The inside of my head is still hearing the thumping rhythm of Cab Calloway's dance band, late 1920s. It's been two days of hearing that rhythm, feeling the rhythm run through my whole body to my feet, making them want to tap the rhythm. In my mind's eye I see Cab Calloway jumping and jiving like Little Richard and Prince, keeping the rhythm going. Monday evening, the writing for the day was done, I had the time for a double feature of two movies I'd not seen since they were new and remember them as some truly fine films. Didn't remember who made them or who was in them, except Harry Belafonte. They were the Cotton Club and Kansas City. Cotton Club was a late 1920s New York tommy-gun gangster tale with Richard Gere, Nicholas Cage, Gregory Hines. It was loaded with Twenties dance music in the time well-off white folks went slumming in Harlem getting off on nigger music and women. Kansas City was late 1930s. It was before the Fifties and Sixties of black consciousness. I wasn't there, but the film seemed an artful depiction of the cultures of the time, the way white people and black people interacted in that time. Racism wasn't even an issue. It wasn't ever talked about. It was in the time when colored was the polite word for nigger. A black woman who worked for some white people, in the movie Kansas City, was being asked not to tell something if asked. She said, Aint nobody ever ask me nothin. That sentence hit me, personally, directly in the heart like a dart. It took me back to childhood having a black family in an actual shack living in the woods not far from where I lived. A couple of other black families nearby. We had a Nigger Town nearby, a section white boys stayed out of. But I never had a problem. I took them as people. I'd speak and show no haughty attitude. Nobody wanted to hurt me. I'm kind of amazed looking back, seeing that I intuited go in peace and you'll be all right. I walked through the black neighborhood as a shortcut to a movie theater I walked to semi weekly.
I'm recalling the kid's name who lived in the shack and came to my school in the 7th grade, 1954, the year of enforced integration. Thomas Robinson. Thomas was a tough guy. The kind of tough guy that doesn't hesitate to use a knife. A kid. Thomas was the only one of the black kids I knew when the school opened to them. It was so absurd: the street the school was on was the beginning of a section where black people had lived for a long time, from the time when KC was a railroad center. Three neighborhoods of black people lived on three sides of the school and the black kids had to go across town to Sumner, the black school. They were the best band and best majorettes in the American Royal Parade in downtown KC every year. Never won the prizes. White kids were afraid of the black kids and the black kids were afraid of the white kids. The black kids had to hang together as a gang to protect themselves from the bully jocks, a ruthless gang when you're black, or a white nerd. Thomas was a brooding, angry kid ready for a fight. He didn't like white people at all. I respected that in him. I knew how white people talked about his people, knew white people would just as soon see him dead as look at him. He knew it too. I wouldn't like white people either from his side of the fence. I was half afraid of Thomas, and sometimes he was a menacing presence, but only in attitude, never aggressive toward me with it. I felt like he liked me, because he never provoked me when he provoked the white guys around me. I know he wasn't afraid of me. He knew where I lived and I knew where he lived. He walked by my house from time to time and I walked by his house from time to time. That was all I knew of him and he couldn't have known much more than that about me. I liked him. Maybe I had never been arrogant toward him and he respected that. Maybe. Maybe I simply saw him. I have no idea. We kind of liked each other without knowing each other. I felt like I wanted to know Thomas better. I saw us equals in very different circumstances. When it came to intelligence, I had nothing on him.
Then one night his mama's shack burned to the ground. Thomas and his half dozen half-brothers and sisters disappeared. I never saw them again. I went to see the parched remains and inhale the scent particular to a house burned down. Their lives seemed vulnerably exposed. I felt sad for Thomas and his mama and the other kids. The shack they lived in was the next thing to homeless. Memory of Thomas Robinson stays with me over all the years when nobody else of the kids my age in that time stays with me. Possibly it's the mystique of him vanishing when the house burned down and I never saw him again. He's the only one of the kids I knew in that time I wonder what happened to. Perhaps I identified with him somewhat, wondering what it was like on his side of the racial divide. I knew it was not something I wanted to experience. In high school, in Wichita, my black friend was a guy who weighed the same as I did and we had to wrestle each other in gym class. He always smelled of liquor, kept a pint in his locker. He didn't give a shit about wrestling and he'd tell me to go ahead and pin him. He never took a shower and I had experience to know. I felt like he was the same as me in black circumstances. I was no smarter than him. And he was a hell of a lot cooler than I was, drinking liquor in school. Yet, I had the privilege of being able to get ahead in life if I wanted to. He didn't have an option. The civil rights movement was in its beginnings someplace else. It made me feel like I was rich having white privilege, when I wasn't any better off than he was, just lived among white people. I was never comfortable with white privilege. It made me feel like I wanted to explain to all the black people I knew that I'm not like the other white people, but didn't because I knew I was. I was just as two-faced as the other white people when it came to niggers. I expressed my racism thinking I wanted to be able to help them. I liked the black people I knew and there was always a barrier of suspicion of anyone who stepped across the line, from both sides. In early 1960s I got mixed up with some civil rights marches and white liberals who were also acting out their racism wanting to help the poor coloreds in their struggle. Stokely Carmichael showed me the light: white people do not belong in the black movement. Of course.
I've watched the movement all the way along, support the movement in my heart, but stay out of it. I'm glad to see the progress. These period films consciously addressing American racism seemed to make as good a depiction of the time and place as can be done on film in a two hour story. It was a racism that was unspoken, but understood by everyone. I find so much distrust across the racial fence even in this time, I don't concern myself with it anymore. We Americans are so at odds with each other it's unimaginable. Both films addressed the nature of the racism directly, no dancing around it. Two scripts of very different visions looking at American racism three and four decades before Martin Luther King dared stand up to the white man. It brought back the black people of my childhood, the Amos n Andy time, the John Lee Hooker time, the Big Maybelle time. My heart ached for them. I remember a bar I walked by on the way to Saturday afternoon movies that set me to prayer approaching it. Tough looking, bad looking black men hanging about outside the door, the days of pomade, and I had to walk by them, them amused by a white kid who didn't seem afraid of them. I was fascinated by them. It was like they were from another world I knew nothing about. The other side of that door was the unknown and music on a jukebox I loved. Two or three of the same old men sat in wooden chairs on the sidewalk beside the bar. We became familiar over the course of years and always spoke. It was a puzzling time for a kid. Racism never seemed right to me, but it was the very nature of the world I lived in. It was too big for me to do anything about. After much thought, I came to the only realistic way I can do something about racism in my world is to regard every black person I meet exactly the same as any white person or Asian person I meet. As far back as I remember, I've been fascinated by the different cultures. Both directors, Robert Altman of Kansas City and Francis Coppola of Cotton Club, were addressing the nature of racism in those times, the two cultures and the divide between them. Seeing these films together I saw the theme run through them both, the story told without judgment of either culture, going back and forth from one culture to the other, in relation to each other, enjoying the music together, a dance.