maya lin, civil rights monument, montgomery, alabama
Reading in Howard Zinn's The People's History of the United States. I wanted to start at the place where I first became aware of our collective dream show of "what's going on," the Kennedy assassination. I'd paid a little attention before, but not enough to mention, like the Kennedy vs Nixon debate, which was just another tv show. I remember how exciting it was to have a "young" president who could count all the fingers on his hands and a lot more. Kennedy's charisma was the great attention grabber. Though he was not, he seemed to be sympathetic with the 99%. Soon after the assassination I was inducted into the Navy. I paid attention to current events because I was interested in the struggle of the black people. I believed it was valid and necessary, necessary for all people. The black struggle was the first political subject I took an interest in. I felt it was urgent and important for the black people to be accorded at least close to equal rights in court, a good place to start. I don't know about prejudice. Some people both sides of the fence have it. Racism comes from so deep in our roots and goes back so far, I don't even think about going up against such a dark behemoth. I can't stop it or change it. The best I can do is not be it.
In the early years of integration, it was strange. When I went into the 7th grade, the black kids, who before had taken buses to a black school, Sumner in Kansas City, Kansas, suddenly had to go to the white school and they were scared. I'd known some black kids in my early years, and we were friendly-like, but with immense distrust between us. They knew better than to trust a white kid to treat them like they're human, and I didn't know anything about them except cliches I'd heard from my grandfather, and not much of that. Pre-school, maybe age 3, my mother took a train from KC to the Marine base in NC because the war was over and daddy came home. Shortly afterward, I went on the train with grandmother to see daddy in E North Carolina. Mother and I lived in base housing, a tiny trailer. Two black women did the cleaning in our cluster of trailers. One of them I had a real connecting friendship with, so it seemed to a toddler. She was wonderful to me and I always looked forward to seeing her. My first experience with the race. My first experience outside immediate family.
Later, when daddy was out of the Marines, we fell into a house close to where he had grown up in Argentine, just up the hill from Argentine high school, close to the football stadium. I was playing on the front porch, age 4, and a black woman walked down the alley beside the house to get to her home that was down the alley a ways, then down the hill a ways. A nice spot surrounded by woods. We talked when I saw her. One day I asked her why she was brown. She told me that when the Lord made her he had run out of soap. This was 1946. I didn't know what to make of that, but adults said a lot I couldn't figure out. Parents and grandparents thought it was so cute that little TJ asked the nigger why she was colored. I hated what they did with it. For me, it was a moment of real conversation with my new neighbor, a nice old dark skinned woman. I was already disposed to like her, because of her blackness, because my experience before was so good between two people who make eye contact and notice one another. Like in the John Prine song, "Hello in there." She was black, I was a little kid, nobody saw black people and nobody saw kids, but we saw each other. I thought she was special.
By the time I reached the 7th grade in 1954, the year of integration, I knew some black people just from a few people that lived nearby. Plus, walking through the black section going to the movie theater I saw the same people over and over. We spoke and nodded. As far as I could tell, they were no less human than me. The men were terribly depressed, but I didn't know that's what it was at the time. The tough looking guys weren't friendly, but the older people were. I wanted to know them, but they were taboo. I was also afraid, because I was in the territory of black kids my age and if they chose to they could kick my ass. It was the same in the Mexican neighborhood. All through grade school, my best friend was a Mexican, Mitchell Ledesma, who had been kicked out of Catholic school and exiled to public school. All his Mexican friends left Catholic school after the 6th grade, so in 7th grade he had his Mexican friends. We were still friends, but our friendship faded and we each drifted back into our own cultures by 8th grade.
A year after high school, this time in Wichita, Kansas, I had fallen in with people of liberal thinking, people who believed black people deserve basic American rights. Walked in a Fair Housing march, 1961 probably. My grandparents were visiting that weekend. On Sunday morning my picture was on the front page of the paper, easy to spot. I pointed to it for grandpa. He said, "Boy, I oughta shoot you." I said, "I know where the shotgun is. I'll get it for you." Grandmother said, "You boys, now cut it out." When I left parents, I left the baptist religion same day. My mother is one who will hound you with the same question all your life until you simply tell her to stop it. In this time, I didn't know telling her to stop it would work. She forever wanted to know if I'd found a church. So I went to a Unitarian church, thinking it as far away from baptist as I could get and not go Catholic. I had been reading about Thoreau and civil disobedience. I was getting to know varieties of people, not just white working class baptists. I've been interested in people of other cultures, other races, other parts of the world, other experiences from mine, all along the way. I'm wondering if that experience with the black cleaning woman in faraway North Carolina motivated my interest in the cause.
It was the beginning of the time I started making my own decisions. I'd known black kids from the 7th grade on to the 12th, liked the ones I knew. In gym class the guy exactly my size and weight I had to wrestle with when we did wrestling was a black guy whose name is gone. He kept a pint of liquor in his locker and stayed lit through school. He smelled pretty bad and was easy to beat, because he didn't care. He never got in trouble for drinking, because school authorities didn't care what the niggers did. Just don't attract attention to yourselves. Though integration was forced, the black kids were not comfortable being minorities in white schools. They had to cling together in gangs for self-defense, and once they become a gang, they become a threat, and round and round it goes. White people win, black people lose. Again. They're used to it. I liked my wrestling friend about as good as I liked any of my friends in high school. I thought he was brave and bold to drink in school. Of course, it meant he had no future. He had no future anyway. School's boring if you're not looking to college; if you're looking at a lifetime of being shut out because you're black, then school isn't worth the time of even appearing for class. He was a sharp guy, and I felt for him that he had no hope.
In my own beginnings, I wanted to join the bandwagon to help the black people and let them see not all white people are the same. Black Panthers came along and the fake friendliness that went with integration went POOF. Hostile attitudes started coming to the surface. I saw this is not my struggle. I have my own to tend to. I decided then that the way I'll do my part to express my support of the American ideal, equal rights for all, is make every encounter with someone black the same as with someone white, if they'll let me. Some won't. Ok. Whatever. If they don't want to allow that I'm ok with them, I can't help it. Black Panthers going into white liberal gatherings in the North with shotguns demanding money for reparations made me laugh. When I saw those bits of news during that trend of Panthers demanding (demand was the verb of the time), I'd think: Try that in a First Baptist church in the South. That extreme swing of the pendulum didn't last. We got a few good books out of the time by Eldridge Cleaver, George Jackson, Malcom X and some others. There is so much anger running both ways now that the best I can do is stay out of all of it. Now I just see people I know and people I don't know. I've lived long enough to see there is no difference between races except the culture that goes with them, which is the same as a collective personality, and that's easy to translate.