A Tale of Two Negros (Part 1)

 “Take all of the stories that you heard, and all of the books that you’ve read and all of the movies that you’ve seen…now imagine that it was worse.” – My Father On Segregation

**This is part 1 of a two part blog (in excess of 8K words). I already press your attentions too much to combine everything into one entry. Thanks for understanding.**

*Names have been changed

I got the idea to ask my parents about real life accounts of what it was like to live through segregation, when I was suddenly reminded of my ex-partner, Adam*. One day, he brought his grandparents (him in his 90’s, her in her 80’s) to our old flat in Elwood. I baked them fresh oatmeal raison cookies and prepared tea (like a good little house Negro) while he sat them down in the living room and started interviewing them using the video component of his smart phone. The conversation started off ordinarily enough, although this project was not without purpose.  He wanted to interview them about what it was like to flee Poland when the Nazis invaded.  Like most people their age, they are hard pressed to remember the last time that they ate. This was evident particularly in Josie*, who suffers from short term memory loss, and who kept eating the cookies because she kept forgetting that she already had one…two…then three. But they could recall the atmosphere in Europe during World War II. They could remember their Russian, which they learned when they sought refuge in a Siberian internment camp for the duration of the war. They also remember their Hebrew and, of course, their Polish.  They still, however, refuse to speak English. They could remember even the names of some of the men who worked at the camp (which I’ve forgotten since they told me). It was incredible. And I knew why Adam was doing this. He was doing this, because that generation of survivors (whether by fleeing or by rescue) is slowly thinning out. And as that happens, our connection with that time will also diminish until people cease to recall why it was so important to remember in the first place. That video will remain a testament to their legacy and actions, which have facilitated the existence of three more generations of their family…and counting.

My parents are also witnesses to an era of extraordinary conflict. Born in the early 50’s, they have lived through a time that has set the precedent for modern civil rights struggles the world over.  As they age, opportunities to explore these historical markers vicariously through their first-hand accounts will become fewer and fewer until they are just living memories into which I must breathe life in order to maintain their verve…which I will, with my children…or yours (preferably yours).

My father is a man of few words (unlike Adam’s grandparents who spoke to no length, but were too adorable to be annoying).  He doesn’t like to talk about much of anything. He is a gigantic, muscular Grizzly bear with a soft, jelly center. He can’t reach his back when it itches, so he’ll brush it along the edge of an open door.  He doesn’t need to say much for you to know that he’s thinking about you or that he loves you…something that used to drive me crazy. But he is always effusive about two things: BBQ and Finance (both of which he knows absolutely everything there is to know). Since I’ve started this project, he’s been very encouraging, even inquisitive…because I’m in a position to teach him about things he knows nothing about…pardon me. I meant, I’m now in a position to teach him about things he knows nothing about AND in which he’s actually interested (unlike all that pesky art business).  When I showed him that picture of his great great grandfather, Richard Graham, he beamed.  I could hear it through the phone.  He sent it to his half-brothers and sisters, and to my mom’s sisters as well (much to her chagrin).  I think that connecting with that lost history with which I’ve become obsessed, is something that he’s wanted to do for a long time as well. But it wasn’t something that he was able to do until his Gen Y daughter grew up, learned how to use the computer and developed a similar interest herself.

So, I told him about my goals. I told him that this isn’t just a linear project to put names on branches, and surnames on t-shirts at family reunions. This was a resolution that required lateral thinking on multiple fronts. I really wanted to unearth my personal history; something that I wouldn’t find in any text book of any school that I attended in my youth.  It’s not just about finding out which part of Africa I come from (although I’m VERY excited to do so)…it’s become so much more than just filling in names and dates; but the voids in our past; the negative spaces in our lineage that have become so familiar that they actually feel comfortable…and safe.  So, in honor of Black History Month, which is officially over, I wanted to get a first-hand testimonial of what it was like to experience, well, black history or, as I like to call it, “American History.” They don’t talk about it often, because I don’t think they want me to ascertain my place in this world based on something that happened not even 50 years ago.  But they don’t let ignorance go by un-punished either. Especially not my father. So, I interviewed him. My mom contributes some, but doesn’t like being the focus of the project. While interviewing them, I couldn’t help but wonder why this is something that I can only understand looking backwards in time, while I continue to move forward.  Why is this something that we all seem to understand perfectly in retrospect, when it should have been so clear in the moment decades ago? I wish sometimes I could just stop and see if I’m making the same stupid mistakes that someone else did three generations ago. “Hey, great great grandpa, stop me if you’ve seen this one before…no, seriously. STOP ME. Please!”

Talking to my dad about segregation back in the 50’s and 60’s, he becomes oddly somber…like he’s talking about someone who’s dead, but who he never liked while they were living. You know that awkward: “Yeah, they’ll be missed…*inner dialogue*…but not by ME!” He almost sounds, I don’t know…angry? Callous? Bitter? All of which I can understand.  But I press him forward, because I don’t want to forget the way that he wants to…this is my past too. Even if I haven’t lived it.

Before this project, I knew as much about my parents as they knew about theirs. But all of that is changing…and with each new discovery, I learn a little bit more about myself.  I am not the special and unique snowflake that I thought I was. The following is a series of multiple stories, multiple generations a part. And while the dates, places and people are different…and while the stories share some similarities, I am happy to say that I am finally shocked at the contrasts (for once).

Once upon a time, in a land two hemispheres away…there lived a boy named Mario Lanza. He was named after the world’s most famous tenor…

Dad:

“There was never any questioning that I was black. That’s silly to even think about. Even if I didn’t know it, I could always rely on someone else to point it out.” My father grew up in a black neighborhood, went to a black school, and only had black friends. Even though his family claimed a variety of skin tones and hues, hair types and face shapes, they were all lumped into one category. They were dirty, they were ill-educated and they were meddling. They were black. And with that knowledge came, of course, the degradation and shame that they were meant to feel. When segregation ended, and the schools were integrated across the country, he had to learn to keep to himself and not attract too much attention. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, he mourned silently. When James Brown released “I’m Black and I’m Proud!” he celebrated…silently. In a way, he was disconnected from the fervor brewing around the country; the ominous swell of change blanketing household conversations and political debates everywhere you looked…He viewed himself and his struggles as peripheral compared to what was happening in Birmingham and Chicago and Atlanta. All the while, his white classmates whispered to themselves and to each other about him, as if examining him under a Petri dish, just waiting to see how he would react to various events.

“When I look back on that time, I do feel as if the Civil Rights movement was taking place in a different country. Nobody dared to talk about it openly where I was.  But everyone was a part of it, whether they liked it or not. In a lot of ways, I think that the Civil Rights Act happened, not because of a well-organized group of people in Birmingham or Atlanta…even though there was definitely that element…but because of all the individuals across the country stepping up at the same time. Even if they weren’t aware of their cousins or uncles doing the same thing across the country.  It was electric…synced.  It was just the time, and when it’s the right time for progress, nobody can stop it.”

I wanted to know if he ever felt compelled to drop everything and join the Black Panthers or march on Washington. I know I would have…hell, we ALL know that I would have.  Me and my 9mm would have been ready for action! But he stops me right there, by explaining that “guns didn’t get the attention. It was educated black people WITH guns that got the attention.”

And since he wasn’t a fan of guns, he got his education instead.

But, my dad, smiling through the phone again, is also quick to remind me of one particular story that represents some of the tension in Polk County back in that time.

Mario and Lorenzo (my 1st cousin, although I call him my uncle because he’s so much older than me) went into a diner; one of those old school diners with soda fountains; where the barmen wore those white, sandwich caps with the red stripes.  “The woman behind the cash register told us that we could order food, but that we couldn’t sit at the counter and eat it. We’d have to eat in the back or outside.” So, like any well behaved black men of the time, they ordered their food…lots of food…hamburgers, fries, milkshakes and suicides (a mixture of every soda from each of the fountains…I had to Google it).  And then, like the couple of misbehaved black men that they were, when the food was ready and they had to pay, “We said ‘well, since we can’t sit at your counter, we’ve changed our minds and decided to go somewhere else.’” And then they ran the hell out of there before anyone could react.

I could hear him smiling through the phone again as he said it…

Me:

I remember the moment when I realized that I was black. Well, more than that…I remember the moment when I realized that I was not white. The reality that I was black hit a little later on. No, nobody had to “tell” me. I could very plainly see that my skin color was different than Colleen’s or Jackie’s. But it was not something of which I was yet conscious, if that makes sense. I did not understand the implications of black vs. white until much later. And because I didn’t understand, I didn’t care. We lived in white neighborhoods, and my brother and I attended mostly white schools. It was not uncommon that we were the only black kids in our respective classes. It didn’t seem uncommon that I listened to a lot of classical music and femme rock or that my brother listened to Suicidal Tendencies and Megadeth. That, to us, was normal. I’m sure his perspective on this would be a little bit different, given that he’s much older than me, but I think it’s safe to say that we were largely disconnected from the inherent complexities of race at that time.

I was in third grade at Partin Elementary School in Oviedo, Florida, and we were celebrating some kind of diversity week. This was, of course, in the early days of political correctness, which was viewed as a necessary tool for progressive social change, and wasn’t seen as the obvious social failure that it inevitably became instead. The assignment was to buddy up with a classmate and trace the other’s silhouette as it was displayed on the wall by a projector. The purpose of which was meant to celebrate all of our individual differences. Your pointy nose is as beautiful as my flat nose.  My full lips are as beautiful as your thin ones.  I don’t remember much about the little girl to whom I was partnered, aside from the fact that her profile was what I considered to be very epitome of “perfection” at the time. Perfection. She had a flawlessly shaped head.  In the affable traditions of similes, I would say “her head was like a delicious macadamia nut.” She had long soft eyelashes and the most picturesque Anglo nose it would make Hitler and Putin want put on a pair of daisy dukes and share an ice cream sundae.  Tracing her profile with the grease pencil onto the acetate paper was like a having a spiritual awakening. When I was finished, I understood in the moments reviewing my work, from where all the inspiration for the great artistic masterpieces adorning hallways and galleries the world over came. I understood delineation and shapes as they pertained to the human form. I understand angels and rainbows and sugar cookies with jam-filled centers. I understood what it was to be beautiful…just like that.

And then…she drew my silhouette.

And I understood mosquito bites, and rainy days and hair that clogs up the drain in the shower and cans of Pringles where your hand is too big to get to the yummy crumbs at the bottom.

…just like that.

My silhouette looked like a genetic mutation. My forehead was convex and prominent. My nose…where was my perfect Anglo nose?! Somebody chopped it off and replaced it with a kidney bean instead! And lips that looked like they were swollen from a bee sting, and a head that seemed grotesquely more colossal than my Anglo counterpart. Now, thinking back, it probably only looked swollen  because of the awful self-deprecating thoughts filling my head like a putrid gas.

But there we were: Pinky and The Brain. Beauty and the Beast. Wilson and Phillips.

I’m ugly, I thought. I am a hideous, repulsive cave troll. That could be the only explanation, of course. And when all of the students put their silhouettes on the wall and we had to guess which profile belonged to whom, it became clear to me very quickly that I wasn’t just different from my buddy, but that I was different from everyone in the room.  Nobody’s silhouette looked like mine. Nobody’s!  Every girl had a perfectly pointy nose, and every boy had a perfect bowl-shaped hair cut, and all of their heads looked like delicious little macadamia nuts and mine looked like a truffle injected with growth hormone. But what tale of early child hood development via self-loathing would be complete without that one kid…? That one asshole kid who you know is going to grow up to become the kind of man who can’t get a decent erection to save his life. Sean. That’s who. Sean.

And Sean had to put insult to injury, and proclaim in front of everyone: “That’s Jennifer’s silhouette, because it’s ugly looking.”

I went home and cried and my parents could not for the life of them understand what the matter was. When my mother confronted me, I said very clearly that “I’m not pretty like the other kids in my class.” She guffawed, of course, and chalked it up to the same thing that every parent chalks these kinds of stories up to in the end: jealousy. She assured me that I was the most beautiful little girl she’s ever seen, and (worst advice ever) if I really wanted to irritate them, then I should just ignore them. I went into the bathroom, placed a long towel lengthwise across my head and pretended that my hair was long and blonde, instead.

Dad:

When my father was a child, he was awkward. My dad had long gangly limbs and horrible asthma. He was not athletic, nor did he participate in any school sports. My dad liked music, and he played alto saxophone until his mother couldn’t afford to make the payments any further; at which point he was pulled out of band…and the advanced classes with which it coincided. He was the only child of my grandfather, Warren, and my grandmother, Mary. My grandmother went on to marry (and re-marry…several times) and had other children. My grandfather, despite re-marrying once (and divorcing again), continued to hold the candle (of resentment) for Mary until the day he died. He never had another child, because he said that he didn’t think that he could love another child as much as he loved my father. I have proof of that comment, by the way, in the many letters exchanged between us.

He didn’t have any nicknames in school, but he was often marginalized because he wasn’t athletic or powerful. He was quiet most of the time, and responsible. Very responsible. He started working and saving money when he was 8 years old. He helped his mother pay her bills and balance her checking account.  When he graduated from college, instead of using the $3,000 he had saved through intensive summer jobs to travel (as he later regretted he hadn’t) he gave it to his mother to pay off homewares and bills. He didn’t talk back to anyone, even if they were after him.

“That’s something I had to learn later…you helped with that, by the way.” This time, it’s me smiling through the phone…

People, on the other hand, often mistook his silence for weakness and, as a result, he was often the victim of incessant bullying by much bolder, much dumber classmates. One in particular had been left back I don’t recall how many times, and would often beat my father up and steal his lunch money. I know. Original. My father, more focused on getting good grades than on defending himself, would just take it and go home without saying a word to anyone. Until one time, he visited my grandfather sporting the most sublime black eye of the neighborhood. My grandfather was appalled. More than that…he was furious. My grandfather grabbed my dad by the arm, and then he grabbed his shotgun, and the merry three walked across the neighborhood to the bully’s house. At this point, my dad is clear to explain his horror at the impending confrontation. The bully’s dad, after all, was a super sized version of his son; having just been released from prison where he served time for murder.  He was terrified that they would both leave in body bags! Dad says that he was trying to break from grandpa’s grip, but that Warren wasn’t having ANY of that. “Come on, boy! Get on!” Warren said to my dad (so he tells me). And when they got to the bully’s house, my grandfather banged on that door with the butt of his shotgun and told my dad that if he ran away, he would have to face him later on.  So my dad stood there…waiting for everyone to die. But when the door opened, the bully’s dad didn’t say much. My grandfather did most of the talking. Now, for a man who is quick to forget almost everything else, he remembers this much: “If your boy ever lays a hand on my son again, I’m coming back here and whoopin’ both yo’ butts.”

There was apparently a bit of a stare down. I like to picture a few tumbleweeds rolling past and the veins popping out of the hand that gripped the shotgun for added dramatic effect.

And then they walked away.

The bully never touched my father again.

(I love you, Grandpa!)

Me:

My nickname in elementary school was “burnt cookie.” That’s what they called me. Why? Well, aside from the fact that “Sexual chocolate” was already trademarked by Eddie Murphy, I assume that it’s because I was the only black child with whom most of them had ever interacted.

My reaction was typically Jennifer: “I’m not burned. I’m just golden brown, you need to go back into the oven and bake a little longer!” I was always quick to react, and quick to talk back. I got in trouble with teachers and trouble with students. I fought boys, girls and playground equipment. When my report card came around, I would receive satisfactory for language arts, social studies, art, music and math. But I always received “needs improvement” for “plays well with others.” It was, apparently, a real problem. But if I could go back in time to properly articulate what that problem was, I would say that it was the teachers doing nothing to support a child who was constantly the target of direct racial bullshit.

I played fine with kids. I didn’t play fine with kids who took on every ignorant thing that their parents told them. I didn’t play well with the little girl who called me an animal. I didn’t play well with Travis, who called me a “nigger” for the first time in my life, after which I threw a social studies book at his head (and did NOT miss, receiving a referral to the Principal’s office instead.  Oh, and by the way, he didn’t). I didn’t play well with the teachers who pretended not to hear a word that these kids said, but who saw and took meticulous notes on my reactions for parent/teacher conferences to be held later.

I did not play well with fools. And I never will. I can never imagine not being vocal about that. I can never imagine telling my child to not be vocal about that.

In sixth grade, when we moved to what was my 7th school…I met a girl named Carmen (and I do remember her full name and yes, I occasionally stalk her on Facebook, and YES this is almost 20 years later but SO WHAT!) For the purposes of this blog she shall effectively be referred to as Skanky Cunt McGee. Cunt McGee was popular. Cunt McGee received flowers and chocolates and cards on Valentine’s Day from half a dozen of the most popular boys in school. Cunt McGee was a cheerleader and sang in the school choir and hung out with the female track stars and sat at the lunch table up on stage surrounded by all of her beautiful thugs. Cunt McGee was short with dark skin and long hair. Cunt McGee actively engaged in what I (and Spike Lee) refer to as ‘coonery buffoonery’ by acting out in class to get attention and preying on people who appeared different; kids who attempted to flex their intellectual muscles rather than their physical ones.  When I first met Cunt McGee, we struck up a casual conversation. She asked me where I was from and what my parents did. Why had I moved? What kind of music do I like? And really, those were the only questions that she needed to ask me in order to ascertain that she and I were nothing alike, and that her life’s mission from that point on would be to make my life a living hell.

And that’s what Cunt McGee did. And she did it well.

But of all the humiliation, bullying and downright cruelty I experienced at Cunt McGee’s hands, it was her relentless insistence that I was not black that has stayed with me the longest.

Why did I speak white? Why did I act white? Why did I listen to white people’s music?

…and so I thought to myself, “I guess I’m not black either.”

Which, by her standards, I would say was a fairly astute observation on my end, and even complimentary.  But I debated her on the matter anyway, and no matter how logical my argument was:

  1. How can you act like a color?
  2. How can you speak like a color?
  3. How does music entertain color, when it is meant for ears?

…just as the sun rises and sets every single day, the idiotic dumb fuck always seemed to prevail in the court of public opinion.  The jury was in and the verdict was passed down:

Jennifer is not black. Jennifer is an oreo. Black on the outside, white in the middle.

For the duration of middle school, I lived in a constant state of fear of being “found out” by other black kids. I avoided them on the bus, and I avoided them in the lunch room. I played with white kids and Puerto Rican kids and Chinese kids. But I never played with black kids. When high school began, I opted out of attending the school for which I was zoned, and enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program at a predominantly black school on the other side of town.  And I was so afraid…oh man, was I afraid. While everyone else was listening to Notorious BIG and Ginuwine, I was knee deep in Tori Amos and Fiona Apple. I wore combat boots and kept my hair as un-exotic as I could possibly imagine. I took myself very seriously, and didn’t understand the vast majority of jokes exchanged or subtle nuances. I tried to fly as under the radar as humanly possible.  In a sea of faces that should have carried some kind of familiarity, I wanted to completely disappear.

Luckily things didn’t stay that way forever…

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