Crossing Division Street

How do white people learn what to think about race? It's best not to think about it.

The hick town where my father had made his last stand became a magnet for busing flight, white flight, urban flight, all the kinds of flight and panic and racial retreat that inflamed white culture of the period. Huge shopping malls and vast new traditional neighborhoods flew up all around the town like a tent army that had arrived in the night. My father briefly joined a local militia that was going to defend the community when the black people in Detroit all loaded up on chartered buses and came out to kill them. He was in the catbird seat, smack-dab in the middle of Episcopal heaven. Madonna went to high school in that town.

As a young man I moved to the South, where I have now spent the lion's share of my adult life. Early on in my Dixie sojourn, I heard white Southerners tell a particular kind of story about their own childhoods that I found personally fascinating. I listened with an urgent secret interest while they rambled on about how when they were little they had played with and had been dear friends with black children.

I still don't understand why Southerners tell that story or what point they think they are making. But I know what I heard in it. Those stories, when I first heard them, thrilled me. I thought, "Well, you're all worthless bastards, too."

The Schutze brothers, left to right, Bill, Jim and Paul, with their parents, the Reverend W.R. and Peggy, circa 1951
The Schutze brothers, left to right, Bill, Jim and Paul, with their parents, the Reverend W.R. and Peggy, circa 1951

Like me. If they played, if they sang, if they slept, if they shared the crystalline loves and joys of childhood with black kids, and if they only reverted to racial caste when it was imposed on them by the public schools, then they knew exactly what they were doing. Their racism was not guileless or unwitting. It was learned, decisional and willful. I thought, "Home at last."

In the past 20 years I have come to enjoy Southerners, black and white, because they have manners. I even have some now myself.

I'm not sure how much permanent impact my first-grade year had on me. A few years ago I found myself listening while some erudite white people were discussing Huckleberry Finn and the cultural/historical value of the original text. One person at the table said he thought there was a laughable arrogance in the assertion that Twain's words should in any way be censored in order to meet standards of contemporary political correctness, and he suggested that black kids who don't like the name of Twain's black character, Jim, probably should just suck it up and learn to deal with the culture as it was during Twain's time.

At that time I was the new father of a baby boy. I drifted from the dinner table conversation to my memory of the day the teacher read Little Black Sambo to us. I remembered a roomful of eyes on my skin. While my dinner guests chatted and laughed at the table, I mused on the possibility that someone might one day make my child feel that way about what he school, where I would have to send him, where I could not protect him. I found myself wondering if it would help the man at the table get any smarter if I went upstairs, got my copy of Huck Finn, brought it back down and whacked him upside the head with it a couple of times.

So I guess Little White Sambo is still in there somewhere.

Another possible small legacy--something I hadn't really noticed about myself until I began working on this essay--is that I seem to be a bit of a student of religious pamphlet racks, which, by the way, have evolved significantly since the early '50s. In many churches now you see racks in which the coin box is actually inside the rack itself. The modern rack is a locked container like the boxes from which newspapers are dispensed. In order to get to the money, then, you would have to break open the rack and then somehow pry loose and get into the coin box. The coin boxes look to me as if they are much more solidly built mechanisms than the little tin enclosures of my childhood. So I must not have been the Lone Ranger on that one.

In fact, now that I'm old, I don't really feel like the Lone Ranger on anything. Eventually I deprived myself of even my sense of moral particularity on the race question. I decided the rest of my fellow Yankees had also been deliberate and morally witting in their racism. I won't bore you with all the details of this evolution in my private thought, except to say that I came to it by working my way logically backward from the teachings of Dr. King.

Martin Luther King Jr. and the leadership of the civil rights movement reformed the moral consciousness of white Americans by appealing to their consciences. The reason Dr. King could succeed was because there was a white conscience to appeal to. We all knew better. We always had. We didn't come to our racial sins because some deterministic clockwork of historical causes had impelled us there against our will or without our knowledge. We did it because we wanted to. We were Strom Thurmond's willing helpers.

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