Racial Baggage

© 2009 by H.B. Koplowitz


Martha Johnson (1976)

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 parts.

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 breath, “nigger.”

“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 opportunity.

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 sports.

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 you?”

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 protesters.

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 go.

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 girlfriend.

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 it home.

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