One of my earliest memories is of watching white legs dance. I was two years old, sitting on the floor beside a stereo during a summer afternoon party in Nashville. Before me were many dancing adults; hence, from my view, the moving trees of White Legs Forest. On the floor beside me was the cover of the Chubby Checker album playing. I looked at the photo of the smiling, besuited black man happily frozen in mid-twist. I looked back at the dancing white legs.
I thought: “Okay. We like his music. But we don’t invite him to our party. Maybe that’s not allowed.”
When I was a very young kid living in Georgia, our family employed a black woman, Florida Mae, to help with chores and my sister and me. Florrie was my second mother. One day, thinking I was alone, I climbed a chair so I could reach back into a kitchen cabinet. I felt around until I had my prize: a wrapped slab of Actual Chocolate. I was so excited I couldn’t wait until I was off the chair to do the Kiddie Chocolate Chow. I unwrapped the chocolate, busted off a piece, jammed it in my mouth, and awaited ecstasy. Instead I got agony: it was bittersweet chocolate, which I think Weight Watchers should use to trick people into never, ever again wanting chocolate. It was like putting a block of coagulated snail in my mouth.
“What horrible trick is this?” I thought—and then I turned, and saw that Florrie had been watching me all along. My first thought was, “Why didn’t you stop me from eating what you knew was awful? How could you let this happen?” And then, shockingly, I had my answer. I saw that my pain was bringing her a measure of pleasure. She wasn’t cackling and evilly wringing her hands or anything, but on Florrie’s face was a very slight smile, and in her eyes was just a hint of that crazy little glint people sometimes get when someone else is getting theirs.
And that is when I all at once understood the terrible truth: Florida Mae Brown didn’t really like her job. She pretended to like her job. But she didn’t like having to wear that white, heavily starched maid/nurse uniform she had to wear every day. She didn’t like that she got the worst of the household chores. She didn’t like having to act like she was part of our family, when, I saw then, she absolutely wasn’t. And never would be. She just worked for us. Nothing else. Nothing else, I saw then, was allowed.
I grew up in an all-white neighborhood in the San Francisco Bay area. One day in high school I got called out of class to come to the principal’s office. There I found our principal standing next to a good-looking black kid my age.
“John,” said The Principal, “I want you to meet Earl Jackson. His family just moved to town; this is his first day as a student here. I want you to spend a few days with him here, help him get adjusted.” He looked me dead in the eye, intensely. “Be his friend.”
“Sure,” I said. “Of course.” As soon as we were out of the office, I said to Earl, “You know, he didn’t say anything about us having to go class right away. You wanna just sort of not go to class? I’m usually pretty keen on not going to class if I don’t have to. I’m seeing this as a Golden Opportunity.” Earl saw the wisdom of my point, and we started right in Loitering, Yet Walking.
Within moments I realized that Earl was so intent on being The Funny Black Guy that it was going to be difficult if not impossible to genuinely communicate with him. He was doing all kinds of high-pitched voices, rolling his eyes, moving real loose and funny: he had a whole Flip Wilson meets Richard Pryor routine that I quickly learned he wasn’t about to give up. While certainly wanting to give him his space to do whatever thing he needed, I also tried to communicate to Earl that he didn’t have to play the Teflon clown with me. But he couldn’t hear that; he couldn’t, I knew, trust it. After an hour together, he and I knew each other no better than before we’d met. I watched Earl through his next three years at Lily White High. I never once saw him drop his act. He had his defense for being a black guy in a white world, and he was no sooner dropping it than a soldier in battle drops his gun. He would be who he really was somewhere else, someplace else, with people he knew would accept him. But not at school. His sense of self-preservation couldn’t allow it.
After high school—before I was through high school, actually—I was taken in by a black family in El Cerrito, California. Those people showed me more love and care than my real family ever did. During that time I used to make a point of spending as much time as I could with the oldest black folk around me. I wanted to hear their stories, know their past, understand how they could have dealt with what they did.
My wife’s step-father is black. He once told me a story about the time he was serving in the Air Force, and went on a date in Washington, D.C.
“I felt so proud,” he said. “I was wearing my dress uniform, steppin out with a pretty girl into the nightlife of the capital city of the greatest nation on earth. Feelin good, ya know? So we decided to start our night by going to see a movie. I buy our movie tickets, and we go inside, and it’s this beautiful theater. I mean, I’d never seen anything like it. So we’re going to take our seats—and I’m from the south, see, and had never been north before. I thought things were different up there. But just as we’re headin down the aisle to take our seats, this young white teenager—this usher, ya know—grabs my arm. ‘Not you, boy,’ he says. ‘You and your date here go up to the balcony section. That’s where your kind sit.’
“So me and that girl climbed the stairs up to the balcony section. It was a pigsty up there.”
I’ve got thousands of stories like these, moments where all that seemed to matter in life was when and how and with whom the wall between black and white and browns of every shade was or wasn’t breached. We all do. Gauging the effects and immediate ramifications of skin hue is one of the great, haunting phantoms of our daily experience, one of the things that most often pervades and perverts so much of what is or should be pure and good in our lives. No matter what color our skin, we’ve all been stained by racism.
I expect soon enough I’ll stop unexpectedly tearing up whenever I think about what just occurred in our country. But that probably won’t happen this week.
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