2009 by H.B. Koplowitz
Like a lot of
people, I lug around a certain amount of racial
baggage as a result of some of my previous
interactions with people of other ethnic groups.
I grew up in Carbondale, a small and segregated
college town in southern Illinois, and the first black
person I ever knew was Martha, a maid who half raised
me during the 1950s, because my mom was ahead of her
time and worked, along with my dad, at a dress shop
they owned. Back then blacks were called colored
people, although my parents tended to call Martha "the
schwartza" behind her back.
When she was in her 50s and I was still in my single
digits, Martha seemed ancient and intimidating. She
was short and stooped but wiry, with rock-hard biceps
from wringing out clothing by hand and pinning it to
the line in our backyard. Her face was dark and
wrinkly, and her short stiff hair was usually
corn-rolled around something that looked to me like
black licorice sticks. I can't say that I distinctly
liked or disliked her. She was the enforcer when my
parents weren't around, and I respected her the same
way I respected my parents -- grudgingly.
She cooked, cleaned and gave my brother and me our
baths when we were little, teaching us songs like
"Mary Had a Baby" and reading us our "Jack & Jill"
and "Humpty Dumpty" magazines. She'd stink up the
house with "greens" she'd brought from home, watch her
"stories" on our TV, and as she ironed she'd talk to
herself about things that had happened at church,
repeating conversations and laughing at the funny
She took a cab to our house on the west side of town,
but many evenings my parents would give her a ride to
her home on the northeast side. Sitting in the
backseat with my brother and Martha, I'd peer
wide-eyed out the window as we passed sheds and
clapboard dwellings with sagging porches. I remember
the embarrassment all around the car when I stuck my
finger out one evening and asked "what's that?" and my
dad awkwardly had to explain to me what an outhouse
was. There was a husband who left the scene early on
and a grown son who wasn't around much either, but
Martha had relatives who lived next door with a big
garden and some farm animals, including chickens and
mules. Martha was poor but she wasn't bitter. She was
basically a decent person.
One summer, when I was about 10 years old and school
was out, I fell in with some slightly older boys, a
couple of whom were black, and it was sitting on the
sliding board at the playground at my school that I
first reflected on the word nigger. I'd heard the term
before, but I'd never thought about it before -- it
wasn't part of my everyday vocabulary. I don't recall
how we got around to the subject, but I remember one
of the black kids explaining that a nigger was just a
bad person. I remember saying something like, "well,
isn't it a bad colored person?" and him disagreeing,
saying anyone, black, white, blue or green could be a
nigger if they are evil.
Unfortunately, I didn't get the message. A day or two
after that conversation, I was outside and Martha told
me it was time to come inside to clean up. I didn't
want to go inside and we had words. I walked inside
the garage, out of her sight, and hissed under my
"What did you say?" Martha asked as she came in the
garage after me, seeming more surprised than enraged.
I don't remember what happened next, whether she
balled me out or if I apologized. I do remember
feeling very ashamed, and I've never used the word
again in anger, not that I didn't have the
My next exposure to black people would have been
around the same time. A new (white) family moved into
the neighborhood with three sons. I became friends
with Dave, who was my age and also into monster
movies. But the middle brother, Tom, who was a year
ahead of me in school and precocious, also befriended
me, and taught me about such adult things as pinball
and dirty pictures. Tom was also an amazing athlete,
and when it came time for everyone to join Little
League, my dad made sure I got on the same team with
him -- the Cubs.
There were about eight teams in the Atom League -- the
youngest grouping of Little League at the time. Seven
of the teams were all white and one was all black --
the Sox. At the end of the season there was a
tournament, and Tom pitched the Cubs to the finals,
where we met the Sox, which had just as talented a
pitcher, Lester, who was big and scary. It was a tight
game throughout, with Tom and Lester matching each
other strikeout for strikeout. For most of that season
I had been frozen at the plate, never swinging, hoping
for a walk, and I did the same thing during the
championship game. So I don't know what got into me,
but during my last at bat, I suddenly took a swack at
the ball and sent a squibber toward the mound. I saw
Lester reach down for the ball, saw it dribble out of
his glove, and realized I should be running to first
base. I took off, but he recovered the ball and threw
me out by a half-step.
The next inning, Tom's arm gave out. He walked a
batter, which in the Atom League was as good as a
triple, because the batter soon stole second and
third. Tom got a strikeout, but the next batter hit a
grounder up the middle. From shortstop, I watched as
the ball skipped over second base and into center
field. Game over. Tom stood on the pitcher's mound,
crying. The rest of us threw our gloves in the air.
Time for ice cream. I don't remember feeling upset
that we'd been beaten by some black kids. I do
remember thinking that black kids sure are good at
A year or two later, I must have been in the Bantam
League by then and Tom had moved away, my new team
played another black team -- well, actually, pretty
much the same team, except older, and they were still
good at sports. By this time I had come to seriously
dislike playing the black team, not because they were
black, but because they all seemed to hit the ball to
the shortstop, and I was the shortstop. One night we
had to play the black team on its home field on the
east side, and the infield was full of dirt clods
because it hadn't been watered and graded. Before the
game, we all went onto the field to throw the dirt
clods away, but we couldn't get them all, and midway
through the game, sure enough, a batter hit a grounder
to short that ricocheted off a clump of clay and
smacked me in the nose.
I stood there for a second, stunned as the blood came
streaming down my face, and then I just started
bawling. My dad ran onto the field and carried me off.
My only solace was that it had happened on the east
side, where nobody I knew except my teammates had seen
me crying in baseball. Until the next morning, when
Martha showed up at our house and saw my bruised face.
"I heard some white boy got hit by a baseball last
night and cried all the way home," she said. "That was
What could I say.
My parents liked movies, and they took my brother and
me to the ones they thought we'd like, such as "I was
a Teenage Werewolf" and "Green Men From Mars." But
also "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Defiant Ones,"
starring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier as escaped
prisoners shackled together, and "Porgy and Bess," the
George Gershwin folk opera turned into a movie musical
that was shunned by most blacks and whites alike. But
I became a big fan of Sammy Davis Jr. as well as
Poitier. The movies weren't black culture, but they
gave me a liberal sensibility toward blacks from afar.
There were three high schools in Carbondale --
Carbondale Community High School for the townies,
Attucks for the colored kids and University High
School, a lab school on the campus of Southern
Illinois University, which was a K-12 where the
children of faculty and the few Jewish kids went, me
among them. There were a token number of black
students, who mostly got along with everyone or were
in the special education classroom, and I didn't have
much contact with them. Most of the classes had
student teachers from the college, and when I was in
about the fifth grade, we got a pretty young black
woman who was teaching geography. The subject happened
to be rivers of the world, and she asked each of us to
read a paragraph out of the textbook. I was a pretty
good reader, but when it got to be my turn, I suddenly
sputtered to a stop. I couldn't believe what I was
seeing. Niger, as in the Niger River. But I could only
figure out one way to pronounce it. This should have
been a moment of mirth, but perhaps because of my
experience with Martha, I was mortified.
"Go on," the teacher prompted.
"Neggrer?" I said, trying to make it sound like negro.
She didn't seem to understand my consternation.
"Niger, like Nigeria," she said matter-of-factly.
I finished the paragraph, red as a beet.
In the 1960s, the civil rights movement came to
Carbondale in the form of SNCC, the Student
Non-violent Coordinating Committee, a chapter of which
formed on the campus. One of their first actions was
to picket the Family Fun restaurant on the east side
of town, which had a few blacks working in the
kitchen, but none that worked with customers. The dad
of one of the three other Jewish kids in my class was
in SNCC, and so was his son, who was my friend. But I
had other friends who were against mixing the races,
and my parents, although sympathetic to the cause,
were opposed to having anyone tell them who they had
to hire. Many of the local Jewish families were of the
merchant class, and although the owner of Family Fun
was not Jewish, on the Sunday when SNCC set up their
picket line, after services at my temple, the
congregation went en masse to have lunch at Family
Fun, except for my friend and his dad, who joined the
Soon SNCC was sending "salt and pepper" teams to apply
for jobs at local stores. If the owner hired the white
but not the black, SNCC would threaten to set up
another picket line. My parents found a way around the
problem -- they hired a colored woman. And they soon
discovered that integration wasn't so bad, as more
colored women started streaming into the store to be
waited on by the new colored saleslady.
In 1967, when I was a sophomore, Carbondale came up
with a nifty solution for integrating the schools.
Whether by design or happenstance, Attucks and
U-School were closed, and all the high school kids
were sent to Community. During my last year at
U-School, I entered the sphere of another precocious
older boy named Jerry, who experimented with pot, went
to protest rallies and put out underground newspapers.
Shortly after I transferred to CCHS, he decided to do
an issue on race, with an opinion survey, stories
about race relations and other provocative stuff. He
also wanted to interview the local black gang, the
Blackstone Rangers, who for some reason had periodic
gatherings in a room at City Hall, and he invited me
along. I was terrified, and so were my parents, but I
was as curious as I was scared, and my parents let me
When Jerry and I arrived at the gang meeting I was
giddy, and nervously stuck out my hand to shake that
of a gang member. Picking up on my nervousness, he
glared at me and refused to take my hand. I didn't say
much after that, and I don't remember much of what was
said during the meeting. Just the titillation of being
in a room surrounded by menacing dudes.
A few days later, I spotted Lester in the library,
sitting at a table during study hall, and decided to
interview him for the survey. I sat down across from
him and asked if he would participate in a survey.
Les, who had become the star center for the basketball
team, glowered at me but didn't say no, so I read the
first question: "Do you think Teen Town should be
integrated?" Without saying a word, he reached across
the table, took the pencil from my hand and snapped it
in half with his massive fingers, then stared at me as
if I were the pencil. We never finished the newspaper.
Some months later I ran into Lester again outside a
Teen Town dance. He was with his crew and I was alone,
and they wanted my money. Seized by the same
uncharacteristic competitive instinct that caused me
to swing at Lester's Little League pitch, I told them
no. They swarmed around me and began clubbing me with
their fists as I tried to cover my head with my arms.
Suddenly they ambled off as a squad car cruised up the
street. My friend, who had dispassionately watched my
mugging from across the street, came over to see if I
was OK. I was. He said I was pretty lucky, especially
since Lester had tried to kick me in the balls.
A few years later, I was a hippie dropout by then,
trying to make money selling pot, and a blind friend
said he had a blind black friend who wanted to buy a
quarter pound. A blind black guy didn't sound too
risky, but when I went to the dorm to deliver the pot,
it turned out that the blind black friend had a bunch
of black friends who weren't blind, and one of them
pulled out a gun and pointed it at my head. This time
my competitive instincts were not aroused. Not saying
a word, I stuck the bag of pot in his hand, turned
around and began walking down the hallway.
"Come back here," he shouted at me.
I kept walking, imagining a hole the size of a silver
dollar in my forehead. I reached the exit and left,
never looking back.
During that period there was one other time that I ran
into a bunch of black guys. I was walking up to my
favorite hangout, Spudnuts doughnut shop, when I
noticed something very out of place -- several black
guys lounging outside.
"C'mere," one of them said.
Again, I didn't say a word but did a 180 and began
truckin' in the opposite direction.
"I can dig it," one of them said as I was retreating,
confirming what I thought.
I like soul music nowadays, but when I was in high
school, not so much, for the same reason I initially
didn't like The Beatles -- white girls seemed to love
soul music, and some got into inter-racial flings (or
swooned over any guy with a British accent), and I
connected the two. I didn't begrudge black guys for
going out with white girls, but I was insecure about
the competition. And I knew from the locker room that
it really wasn't just folklore that a lot of black
guys were hung, and I don't mean lynched. So I was
relieved when I discovered that many of them seemed to
prefer big-boned blonds.
After my first high school girlfriend and I broke up,
she had a fling with a black guy, which didn't make me
angry, but did make me feel ambivalent. And when I
later joined an integrated school club to promote
inter-racial harmony, and my new girlfriend wanted to
join, too, I dropped out of the club and got her to do
the same. I was all for harmony, just not with my
For a brief time I shared a house with a black woman
who only went out with white guys, and my next
housemate was a white woman who only went out with
black guys. When I asked the black chick why, she said
black guys are too macho while white guys are gentle.
And when I asked the white chick, she said white guys
are too macho while black guys are gentle. Go figure.
You may have noticed that in my list of seminal
encounters with people of color, there has been no
mention of people of brown color, and that's because
before going to college I had nearly no contact with
Latinos, to the point of not recognizing them as a
separate ethnic group. Rather than lumping them in
with blacks, I perceived them more as white. I
certainly did when I went away to UCLA in 1969, and
one of my best friends there was a guy named Ed, who
happened to have a Hispanic last name. It didn't occur
to me until years later that he was my first Hispanic
friend. At the time he was just a friend.
That sort of changed the next year. I had dropped out
of UCLA to join the revolution, or at least hitchhike
around the country and get stoned, but I was still
hanging out in my old dorm, sneaking meals in the
cafeteria and crashing with friends still in school.
I'd seen a new guy around the dorm, a Chicano I'll
call Tony, whom I had immediately sensed was not only
precocious but charismatic. We were the same size --
short and thin -- and even wore the same pair of Army
surplus swamp boots. I recognized a lot of myself in
him, especially ego. In the past, as with Tom and
Jerry, I might have tried to enter his orbit. But as
he swaggered about with his coterie of friends, I
resented him for being new school, while I was OG.
One night I went to the dorm to see a girl about sex,
full of testosterone and LSD, sporting stitches on my
face from an ill-conceived antiwar protest I had
recently attended at the UCLA track stadium. We had
crashed a graduation ceremony for ROTC, where the
dignitaries had included actor John Wayne and
then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. It seemed like a perfect
opportunity to heckle, but it wasn't. Standing at the
top of the bleachers, we chanted "bullshit" during the
National Anthem and yelled insults at the dignitaries
and the graduates, whom we accused of being lackeys
for the imperialist war machine. Then someone got the
bright idea to take our protest to the bottom of the
bleachers, and as we waded into the crowd of enraged
parents, a scuffle broke out and some white guy sucker
punched me in the face, chipping my glasses and
opening a cut under my eye.
Once again, my flight instinct easily won out over my
fight instinct, and after picking up my glasses I
tried to walk back up the bleachers to the exit.
Halfway up I was confronted by a little old lady,
probably somebody's grandmother, who had to stand on
her tiptoes to clunk me over the head with her purse.
Then a cute hippie chick came up, gave me a hug and
tried to wipe my blood away. "Let it bleed," I said
sullenly. What I was thinking was that I had deserved
what I got.
Still smarting from that fiasco, I arrived at the
dorm, where I had an hour to kill because my date was
at a night class. So I stationed myself in my favorite
chair in the lobby to watch the passing parade. And
who should show up but Tony, with about a half-dozen
of his friends, and he began holding court. I wasn't
the only one full of testosterone, and a few minutes
later a couple of muscular black guys started showing
off their martial arts moves, especially jump kicks,
as a crowd of spectators gathered around them.
The exhibition over, I returned to my seat, as did
Tony and his friends, who began talking politics
again. I eavesdropped as they talked about Chicano
power and organizing this and that, and I must have
been rolling my eyes or snorting, because Tony asked
me what was the matter. Unversed in and ignorant of
Latino issues, rather than attempting to understand
what they were about, I went into a devil's advocate
mode and said something along the lines of rather than
starting their own little clique with petty side
issues, they should join the real revolution and help
stop the war.
It didn't help that on my jean jacket I had pinned a
peace sign on one pocket and a George Wallace for
president campaign button on the other. Tony had been
trying to be civil to me, but he became somewhat less
so when he noticed the Wallace button, and asked
what's up with that? Instead of coming up with some
Stanley Kubrick riff on "the duality of man," I told
him that the federal government was becoming too
powerful, and especially with Nixon in the White
House, I was for state's rights.
We went back and forth a bit more, and as I had
feared, Tony seemed to know his stuff, while I was
mostly ad libbing. But I was holding my own, enough so
that one of the cute Latinas told me through a thick
accent that I was slippery or slimy, she couldn't
decide which. Fed up with my act, they eventually
started to ignore me, which was fine with me, since my
date had finally arrived.
To explain what happened next, I need to remind you
about the testosterone and the LSD, and also tell you
about this other guy I knew who had joined ROTC to
avoid going to jail for possession of crystal meth,
which he still possessed. Hard and cynical, he had an
unusual way of saying good bye, a macho variation of
"take care." My date and I were almost to the elevator
when I decided to say good bye to Tony. So I walked
back over to him and uttered my ROTC friend's line:
"Keep a tight asshole."
Well, "keep a tight asshole" tends to mean something
else in East L.A., and most places, and Tony slowly
got out of his chair, walked over to me, smiled as he
took off his glasses and took a swing at me. He
missed, but in a flash, a crowd encircled us and he
was dancing around waving his fists, waiting for me to
put up my dukes.
Except for getting mugged, I hadn't been in a fight
since about first grade, and it looked like Tony had
gone a few rounds. Plus, I wasn't really mad at Tony,
and he was seriously pissed at me. But after the
earlier exhibition of street fighting skills, the
crowd was expecting some action, and I couldn't just
back down and apologize, or try to explain I'd meant
for him to beware of the man, not of me. No, I figured
I'd just have to take my licking, but try to do it
with some dignity, which meant I'd have to fight him.
So I put up my dukes.
He took a couple swings at me, but I was able to dodge
or turn them into glancing blows. Someone warned me to
take off my glasses, but I declined -- I was having
enough trouble seeing through my hallucinations. Then
he showed off his roundhouse kick. I tried to grab his
ankle and twist him to the ground, but only managed to
stub my fingers. I kept waiting for my adrenaline to
kick in, but it was like I was disembodied, watching
myself fighting instead of fighting.
More embarrassed than angry, it occurred to me that I
wasn't putting on much of a show, and that at some
point I had to at least pretend to go on offense. So I
stopped circling backwards, took a step forward and
punched, sort of. Instead of leaning into the punch, I
pulled away, as if dodging my own fist. Besides, the
last thing I wanted to do was actually hit Tony,
because that might really piss him off. But for just a
second after I threw the punch, Tony backed up, went
into a tighter crouch, and a flicker of concern
crossed his face. Nobody else noticed, but it was the
high point of the fight for me.
After that I went back into my defensive mode and
Tony's punches started getting closer. He threw one to
my face that came up short, but his finger snagged on
my glasses, tearing them off, in the process breaking
open the stitches under my eye. Someone said I was
bleeding, someone else said the cops were on their
way, and Tony's friends pulled him away. I had never
been more relieved in my life.
One of Tony's friends came over to me and asked,
"why'd you do that?"
"Just horny," I said, probably the only honest thing I
said all night.
I would be remiss not to mention one more encounter.
At one point in my life I was a flack for a state
agency that funded services for the disabled, and the
white male director of the agency changed to a black
disabled female. Being white male and Jewish, I was
not her kind of patronage hire, and constantly felt my
job was in jeopardy. Especially the time I was
assigned to write a warm and fuzzy feature story about
a new project we were funding -- a laundry in a
Hispanic neighborhood in Chicago that was going to
employ mostly disabled Latinos.
As I was heading out for the ribbon-cutting, one of my
white and disabled friends at the agency asked me
where I was going, and when I told him, he quipped
that they should call the business Spic 'n' Span,
which I thought was pretty funny. So when I arrived at
the event, I told the joke to the head of Hispanic
Services. He did not find the joke as amusing and
wrote a two-page memo to the director, and it looked
like I was a goner. But after apologizing profusely
and being forced to rat on my disabled friend who made
up the joke, I survived with just a letter placed in
my personnel file. As did my friend.
So what's the point? Well, when you multiply my racial
baggage by the number of individuals of all races,
religions and sexual orientations who have had similar
or in many cases way more traumatic inter-ethnic
moments, America begins to resemble rush hour in Los
Angeles -- millions of people driving around with
simmering road rage. And yet, somehow, everybody makes