I have been writing about racial issues in Dallas for almost a quarter-century, during which time my thesis has always been that Dallas is a weird place. A while back I had an experience that caused me to wonder if there might be another possibility--that perhaps I am a weird person.
The occasion was a challenge from Bernestine Singley to contribute an essay to an anthology she was editing called When Race Becomes Real. Her book, which has now been published and is just arriving in bookstores, revolves on her own very interesting thesis.
Singley, a brilliant Harvard-educated lawyer and writer who works nationally but happens to live in Dallas, believes that black writers have to write or choose to write or are expected to write very personally about race all the time, but that white writers always get to lie back a little. We white scribblers never have to really open up. The net effect, she told me over lunch, is an impression that race is really a black thing rather than a black and white thing.
Like all people who are way too smart, Singley talks really fast and flies all over the intellectual map like a jet, so that when I am listening and trying to keep up with her, I sometimes feel an urge to take little micro-naps. But I did see her point, and I even felt...well, not insulted but, shall I say, dared. Like, "OK, mister white liberal, instead of letting me spill my guts and you being all understanding about me, how about you spill your guts for a change? Why don't you tell us all about your childhood experiences of race, and then you can let me be all understanding about you for a change. Maybe."
So I did it. I spent a long time on the essay that the Dallas Observer is reprinting here. Months. I kept coming back to it. The first part, in which I remembered some truly bizarre experiences as a very young child, was fun to write. My memory of the first grade is foggy, to say the least, but I did dredge up things that seemed to explain a lot of my subsequent development.
The next portion, about my adolescence, was not fun to write. At all. I remembered that part with crystalline clarity. I wished I could forget it.
Where does all this leave me with my Dallas thesis (Dallas weird vs. me weird)? I was an editorial writer once, so I am going to take the editorial cop-out and suppose that the truth probably lies somewhere between the two extremes.
Singley's book, for which she persuaded a very interesting mix of black and white writers to contribute, is genuinely intriguing. The thing that interests me most in the essays is all the detail that each of us thought was unique to our own childhoods but in fact echoes and resonates through essay after essay. It's enough to make one wonder if race and racism haven't had all of us playing with fewer than the 52 cards required for an honest game. I think Singley has come close to getting the full deck on the table, as only she could or would. Life would be simpler without Harvard, but not better.
If there isn't a reason, there is at least a little story about why my brother and I, both white kids, attended an almost all black school in Michigan when I was in the first grade and he in the sixth. My grandfather, a German immigrant who came to this country before the turn of the century, brought with him a bitter anti-clerical bent. We were told that when the Lutheran minister came to his house in St. Louis to recruit my grandmother, my grandfather beat him up. Maybe it's an apocryphal family legend, but I do know from good sources that my grandfather was very seriously opposed to organized religion. Other than that, he was probably a typical, tough, self-made, first-generation, conservative businessman.
My father, I believe, was rebellious in his own way. When my mother and father were in their 20s, they were Depression-era Roosevelt liberals, living in public housing in downtown St. Louis and dabbling in good works. Somehow I know--they told me or I gleaned from the conversational cross-currents of the house--that the public-housing days were heady times for them: They drank cheap wine in the kitchen with people like William Inge, the playwright who went on to write Come Back Little Sheba and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. For most of my mother's life she continued to correspond with Martha Gellhorn, whom she met in St. Louis during those days and whom I guess history now remembers as one of Ernest Hemingway's wives.
In this milieu my father came under the sway of the social activist dean of the Episcopal cathedral and experienced a religious awakening. To the serious dismay of my grandfather, my father went off to the Virginia Seminary and became an Episcopal minister. It's clear to me in retrospect that my father's decision was driven by religious feeling and political idealism and that he had little if any idea until later in life what role the Episcopal Church plays in the social and business hierarchy of the nation. If anything, my father always seemed a little clueless about the finer distinctions of the American caste system. Maybe it just takes more than two generations to figure some of that stuff out.
When I was very little we lived in a succession of hick towns in Maryland and Michigan. Back then not many people had romantic notions about small-town life. Sinclair Lewis had made living in a small town in the Middle West a kind of intellectual sin. I have to imagine their sojourn in boondocks Michigan was a tough price for their religious convictions. I think it was an especially tough price for my mother to pay for my father's convictions.
His first big career move was to Ann Arbor, Michigan, a university town, where he became the associate rector of the big downtown Episcopal church, St. Andrews. Ann Arbor, which described itself immodestly in those days as "The Athens of the Middle West," was a northern town, of course, and a place of learning and enlightenment where people looked with dismay and disgust on the racial habits of the people of the former Confederacy. The Union had militarily vanquished the rebels only 86 years before my family moved to Ann Arbor, placing the War of Rebellion well within the living memory of the national culture at the time.
The civil rights movement was still ahead. During the movement years, Ann Arbor would send both money and people to the South to fight the abomination of racial segregation. Tom Hayden, a founder of Students for a Democratic Society, husband of Jane Fonda and so on, preceded me on the staff of the University of Michigan student newspaper, The Michigan Daily, by only a few years. It was while he was writing for the Daily that he traveled south to witness and take part in the great struggle for universal voting rights, sending back missives that helped ignite the fires of white student activism.
I always loved Ann Arbor--its gentle hills, lush green canopy of trees, generous parks, ivied walls. I remember thinking even as a little boy that I lived in a beautiful place. But later, when I returned as a university student and found the place champing at the bit to reform the racist South, I was seized by memories of my own first-grade year there. (Unlike the years on either side, I do remember that year fairly clearly.)
Just to heighten the irony, in the mid-1960s at about the time I came back to Ann Arbor to go to college, someone was suing to force the closing of Jones School on grounds of de facto segregation. The town, especially the university community, was enraged. Almost everyone in Ann Arbor seemed to believe it was unthinkable, preposterous, wrongheaded and absolutely upside down that anyone would even think of accusing the Athens of the Middle West of racism.
I kept quiet. I didn't know what to say. I was a kid, of course. But I did know for a certainty that in the early 1950s, when we had moved to Ann Arbor, there was a street down the middle of town called Division Street, and most of the people on one side were black, and absolutely everybody on the other was white. I continued to grow up in the North after we left Ann Arbor, so I was raised with the impression that the division of northern towns and cities into separate white and black enclaves was not segregation. Nobody ever said what it was. I try now to think my way back into a town that had a street called Division Street right down its middle like a big skunk stripe, and where the people in the town were shocked and dismayed when someone dared suggest that this arrangement amounted to racial segregation.
But it's too far back. I can't do the math. It's just how it was. Racism and segregation were the debased practices of those bad people we had righteously smote in the Civil War, and the deal with Division Street was something nobody ever talked about. Lucky for us.
The rector of St. Andrews lived in a Victorian mansion out off Hill Street in the neighborhood where the senior university faculty lived. As associate rector, my father was assigned a little stone Englishy-looking cottage across the parking lot from the church. The previous inhabitant had been the former sexton (Anglican janitor), now retired. The church was on Division Street. Jones School was one block away.
I don't know this as fact, or I don't remember it well enough to say I do, but judging by all that happened later it must have been assumed by the church and the community when we first showed up in Ann Arbor that my parents would find some way, some hook or crook, to get my brother and me across town to the white grade school. (And, of course, that school was never thought of at all as the white grade school, and no one would ever have called it that, even though I distinctly recall adults referring to Jones as the colored school. The liberal North was a complex place.)
I do know, and my brother confirms, that it was the conscious decision of my parents, with their Roosevelt-liberal St. Louis public-housing social-organizing years still fresh in their hearts, that Bill and I would do good works by attending the neighborhood school.
I had never been close to black kids before, but, more important, the first-graders at Jones must never have been up close and personal with very many white kids before that day, either. It wasn't like the segregated South, where white and black children often grew up playing with each other before institutional segregation intervened and walled them apart in the schools. In Ann Arbor, which was not segregated, white and black kids barely even caught glimpses of each other across Division Street until the first day of junior high school.
Clearly etched in my memory of that first day at Jones is the moment my one white face came into the midst of their many black faces. I found myself in the center of a mob of children on the front steps of the school, all of them very curious to know who I was and, more urgent, what in the hell I was. A child approached me and clamped fingers on my sun-whitened burr-cut head. A boy came up to me slowly and leaned forward to peer into my face. He took a step backward down the steps and then announced to the crowd in a tone of evenly mixed amusement and revulsion, "His eyes are blue!"
The next several weeks on the playground were sort of like medical experiments: If you hit one of these white things in the mouth, what might come out? I remember only fighting, fighting and fighting. One afternoon when I came home bloodied and tearful, my mother took me to the living room and sat me down on the sofa. I remember this speech clearly, and I still think it was probably a good speech in the longest view of life.
She told me all about slavery and the evils that white people had visited on African-American people. It was a terrible story, and for a while my tears shifted from self-pity to compassion. The moral of the story was that I needed to feel sorry for the little colored children at Jones, and I needed to try to help them become better people, by which I assumed we meant they needed to be more like us.
I was a first-grader, and I would guess now that the story probably worked well while we were on the couch. But the next morning when I was running down Division Street as fast as my feet could carry me, with the Mike Burns gang inches from my back and snatching at my shirt, I assume my effort to feel sorry for Mike was a failure.
My mission as the Great White Liberal Hope of my first-grade class suffered another challenge, because not too far along in the school year the psychological lines of color began to blur and fade. We were very little, after all, and we were not yet fully imbued with the importance of our differences.
I'm certainly not saying the lines ever disappeared entirely. I have a specific memory of the day the teacher--the only other white person in the room, as I remember it--called us to her knee to read us the story of Little Black Sambo. And who knows? Maybe in the relative context of the early 1950s, she saw Little Black Sambo as culturally relevant.
Depending on your age, you may or may not remember Little Black Sambo as the story in which an African boy climbs a tree and taunts the tiger to rush around and around at his feet until finally the tiger churns himself into butter. She introduced the story by saying something to the effect of, "Sambo, like many of you in this room, was a little colored child."
I remember distinctly that the eyes in the room drifted and turned, whirled and lifted until finally every eye was on me. Someone said, "Jimmy's the only one that's not," and there was laughter, for which I was grateful. But even when the laughter had subsided, I still felt eyes lingering on my uncolored skin. I was Little White Sambo, and I remember that I hated my difference.
At some point during the months between the first day of school and Christmas vacation, a miracle transpired. I was approached on the playground and offered a position in the gang, which I learned was not the Mike Burns gang at all but the Eugene (last name forgotten) gang.
Mike was just enormous. He must have been held back. But Eugene was the boss. He was cool and slick. I remember only one of the other kids--Johnny Johnson, a happy funny guy who always had a big buck-toothed grin, even when he was caught red-handed. Especially when he was caught red-handed.
I don't know if I knew then why I was so honored. Of course, I know now. The Eugene gang was in the after-school business of robbing coins from the religious pamphlet racks at St. Andrews Episcopal Church, the big white church across Division Street. Eugene had picked up on the fact that I was the preacher's kid. The Eugene gang had its act fairly well down. They knew where the good racks were that got filled up with money every Sunday. Mike was able to pry the coin boxes off the racks with his bare hands.
But they needed a white lookout. If they stood around the white church with their hands in their pockets trying to look innocent, the people over there called the cops. As I learned, the white people across Division Street would call the cops on them sometimes just for crossing Division Street, let alone entering a place of white worship.
Who could be a better good-eyes than the white preacher's kid? I was thrilled. Maybe I was thrilled because it meant that Mike now would be working for me. But I remember that I also was thrilled by the robberies themselves. It was dangerous work and very exciting. I stood in the half-dark echoing caverns of the church corridors and sang out my warning cues: "Oh, hello, Dr. Lewis! (The scratchy whisper of escaping feet around the corner.) It's nice to see you. (My eyes on Dr. Lewis' eyes to gauge whether he has heard.) I was just looking for my father. (He nods, maybe only now recognizing me, and turns his hearing aid toward me.) And now I have to go to the bathroom. (He turns curtly away)."
We made great money. I had money for all kinds of candy. I don't know why my parents didn't notice. My father was busy with his career and, like most men of that era, had little to do with hands-on parenting beyond his role as Household Minister of Justice. My mother was eccentric and kind, preoccupied with her own challenges. But I don't think parents in general noticed very much about kids in the early 1950s, because they didn't have to. They put their children out on the stoop every morning like empty milk bottles, serenely confident that society would come along in a clean white truck and fill them up.
My mother probably gets the credit for my ultimate social success at Jones. For all of her preaching about the white liberal's burden, she was really sort of a child herself, and nothing made her happier than seeing children running wild and having fun together. She invited the entire first-grade class to my birthday party--it may have been 30 or more children--and we had the very best time I think I have ever had in my life. I don't remember details, but I do have a general recollection of kids flowing in and out of the house and over the furniture and through the shrubbery in an endless wave, shrieking and chasing, gobbling down cake and ice cream, and I remember my mother clapping her hands and laughing out loud because she was having so much fun. She wasn't big on housekeeping.
As a father myself now, I know that's what really counts. It's not playing in the neighborhood or on the playground but being inside each other's houses, with your mamas looking on, laughing while you eat cake and ice cream. If you do that, you're true friends. After that party, I was welcome and had a name in everybody's house. The birthday party my mother gave me was the real reason for everything that ensued.
At some point during the party I remember looking up--I remember this keenly, like a blade cutting skin--to a spot just across the church parking lot. High on the towering stone wall at the back of the church was a wrought-iron balcony outside the room in the church attic where the choir practiced. Standing on the balcony looking down on the mayhem at our house was a squadron of white church ladies, their faces darkened by scowls. They didn't like my party. I realized years later they hadn't liked my mother.
Between January and the end of the year, pressure must have grown for my parents to get us out of Jones and across town to the white school, which had the felicitous name of Angell School. For years I blamed my removal from Jones to Angell on the church choir ladies who had looked down on my all-black birthday party from the choir-room balcony. My childish understanding of things helped darken my subsequent adult feelings about church ladies in some unfair and unfortunate ways that I am still working to overcome.
I doubt now that the church ladies were the whole cause of my banishment. For one thing, a lifetime as a reporter and many years on the police beat lead me to suspect that the church literature rack scam probably was less slick than we thought. I wouldn't be surprised to learn they had yanked me out of Jones and away from the gang in preparation for busting all the black kids. I know they did get caught sometime after I left Jones.
But another cause--what I now think was the most compelling one--came to me more or less out of the blue just a few years ago. Somehow the subject of speech therapy came up, and I found myself drifting out to the edges of the conversation, privately remembering that I had gone through some form of intensive speech therapy during my first months as a second-grader at Angell School. I don't know how scientifically advanced the business of speech therapy was in the early 1950s. When it came back to me I mainly remembered a speech lady--whom I recalled as red-faced and pretty mad at me--leaning into my face and telling me in an emphatic voice, "Jimmy, you must stop talking like a little colored boy!"
When I remembered it, I laughed silently to myself. I thought, "There's your social emergency."
It would easily have slipped by my parents. My father was busy and my mother preoccupied. But it wouldn't have eluded anybody else at St. Andrews. I bet I set off 87 different varieties of racial alarm, phobic response and social panic when I showed up at Episcopal Sunday school talking like a black kid. Just as peasants from time immemorial have feared witches and gypsies, so Middle Westerners in the 1950s must have loathed the racial changeling.
In personal terms, speech therapy actually wasn't my big issue at Angell. The really big one was the fighting. I doubt that I wanted to fight. I was pretty puny. I'm sure the thing I had liked about being in the Eugene gang at Jones was that I didn't have to fight much anymore. All I had to do was look for Eugene, who looked for Mike. I don't think I was ever good at fighting, anyway. But at Jones, at least you learned to throw a punch and block a punch, no matter who you were. (I haven't had occasion to test those skills since my freshman year in college--an incident that involved drink--and I don't want an occasion.)
I do remember a few instances on the playground at Angell when somebody made a move on me, and I remember thinking it was absurdly easy to hit him in the face, like shooting fish in a barrel. I absolutely do not believe that I was a bully or a fight-picker. Maybe we don't remember that sort of thing from our own early childhoods, but I really think I was too small and too retiring. I was able to use my hands if I had to, but I don't think I wanted to.
One day in the water fountain line in the corridor at Angell, a boy behind me slapped me on the back of the head so that my teeth cracked against the stainless steel tap of the fountain, sending a quick electric shock of pain up into my forehead.
When something like that happened at Jones, it meant you had to stand and deliver. You had to start punching and hope you could last until Mike got there. So I wheeled around without thinking and shot my fist into the kid's mouth.
I don't remember him. But I do remember how he stood. He lifted his hand slowly to his lip, then held it out where he could see the blood. He stared at the blood in silence. And then he began to emit a scream that I still remember as being like one of those European police sirens, up and down, up and down, on and on, never fading in volume, echoing through the tile and linoleum hallways like a banshee wail from one end of Angell School to the other.
The other children in line took it up like a Greek chorus: "He has blood! He has blood!"
The school took it very badly. It was as if, finally having been admitted to heaven on a conditional visa, the first thing I did was walk over and coldcock an angel.
I hit him one time only. One shot. I remember that, because it came up in the inquisition. Two teachers, one on each armpit, hauled me down the long corridor and down the steps with my toes dragging behind me to Miss Buckley's office. I came to love Miss Buckley in the years ahead. She was very tough but very warm. I think she liked me, years later. That day, she made the teachers tell over and over again what had happened, and she asked me several times to explain. She called in other students. Finally she ruled that I had been technically within my rights to defend myself, and she said it was worth something that I had hit the kid only once and then stopped when there was no longer any threat.
She sent everyone else out of her office. When we were alone together, she touched my knee with her hand to make me feel better, and she told me in a gentle voice that the real problem was not that I had struck the boy. She said it was that, "You fight like a little colored boy."
Maybe we were still working on my speech problem at that point. I don't remember. But I do remember the moment, sitting in her office, when she told me in a very somber voice that if I didn't stop behaving like a little colored boy, she might have to send me back to the colored school. Maybe my response was ingratiating. I was a preacher's kid, after all. Maybe I said something--in second-grade vernacular, of course--along the lines of, "Miss Buckley, I want you to know how valuable I feel my experience here at Angell has been and what a fine institution this is..."
Maybe I just started grinning from ear to ear. I don't remember. But I do know how I felt. It was the impossible dream. I hated Angell. I hated being different from the rest of them. I could think of nothing more wonderful than going back to Jones, getting back with the Eugene gang and knocking over a few racks at my father's church. One way or another, I conveyed to Miss Buckley that I was ready to return to Jones right then, at that very moment, and that I would be careful not to let the door hit me in the backside on my way out.
I never got over the wall.
It was after the water fountain incident that I began having to spend long hours in a little room off the nurse's office at Angell School trying to put round pegs in round holes and square pegs in square holes for a lady who sat across the table from me and never spoke, examining me as if I were a partially dissected frog. She may even have been the same person who was trying to do speech therapy on me. Whatever she really looked like, by now she has melded permanently and inextricably in my mind with Nurse Ratched in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
My parents and I were called in at some point for a family conference with her. In the car on the way home afterward my father was irritated and high-strung. He hit the dashboard with his fist, which frightened me. He told my mother he thought he probably had tons more training as a counselor than the peg lady and that he didn't think much of her techniques. I don't remember anything at all about why he was so hostile toward her. I suppose at some point in the conversation she must have asked him what he had been smoking when he sent his kid to the colored school.
And you know, what were my parents going to do about it, anyway? They were Roosevelt liberals. Instead of helping the colored children in his first-grade class become more like white children, their son had turned into a colored child. In the contest of culture and personality between noble white saviors and the indomitable survivors of oppression, the survivors had taken the day hands-down. What could my parents do but ride it out? Nobody ever said squat to me. I probably figured the peg thing was a Chinese water torture for making that kid bleed.
For the next few years we continued to live next to the church, and I commuted to Angell School on city buses. I played with my white friends on the playground at school and continued to hang out with my black friends at home. Then at some point the church bought us a large beautiful house on Onondaga Street across from a baronial fraternity house and well within the area served by Angell School. And my world became properly monochromatic.
I never saw my black friends again until the first day of seventh grade at Tappan Junior High School. That day, I was so excited about being at Tappan that I could barely keep my feet on the ground. Tappan was a huge gleaming new school, thronging with well-dressed shiny-faced kids, a temple of postwar American prosperity. On that thrilling first day, those of us who had come from Angell searched anxiously for each other in the crowded hallways and embraced joyously when we met.
And then at a certain moment in the day, when I was walking down a broad corridor with a big gang of my Angell friends, we rounded a corner and there in the distance, huddled like birds on a far branch, were my Jones School friends.
I ran even harder, and I remember clearly that they were very happy to see me. They called me "Jimmy," which I hadn't been called at school since the first grade, and we hugged and embraced. My sense--who knows how much of this I impose in retrospect and how much was really there?--is that they were a hundred times more excited and nervous and apprehensive than even I on that day. This was not just the first day at Tappan for them: It was their first real day in the white world.
The next vision is so clear and animate, even after all these years, that I do not doubt it in any detail. I had my arm around Eugene's shoulders. I turned, expecting my Angell friends to be standing inches behind me, having followed me down the hall to meet these new kids.
They had not moved an inch from where I had left them at the far end of the hall. The expressions on their faces were of shock and horror.
I said goodbye to my black friends. I hurried back down the corridor to my white friends.
They were aghast. They wanted to know how and why and when I had come to know colored kids. They wanted to know why on earth I was behaving in a way that was buddy-buddy toward the colored kids. They wanted to know what in the world was wrong with me. It was as if I had revealed myself to them as some kind of frightening avatar, a being totally unlike what they had always believed me to be.
I do remember clearly trying later in the day to think it all through by myself and, in that process, marveling at how huge was the difference my white friends perceived between themselves and my black buddies. It took my breath away. The white kids talked as if the black kids were not fully or truly human.
I hungered to be accepted and approved by my white friends. I was even a politician, one of the first seventh-graders ever, I was told at the time, to be elected to the student council. One of the ways I won my white friends over and helped ease any misgivings they may have had was by turning my back on my black Jones School friends, erasing them with my eyes, never speaking, never even acknowledging a glance or nod or hesitant lifting of the eyes. I made them more than dead. I made them into beings who had never existed.
I wasn't only turning my back on kids with whom I had committed crimes against pamphlet racks. There were black kids in the larger circle of my friends from Jones School who never did anything wrong, who came from the sternly determined families who went on to do things like integrate the postal service and send their kids to Harvard. I treated them, too, as unworthy of my gaze. Dirt on the floor.
When the big things happened--the pep rallies and the assemblies and the elections and even the fooling around in the cafeteria--the black kids were invisible to all the white kids. They couldn't be pretty or handsome or cool or important: They couldn't even really be present, not truly present, because we made them not there with our eyes. It's not child's play, that trick of the eyes. It's the first step, the very beginning of the process that ends with the trains and the ovens.
Once in a while I slipped. The black kids got me. As I moved down the hall with my group and passed one of the marginal little corners or nooks where the black kids were allowed to gather, Eugene or Mike or one of the girls would look at me and catch my eye.
Their eyes always spoke plainly. Their eyes said to my eye, "Asshole."
I envied the white kids who had never known black kids, because it seemed to me that their cruelty toward them was guileless and unwitting. Unlike me, I thought, the other white kids had never known that the black kids were human, had never been fed milk and cookies by their mothers or felt the joy of having them flowing in and out of the house, smeared with cake. I was the only dirty one, the only one who knew better, the only one who committed social annihilation by choice and for the sake of getting elected to the student council.
In the end we didn't make it in Ann Arbor. When Dr. Lewis retired, my father did not succeed him as rector and was banished instead back to the boondocks of Michigan. My father never said anything about why we didn't make it, because he never said anything about anything. Family legend years later is that the cause of our exile had been his crusading liberalism. Apparently he had led a charge for a local open housing ordinance. After he had campaigned for some months, Dr. Lewis informed him coolly, I am told, that three-fourths of the housing south of Division Street was owned by the senior warden of St. Andrews Church and that the senior warden was not at all interested in either urban renewal or the dispersal of his tenants into rental properties owned by persons other than the senior warden.
But at the time we left my beloved Ann Arbor, my understanding of the causes was childish and personal. I blamed our banishment on the church ladies. I knew from overheard whispers and looks I had spied on their faces that they thought my mother was embarrassing. Perhaps I recognized their feelings because, with great guilt, I shared them. In my exquisitely self-conscious preteen years, my mother made me cringe, as well. She had never even tried to become an Episcopal church lady. By then the church ladies all drove Country Squire station wagons and drank martinis in the late afternoon. It embarrassed me to the point of breathlessness to see my mother careering through the narrow streets of Ann Arbor on her balloon-tire bicycle with her artist and potter friends, especially because she was always so insanely surprised to see me and because she never once succeeded in using the brakes to bring her bicycle to a halt. After school I hung out inside Moe's Sport Shop because the big window in front was tinted and I could see her coming before she could see me.
Whether she was the real reason we had to leave, the fact remains that she was too much for Ann Arbor. It wasn't Athens. It was just the Middle West.
History played a nice little joke with my father's exile to the boonies. In the last small town where he lighted--a typical old farming and light manufacturing community in southern Michigan--he seems to have sunk his claws into the soil and made it his business not to be pried loose. No more Roosevelt-liberal hanky-panky with this parish, not this close to the end of the journey. But in the years after his arrival there, Detroit exploded 50 miles away. Immediately after the '67 race riot, white people by the teeming zillions loaded up their Country Squire station wagons and headed for the hills, terrified of black people.
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."
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 was...at 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.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
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.
The most terrible thing I can make myself say about white people is also the most wonderful. Somewhere, however buried and refracted by guilt, the truth lives in our souls. We know what we're doing. It's why we are susceptible to improvement. It's why we have no excuses.
Excerpted from When Race Becomes Real: Black and White Writers Confront Their Personal Histories, edited by Bernestine Singley, published by Lawrence Hill Books. Jim Schutze will speak about this essay at the Capitol in Austin as part of first lady Laura Bush's Texas Book Festival November 16-17.