Wednesday, March 4, 2009


In the public school I first attended for a couple of years there was one black classmate in Kindergarten, so I don’t know where the other black kids in my neighborhood went to school. The Lutheran church we belonged to had no black parishioners that I recall and the church school my parents switched me to was also snow white. High school brought me close teen friendships with black girls when I was at Art & Design. It was a racially and economically integrated student/teacher population. I adored that school and was heartbroken when we moved to Hartford, Connecticut for my senior year. Astonishment added to heartbreak on my first day at Hartford Public High School. Approaching the entrance I couldn’t miss a squadron of yellow school busses parked along the curb in front of the school. “How quaint,” I thought—a veteran subway traveler—until the doors of the busses opened to release a swarm of kids, every one of them black. This was my introduction to “bussing.” I made friends with the ‘outsiders’ in the school (aka the art students) and cherish still a moody abstract painting from a black classmate named Hugh.

My father’s most bitter mouthful was saved for pinkos and commies, the ones both real and suspected to be hiding under our beds. No nationality was spared when the guys at the VFW were making jokes that came in waves, like boatloads of immigrants—Italians, Polish, Jews, Germans, Greeks—jokes bandied about by wise-cracking, beer drinking guys who were Italian, Polish, Jewish, German, and Greek. My mother complained bitterly about her job at an insurance company that her black co-workers were out to get her. Pointed racism was most prevalent in my extended family. To Aunt Fran, African Americans were known as “the coloreds.” In her later years I engaged a home aid for her, cringing every time my aunt referred to the competent and caring middle-aged black woman—who seemed to turn a deaf ear—as “the girl.” My paternal grandmother was not thwarted in her insult of Jews even in the presence of The Ex, who merely rolled his eyes. My sister believed I had become “one of them” because I married a Jewish man. The Evangelical aunt in New Jersey seemed to draw from a deep well of overtly racist jokes. And despite the fact that her sons were living deeply closeted in her presence and out in mine, she did not spare the homophobic vitriol. Praise Jesus, have you heard the one about the homo and the rabbi? Before I heard those jokes from her lips I confess to having indulged in a kind of smart alecky bird flip to political correctness (before it was called that) among friends black and white. I suppose I have to thank her for ripping the scales from my eyes. Her eldest son, now dead as is his brother, had a long time companion, as the family knew him. Dan’s last Thanksgiving in New Jersey was memorable mainly for the wide berth the rest of the family gave him in his nearly final battle with AIDS, which we were told was the flu. My sister’s all black cat was named Snicker. At least that’s what I thought until I uncovered a note she left for a neighbor charged with taking care of her cat—named
S’nigger. I was at constant war with family members and felt myself to be a courageous guardian of my cousins’ secrets and a champion of racial equality. When I was old enough, I drank at family gatherings. A lot.

The ex-in-laws, who were Jewish, presented another conundrum. The mother-in-law, a vain, pretentious Park Avenue dame who would readily shove Narcissus from the riverbank for a better look at herself—there was never a shop window she could pass without gazing admiringly at herself—and often reflected aloud that she was sure she could pass for Northern Italian. She was confounded when after she had met one of my friends and smirking conspiratorially, asked if he wasn’t a fag, and I reacted with a righteous anger. She was forced into a ludicrous flummoxing over the origins of the word faggot. ‘Oh, but darling,
it’s a bunch of sticks!’ Blacks were ‘schvartzes’. I was not a woman they would have chosen for their son but she was relieved that I was not a Catholic. Often I was discussed as if I was not in the room, as one does when taking in a deaf mute street urchin. The one time my poor father was invited to their showplace apartment she treated him as ‘the help’, never once calling him by his first name; repeatedly addressing him by his surname. She fairly commanded him to kneel on the marble floor of the foyer to inspect some bit of repair on an antique table while I fumed silently, knowing how hotly embarrassed he would be if I made a scene.

I dated African American men. One evening, sometime in the 70’s, while walking through Central Park at a rapid pace to get somewhere on time and dressed up, my date and I were stopped by two cops in a patrol car. They told us to halt and for my friend to move away from me. Then one of them asked me if everything was all right. As it dawned on me what their motive was, it also dawned on my friend that I could literally explode and he shot me a look that said, “Be cool, fool.” I learned quickly the circumstances in which a black man could be stopped: Driving while black and when a criminal was on the loose then
all black men looked like the suspect and any one man could be pulled from a bus or a subway car for questioning.

When The Mister’s family visited New York for the first time—coming from a small village in Leicestershire—I took them to Brooklyn to kind of decompress from the culture shock of Manhattan. As we made our way through the streets of comfortable garden-fronted brownstones I assumed their inquisitive gazes were taking in the serene beauty of the neighborhood. It was only after some telling comments in a coffee shop—delivered over well done burgers (hold the bun), tea and cigarettes—that it was revealed they had not known so many black people could look so successful.

In the corporate publishing world—a sentence I served for nearly twenty years—the designers, editors, graphic freelance artists, and the bosses were all white. Contact with a black person was in the mailroom, maintenance department, and with the secretaries for the white guys in accounting. Despairing of anything more than the endless rounds of bitching, backbiting, gossiping exchanges with white coworkers that never rose much above the level of comparing notes on films, food or men or other coworkers I jumped at the opportunity extended from one of the secretaries I had become friendly with to be invited to join a book club; their first white member. In no time I was in the middle of endless rounds of bitching, backbiting, gossiping exchanges that never rose much above the level of comparing notes on films, food or men and other book club members.

My then roommate and I were in a group of friends—all white—on the eve of 1987, celebrating the New Year in Harlem at La Famille. The relaxed crowd was mixed, the music jazzy and the atmosphere friendly and mellow. At the close of the band’s performance, the leader (a horn player as I recall) stopped and made a small, pointed but temperate speech. A young black man named Michael Griffith had been attacked by a gang of white men for simply walking through their white neighborhood of Howard Beach in Queens. He was killed by a car when he ran into traffic to save himself. The news coverage was explosive. The bandleader didn’t have to mention this for us to understand when he quietly implored that we think about the fact that certain people can walk into any neighborhood without question. Afterwards, the owner came to our table and apologized profusely, ignored our protestations that we understood completely and told us he had fired the performer.

I asked some friends what their experience of racism had been.

Kalev grew up in a homey enclave on Long Island: “I was discriminated a lot when I was young, usually through epithets like "chink" or "nip". I was physically beaten up by people who thought that I was too uppity (i.e., I was a bit popular with certain girls at North Shore High which resulted in some jealousy). I never felt that my ethnicity was a sign of inferiority, but superiority. Hence, I never took discrimination and racial hatred to be anything less than a confirmation of my superiority over those who attempted to diminish me. I also was a bit naive about it all and never had a crowd of other people like myself around me to re-enforce any ill feeling through group identity with my ugly ethnicity. Of course, when people asked me what my ethnicity was, they were very put off by the fact that I didn't say Chinese or Japanese, but simply Kalmuck and Estonian, two words that no one knew and thus had no ready associations of hatred or discriminatory speech to associate with.”

Isabel wrote from Barcelona that Spain was an isolated country when she was a child. Racism was directed against Gypsies and poor people because there were no Blacks or Asians or very few. “Now racism is against Africans, Equatorians….”

And recently we had as our guest the teenage son of old friends of ours who live in Paris. When I put the question of race to him, he simply shrugged in that noncommittal French manner and said “Abject poverty in Le Banlieue keeps North Africans quiet since the riots because they are beaten. But we
hate the Italians. As we say in France, all the Italians are liars.” And then as if explaining the obvious to a perplexed child he added: The Italians cheated at the World Cup.”

1 comment:

zbelnu said...

Oh, this is a good piece of your memories! I like very much the pictures, I thought I recognised you as the third one in the middle of the first picture! Maybe you will write another novel after this? And politics and history always there, I can understand this