
All the friends I had at that time were white, except for one black kid named Dwayne. He and I were only friends for a short time, and I don’t remember going to his house, nor him coming to mine.
When I was in fourth grade, groups of black kids came to our elementary school in buses. We’d been told that their school was in bad shape, and since ours had some free space, our principal had offered it to them. These groups were, if I’m remembering right, completely black. At our school they stayed that way too; they had their own classroom, and they all sat together in the cafeteria (it didn’t occur to me that us white kids were sitting “together” too). When the black kids arrived, the adults who monitored the halls and lunchroom became more serious. They crossed their arms and moved around more watchfully, and they smiled a lot less. I felt no opening or inclination to cross over to the black kids’ side of things.
Then one day I was walking around on the playground, and I had a bunch of stickers in my back pocket. Like most of my friends, I collected plastic, name-brand stickers, which all advertised car-related products. Cars were important to boys, and we were obsessive about those colorful stickers. We checked in every day after school at the car parts store, where we pestered the clerk for samples from the latest batch. He always gave us a few stickers, and for some reason, the most prized ones were those for STP oil. They came in many different sizes—some were huge—and they seemed thicker, and softer, than those for other products.
I remember being happy that day on the playground because I had several of the medium-sized STP stickers in my back pocket. They probably made my friends jealous. As I wandered around, in the sort of dazed daydream that I sometimes fell into, I felt someone pull the stickers out of my pocket. When I spun around, a black girl was in front of me, and as soon as I realized that, I saw that her hand was raised. She slapped me across the face. Hard.
I was too stunned to get mad, or cry, or do much of anything but stand there with my mouth open. Nobody I knew ever slapped anyone like that. She smiled at me, with her hands on her hips, like she was waiting to see what I would do. When I didn’t do anything, she looked at the stickers in her hand, then plucked out the biggest and best STP, and then peeled the paper away from the back of it. As the paper fluttered to the ground, she held my eyes in a dare, and her smile grew wider as she smoothed the STP logo across her chest.
She didn’t say anything, at least not with words. I looked around and suddenly realized that I’d wandered into the black part of the playground, so I turned around and walked back. I was too baffled by the whole encounter to even rub my stinging cheek. Afterward, I saw no reason to tell anyone about my lost STP sticker.
My friends and I used to tell each other jokes, the more “bad” the better. We told “polack jokes,” about how many of them it took to screw in a light bulb and so on. “STP,” we said constantly, really meant “Stop Teasing Polacks.” It took me awhile to realize that “polack” referred to a person from Poland. I thought it just meant an especially stupid person. It was the same with the word “white” in that phrase I heard sometimes, “Hey, thanks, that’s mighty white of you!” It took awhile to connect that expression with white people.
We traded jokes about black people too, and like the “polack” jokes, we knew better than to share them with adults, especially our parents. I don’t remember if I found most of the black jokes funny, but one seemed especially clever to me. So much so that I decided to tell it to my dad.
We were shooting hoops in the driveway after dinner, as we always did when the weather allowed, and since the joke was about basketball, that’s when I told it to him.
“You know that basketball team in New York?” I said.
“Yeah? Which one?”
“The one with a new name.”
"New name?" my father said, pretending to guard me.
“Yeah. Their new name is . . . the New York Niggerbockers!”*
Instead of the laugh I expected, my father grabbed the ball from me, then gave me one of his hard, long stares.
“We. Do. NOT. Use. That. Word. GOT IT?”
“Okay, yeah, got it. Sorry.” I knew which word he meant, but I didn’t know yet the word was THAT bad.
As we went back to our mismatched game, I felt surprised. My friends (all white at that time) had found that joke so funny, and they’d been saying it for days. The chance it gave me to impress my dad, who always appreciated cleverness otherwise, had fallen worse than flat. In fact, I felt lucky I hadn’t been punished.
A year or so later, when I was ten, I came home to the complete surprise of a “For Sale” sign on our front lawn. My father tells me now that he doesn’t remember race having anything at all to do with the decision to buy a bigger house outside of the city. It’s become obvious to me, though, that if we hadn’t been white, there would have been very little likelihood, or even possibility, that we would have moved into “the suburbs,” no matter what my parents may or may not have thought or felt about the nearby “inner city.”
I made it through my years as a teenager in a place that seemed really boring (and then as I got older, “stifling” and “sterile”). I paid for some of my own clothes and other things, first as a paper boy, then as a bus boy, and even as a “salad boy.” I didn’t think much at all about race anymore, except when topics involving the “inner city” arose. That was certainly a place my friends and I still never went to, even when we had our own cars. The empty suburban streets provided plenty of room for chasing and racing each other, and for doing “donuts” on the lawns of unfortunate neighbors. If we ever got caught, boredom was our excuse.
My high school had something like 1500 students, and as I look at my dusty senior year book, I can see that only eight or nine were not white. Which seems incredible to me now. I never thought to wonder back then, at least not coherently--how did that suburban space get that way? Had it always been like that?
I remember talking in a school hallway with a friend one day, when he suddenly revealed a side of himself that I didn’t realize was there. It happened when one of the black guys walked by.
“Look at THAT,” he said, suddenly snide and cold. “Damn niggers. High asses, cocky attitude. I HATE them!”
“What? What the hell are you talking about?”
He fell into a silent smirk, and I didn’t know what to say. I did know that was the easy thing to do, and so I did it—I kept saying nothing. And no matter where I wanted to be, which at that moment was away from this friend, it was clear to me which side I was on. Not that I wanted to be, but there I was.
Later, when I was about to graduate from high school, I didn’t feel like a boy anymore. My classmates had a “senior banquet,” a grand finale at a downtown hotel. This was a workplace, I now realize, where a lot of the staff must have come from the “inner city.”
At one point that night, I was sitting at a big round table with about ten other seniors. I don’t know if it was before or after all the silly awards had been announced by our class president. We were being served “banquet” style, with whole plates of food gently placed in front of us, by servers who were friendly enough, but mostly silent, and mostly black.
My table might have been louder and more mischievous than some others, because we had a certain guy named Rich sitting with us. Rich was something else, kind of famous actually. He was really loud, for one thing, and he’d been suspended many times from school, and almost expelled too, for ultra-smartass things that the rest of us would never do. He swore at teachers. He let greased piglets loose in the school one night. After feeding them Ex-Lax.
I’ve often thought that what Rich did that night in that place further demonstrated his fundamental separation from the rest of his classmates. But now I’m not so sure.
The server for our table was a middle-aged black woman. She gradually moved around our circle, silently placing full plates in front of us. When she reached Rich, he stood up, pulled out his wallet, and said, “Hey girl! I got something to show you!”
The woman paused, like the rest of us, to see what he had in his wallet. It was a card.
Instead of handing her the card, or even showing it to her, he shouted, “I, my girl, am a card-carrying member of the KKK! That’s right, the KKK, and you need to know that! See that, this official membership card has KKK printed right across the front of it, with my name below it!”
I remembered then that I’d heard this before about him. That it was really true, crazy Rich had somehow found out how to join the Ku Klux Klan.
Aside from the daring, extreme nature of this latest stunt, Rich’s demand that the woman look at the card was strange, because he never did actually show it to her closely enough so that she could read it. He just kept waving and shaking it over her head, telling her again and again what it said.
I didn’t know what to think. I looked around, and the rest of the table was laughing. I wasn’t, and I couldn’t, especially when I looked at the woman, who tried to ignore Rich and go back to passing out plates.
Rich finally sat down, fully satisfied with himself, and another guy slapped him on the back as he roared with laughter. Everyone else was either laughing or smiling, a bit shocked by Rich's antics. I didn’t laugh or smile as I watched the woman shake her head and go on to the next table.
My food tasted terrible. But I didn’t get up and leave.
I saw which side I was on.
*For those who may not know, a professional American basketball team, the New York Knicks, used to be called the New York Knickerbockers.
[This post is dedicated to my father, who only THINKS he’s a “conservative.” Thank you, dad.]