“Mr. Stephens, were you a racist?” (Pt. 1)

LittleRockJeeringThe eighth-grade curriculum I teach requires students to read and write about the American civil rights movement.  Truth be told, our school district starts covering the movement from fourth grade onward. So, by the time students reach me, most are worn out by the topic.

But, abracadabra! I have a magic wand that reanimates their interest: I lived not only through, but to great extent, in the arena of the civil rights movement. Born 1954 in Birmingham, AL, I remember the events of the movement.  I remember the desegregation (or “integration” as we then called it) of public schools, even of the classroom in which I sat.

Because I’m older than most teachers, because I grew up in a centrally significant site of the movement, the kids take me as a sort of interactive museum exhibit. They pepper me with questions, and the very hottest of those peppers is this one:

“Mr. Stephens, were you a racist?”

First asked several years ago by an African-American boy, it caught me totally off guard. Frankly, it panicked me. I tried to calm myself by noting that the student had at  least put the question in the past tense. Next, I had to stifle the answer I wanted to give—“Of course not!”—because, I’m sorry to say, that’s a lie.

Before I tell you my answer, let’s take a timeout to define the word racist. Merriam-Webster says: one who holds a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race

So, recalling that in 1963 I turned nine years old, I confessed to my students that I was indeed infected with racism.

Like almost all children of any era, I mimicked the views and opinions of the adults around me. My parents, the parents of playmates and classmates, my church’s minister and Sunday School teachers, all stood strongly opposed the mixing of white kids and black kids in school, and opposed to whites and blacks mingling in restaurants, movie theaters, parks, waiting rooms, swimming pools and most other places.

“The races aren’t supposed to mix!” was the grownup doctrine in my childhood. “God means to keep the races separate!” went the credo. And it was no great leap to infer this meant my race was superior.  Why?  Because we had all the better stuff, the better opportunities, and, I was told, “That’s how God wants it.”  So, thus did I fit—as did nearly everyone around me—the definition of racist.

I would like to excuse myself with “I was just a kid, I didn’t know!”  I would like to say, “It wasn’t long before I threw off all that racism!”  But, again, that’s not true. The indoctrination of children—be it religious or racist or, in my case, both—isn’t easily and quickly removed like a coat or hat. It’s more of a stubborn stain on the skin.  And it has taken me years to scrub it away, and I’m not at all certain it’s gone.

But —  I can tell you when I first began (ever so slowly) to work on it,  or, as my students might say, when I first “started to get woke”:

Sunday, September 15, 1963.

[To be continued tomorrow]

You ain’t never gonna make a livin’ like that!

Image

Spring afternoon, 1969. We’re struggling to read Romeo and Juliet, to stay awake, really. A lawnmower moans distantly from somewhere in the free world. We’ve raised the classroom’s enormously tall windows a foot or so in hopes of coaxing in a breeze to quash the heat from the steam radiators that were necessary against the morning chill but are now hotboxing us toward a collective coma.

Our teacher is Mrs. Juanita Todd, a sweet, buxom woman—her skin the color of coffee with a splash of cream, her hair a dyed-orange afro that fits her smiling head like an astronaut’s helmet.

We hate Shakespeare, but we love Mrs. Todd. Mrs. Todd loves us, too, but unfortunately, she also loves Shakespeare, and loves to dole out roles and have us read them. So here we are.

Suddenly, it’s Ricky’s turn to read. He has a very small role—one of those nearly nameless characters who pop on stage only to give a morsel of necessary info and just as quickly pop offstage.

But Ricky’s not ready.  In fact, Ricky is asleep. Eyes shut, cheek on forearm, drool draining from half-open mouth, Ricky is very much asleep. The class guffaws.

“Richard!” says Mrs. Todd who, for some reason, insists on using birth-record names. Poor Richard lifts his head, eyes now wildly wide-open, scanning the room in an expression of “Where the hell am I?”

“Richard,” Mrs. Todd repeats. “Why are you sleeping?”  She’s smiling, which is part of why we love her: she doesn’t take anything too seriously.  Richard is still stunned, so a classmate answers for him, “He thinks he’s the Beatles. He was playing his guitar all night! That’s all he does!”

Richard’s blush answers: It’s true.

Mrs. Todd smiles, shakes her head, and says, “Here’s what I want to say: ‘Boy, you ain’t never gonna make a living with that guitar!’ But I don’t say that anymore because…well, lemme tell y’all a little story.” Mercifully, she shuts her Shakespeare, allowing us to do likewise.

“Years ago,” she says, “at Western-Olin [an all-black high school about three miles away], I had a student named Edward.  And I swear that boy slept through every one of my classes.  One day, I’d had enough. So I yanked him up by the collar and said, “Why you sleepin’ all the time?” His classmates said, “Cuz he be singin’ down at the Tuxedo all night long!”

Mrs. Todd shakes her head, still smiling, “Well, I looked him in the eye and said, ‘Boy! You ain’t never gonna make a livin’ like that! So, Edward, you need to get down to your studies!’”

Now she’s laughing with her head thrown back, a big howling sound, a long joyous shout. She pulls herself together, wipes her eyes, and says, “Well, I saw Edward on TV the other night.  Any y’all watch the Temptations special?”

“Eddie Kendricks?” somebody shouts.

“You taught Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations?” shouts another.

“One and the same,” Mrs. Todd confirms.  “And now and then, when he’s in town, he comes to see me, comes rolling up in his Coupe Deville, and he really likes to rub it in. He says, ‘Mrs. Todd, will you tell me again what you said about me sleepin’ in class?’”

“So—” she says, turning her gaze back to Ricky, “I’m not gonna say ‘Boy! You ain’t never gonna make a livin’ like that,’ because, Richard, who knows, you might be the Beatles one day. I might be watching you on TV,” she said with a big grin. Ricky grinned back.

“Look,” she said, “I learned my lesson: Don’t ever discourage anybody from following their dream.”

“But,” she continued. “Richard, I will say this.  And I’ll say it to all the rest of y’all, too.”

Her grin grew wider.

“If you sleep through my class, I’m gonna flunk you just like I flunked Edward James Kendrick.”

Well, who’d a thunk that fifty years later, I, too, would be an English teacher?  Mrs. Todd, you still remind me that I can never know how my students’ lives will unfold, so I must never act like I do know.  You remind me also that I must never say or do anything to harm a child’s dreams.

[And Mrs. Todd, wherever you are, I want to sing a couple of Edward’s lines to you:  “You got a smile so bright, you could’ve been a candle,” and I love “The way you do the things you do!”]

[Edward’s is the first face you’ll see after Ed Sullivan introduces the Temptations!]

Long Live the Prince of Darkness!

I was born into a binary world.  This was the mid- to late-1950s onward, when you were taught to put yourself on one side or the other of a passel of either/or’s.  You were to be on the side of either

Coke or Pepsi
Ford or Chevy
Bama or Auburn
U.S. Keds or P.F. Flyers
Mantle or Maris
Elvis or Johnny Cash
Mayonnaise or Miracle Whip

to name only a few.

Each side of any either/or was supported by doctrine. For example, on one side: “Coca-Cola is from Atlanta, Georgia, and that makes it Southern like us; Pepsi’s for Yankees.” And on the other side: “Nah-ah!”

Discourse could turn fierce—even violent.  On the playground, I saw a kid get his ass whipped for devotion to Miracle Whip.

All this was terribly tough for me because my mother raised me to be a lover not a fighter, i.e., an inveterate people-pleaser.  And to choose a side in any either/or was to disappoint (actually to piss off) those on the other side.

So I tried not to offend by going rogue, by making choices beyond the binary. I chose 7Up, Rambler, Maryville College (Mom’s alma mater), Hush Puppies, Pee Wee Reese, dry bologna sandwiches. But this served only to unite the binary bunch in labeling me a “weirdo” or “double-pansy.” “Nerd” wouldn’t sashay into adolescent vernacular for another couple of decades. But I was—and pretty much am—a nerd.

IBM 1419

IBM 1419 Check Sorter

Shortly after I graduated high school, my cup of nerd runneth over. I took a menial job—not a manly construction job, nor a brawny steel factory job—a “position” at a local bank where I was trained to run something called an IBM 1419 Check-Sorter.  This required me to lift (very delicately) tall stacks of checks and load them repeatedly onto an elevating platform that shot them one-by-one down a belt where the checks’ magnetic ink was read digit-by-digit and slotted into segregated stacks.  Thus does a nerd stroke the great beast of capitalism.

The job’s wage was neither abundant nor meager. And I was able, with my dad’s co-signature, to get the bank to lend me money to buy a car. This was 1972 when non-nerds went after Ford Mustangs or Chevy Camaros, or maybe the Pontiac GTO.

My allegiance. however, ran toward Rambler, which had since become AMC (American Motors Corp), and in my eyes no car was more beautiful than the Gremlin.

I had my dad drive me down to Roy Bridges Rambler where, at the edge of the showroom, there squatted my new best friend: a blue Gremlin with white stripe running down either side in whose end was smartly inscribed “Gremlin X” (X, mind you!) I lay my hand gently, admiringly, on its roof and said to my dad, “This is it!”

bluegremlin

The Prince of Darkness

With the mien of a man who just sucked a lemon, my dad cast his vision down the length of the car, and then to me.  Raising his eyebrows he asked, “This?”

Yes, this! The sticker price was $2,700. Dad whittled it to $2,560.   A couple hours later I was proudly driving home in my own car when, at a stoplight on 3rd Avenue, a sun-glassed guy in a red Mustang shouted, “Hey pal! Where’s the rest of your car?” He slapped his dashboard laughingly.

It took me two weeks to wreck the thing. I was en route home, going round the block in order to hear (on the radio) the end of Edgar Winter’s “Free Ride.” when there appeared before me, a silver Camaro with a former high school classmate  at the wheel.  She’d not heeded ithe stop sign.  So, like David v. Goliath, my little Gremlin felled the mighty Camaro—thankfully without human injury.  But the investigating officer was clearly frustrated by his inability to pin the blame on me.  He kept looking back and forth between 1) the beauty of my former classmate and her car, and 2) the nerdity of me and my car.

After a week’s repair, me and my Gremlin were again rolling down Humiliation Highway. Not long after, while innocently parked alongside a curved boulevard, the car suffered a hit and run. More than a sideswipe, this was a deep door-bashing. I don’t believe it was an accident. But the Gremlin was the paragon of resilience. You just couldn’t kill him.

A few years later, my Gremlin took me to Louisville, Kentucky, where I sojourned several years as a seminarian. A clever classmate, citing the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” zeroed in on the lines, “the prince of darkness grim / we tremble not for him”.  Ignoring the vowel-difference between grim and Gremlin, he dubbed my car the Prince of Darkness—a perfectly nerdy name for an unquestionably nerdy car.

After about ten years, the P of D finally succumbed to old age. I mean, he just fell apart—as I myself have already begun to do. But he’s still rolling in my memory as testimony to the thrill of rejecting the binary game, the joy of going rogue, of choosing beyond what culture expects of you.

Long live the Prince of Darkness!

godfrey&me

My present car–named Godfrey–who bears a vague resemblance to the Prince of Darkness, dontcha think?

(Stay nerdy, Ponyboy.)

 

 

 

 

 

“I’M ERNEST TUBB’S LOVE CHILD!”

Matt and I were in Manhattan’s SoHo. It was late afternoon, one of those seering, sunblazed days when concrete and asphalt work like steam radiators. We’d walked nearly the whole length of Broadway from 225th Street, counting down all 225 of ‘em, and now, with leaden legs, were wading through streets bearing surnames, only blocks from Battery Park, our destination. We’d covered nearly 16 miles, and were ‘long about Broome Street when Matt paused to ease off his backpack, pluck out his water bottle, and take a swig. I stopped a few feet ahead and did the same.

We were re-shouldering our packs when a voice called from the eddy of pedestrians, “Will you shake a black man’s hand?” Suddenly there jutted toward Matt a dark-skinned hand, followed by a wiry arm and slender body, on top of which was a smiling bucket-hatted head. Matt, grinned uncertainly and shook the man’s hand. I had already started to back away, when the guy, maybe in his late 20’s, said, “Dad! Whoa! Don’t go nowhere!”  He shook my hand now.

Instinctively, I asked, “What you sellin’?”

He tossed his head back, raised an eyebrow, and mildly reprimanded, “Hey, Pops, now you gettin’ ‘head o’ me.”

What followed was—well—street theater, I guess, with this guy as star and director, and Matt and me in supporting roles.  “You a black man!” he said to Matt (who is quite white). To me he barked, “You a white man wid a briefcase!” (he got it half right), and launched into a spiel in which race is only a social construct, but one used to exploit all kinds of people, including me, the white man wid a briefcase.  He spoke knowledgeably of James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Donald Trump. Throughout his monologue Matt and I were put in a variety of roles. We were, by turns, Italian, Irish, Asian and Native American, etc.

All the while the guy occasionally turned to passing pedestrians, speaking as if they, too, were in our drama, which prompted several to linger. Once, a large, touristy-looking white man unwittingly brushed against Matt’s shoulder. Our actor-director flung forth his arms like a shield, admonishing the man, “Hey, hey! Don’t touch him. He’s a celebrity!” which slowed the flow of pedestrians and brought curious stares Matt’s way.

And at that, while standing on this make-shift Broadway stage, I decided: I gotta give this guy some money because this is just too damn much fun!  And then there came to mind a memory from 37 years earlier that goes like this…

*        *        *

I was a completely clueless 26-year-old, newly graduated from seminary, freshly ordained, and left in charge of a 1,300-member congregation in northwest Indiana because the senior pastor had skipped off to the Holy Land for three weeks.

On my first day at the helm, a late-1950s model Ford pick-up, smoking and steaming, squealed to a stop in front of the church. Out climbed a heavy woman, maybe in her late 40s, stuffed into a stained white tank-top and blue jeans, both of which were two or three sizes too small.

“Oh dear,” said the church secretary as we watched from the office window. Moments later, the woman was standing—more like sagging—before us, sobbing, “I ain’t a bad person. I ain’t a bad person.”

Does this sound moving? It might have been, except she lacked any semblance of acting ability.  Her sobs were tearless drones; her sags were much overplayed.

I asked how the church might help her—the prompt she wanted in order to unfold her story. She said she’d been living with the family of her sister in Benton Harbor, Michigan, when “my brother-in-law done gone and climbed into bed wi’ me, and my sister th’owed me outta the house.” More sobs and sags. “And the thang is. We ain’t done nuttin’, my brother-in-law ‘n’ me. But my sister don’t believe it. She just th’owed me out.  It was him what climbed in the bed! Why don’t she th’ow him out?”

The secretary and I didn’t have an answer.

“So what do you need from us?” I asked again.  She said she was trying to get home to her mama in Nashville, Tennessee, but “done run outta money.” She needed cash for a motel and gas.  Again she insisted, “I ain’t a bad person.”  And, to make sure we knew she ain’t a bad person, she brought out the biggest gun in her story.

“I orta to be livin’ in a big ol’ mansion in Nashville. You know why?”

We didn’t.

“Cuz my daddy is Ernest Tubb!”

While I’m no fan of Old School Country, I did know that Ernest Tubb was a Grand Ol’ Opry Hall of Famer.

“Ernest done gone and got my mama pregnant when she wudn’t but 16 and he ain’t had the decency to do the right thang!”

The woman’s story had dumbstruck us, which, apparently, she mistook as thick-headedness, for she flung her arms outward and clarified in a “duh!” tone, “I’M ERNEST TUBB’S LOVE CHILD!”

She launched back into the poorly performed sobs and sags but, at the sound of my voice, stopped abruptly.

“Well,” I said unsurely, “would you mind taking a seat in the lobby while we discuss this?”  She did as asked.

I turned to the secretary and with some exasperation said, “Look, I’m totally new here. I know we have discretionary money and all, but how do we know she’s telling us the truth?  How do we know she won’t take the money and drink or gamble with it?”

“Gerald,” the secretary said with a calming smile, “the story by itself is worth at least fifty bucks.”  We gave her seventy-five—in those days enough to get a room and buy a couple of tanks of gas.

*        *        *

Back to last week in Manhattan.  As the hand-shaking black man on Broadway established that race is only a social construct, that Matt is a black man (among other things), and that I am a white man wid a brief case, all the while working passing pedestrians in and out of his shtick, I thought: This story itself is worth some cash. Maybe not fifty or seventy-five bucks, but I’ll go twenty.

As if reading my mind, the guy wound down the show by whipping a wad of cash from his pocket. “Ain’t dat some money?” he chuckled with a grin that showed dire need of a dentist. “I even got dis Canadian sh*t!” he said, showing a twenty from north of the border. Then, from out of nowhere, his other hand presented several packaged CDs, fanned out like playing cards and bearing his likeness.

“I’m a rapper.  I want you to have one of my CDs. I’ll take what you wanna gimme.  Most people gimme ten.”  I gave him twenty. He handed the CD to the sometimes black man, Matt, and smiled warmly at me.  He thanked us both.  Matt and I continued down Broadway.  Examining the CD’s cover, we agreed that June Cancun was a fairly lit name for a rapper.

The next day, in the car on the way home, we popped the CD into the player. For what seemed too many seconds, we heard nothing and thought we’d been had. I was about to say it doesn’t matter because the show was worth twenty bucks, when suddenly beats came booming through the speakers and the voice of June Cancun was, in his way, drawing us back onto the stage.

“He’s not bad!” said Matt who listens to bargeloads of rap. There were sixteen more songs, each one revealing talent in composition and performance.

I thought, this guy’s on a much higher plane than Ernest Tubb’s love child.  And I wished I’d paid him at least seventy-five bucks.

 

 

I’m a Fool for the City

foolontrain[Writing from New York City.]  The last time I was here, I went with my granddaughter Rachel, then 15 years old, to the top of the Empire State Building. It was nearly 10:00 p.m., and so the many millions of lights of New York were spread beneath and around us as if the starriest of skies had fallen to earth.

“How many lives are we gazing down upon?” we wondered.  A smartphone told us 8.5 million. We tried to comprehend 8.5 million individual lives, their individual stories, all bumping and banging into each other. This led us to wonder how much pain was down there amid those lights. How much joy. How much despair. How much hope.  It’s incomprehensible, we agreed.

But another thing it is: amazing. Cities are the foundation of human civilization. About 5,000 years ago, people began to settle in large groups, bumping and banging into each other, collaborating, organizing, dividing labor, setting up agricultural supply lines, making stuff, building economies, arguing the hows and whys of human existence.

Cities are where humans first learned to tolerate and benefit from those who are radically different from themselves. This isn’t to say that hatred and bigotry are absent from the city. Cities do create enclaves of like-minded people who often disrespect those of different minds. But for a city to survive and thrive, diverse groups of people must learn to work with and accommodate each other.

Take New York City, for example: 8.5 million people crammed into only 321 square miles. Some may say, “That sounds horrible!”  

No, it’s amazing–amazing how well organized these 8.5 million people are; amazing to sit or stand in a subway and hear a medley of languages and see an array of races and an endless diversity of fashions. Amazing that these creatures are Homo sapiens, a species that began as little more than apes who fought at the first sign of difference.  Amazing how these people share with one another their differences–in visual art, music, drama, fashion, folklore, cuisine, and custom.  And in this melange, they make new stuff that changes the world.

Each time I visit this city I’m renewed with hope that, despite the obvious and much publicized sins of cities, the lesser told story is the most amazing one: that hundreds of thousands, even millions of different people are living together and cooperating in mutual benefit.

Twenty-seven years ago, in a massive city on the west coast, Rodney King, a victim of that city’s sins, asked, “People, can’t we all just get along?” Cities that survive and thrive must answer that question, “Yes, we can.”

And that, my friends, is why I’m a fool for the city.

 

“They wudn’t nobody in there what spoke English!”

AngryAlabamaMan“They wudn’t nobody in there what spoke English!” said the angry man. His female companion grunted assent. The man wore a crimson cap stitched with a white scripted Alabama “A,” the woman a similar t-shirt. I turned and watched as they stomped empty-handed to their car and drove away in a roar.

I had been walking into the K-Mart as they were storming out. This was at least a couple of decades ago, after Spanish-speaking immigrants had moved into—or “taken over,” according to some—several large, nearby apartment complexes.  And the Alabama-capped man’s outburst reflected a growing sentiment: these people don’t belong here with us.

Once inside, I saw and heard what had incensed the guy: the place was thick with Hispanic customers, families mostly. Spanish-chattering kids running about, as kids do in a big box store, begging parents to buy stuff. An announcement burst over the P.A.—a blue light special, described first in English, then in Spanish.

I had dropped in to buy a couple of cans of spray paint. In the hardware department, another customer, a short, stocky fellow of dark-complexion in a bright-white t-shirt, approached and asked me in broken English if a cheaper brand of paint worked as well as a more expensive one.

I summoned the phrase I had used more than any in college Spanish class, “No lo sé.” [I don’t know.] The man grinned widely. “But,” I added, “We can ask this guy,” pointing to the hardware clerk. I presented the question. The clerk asked if the paint would be used indoors or outdoors.  “Indoors,” said the customer, “for a bed uh…. a bed uh….” He spread his arms out. “Frame!” said the clerk and I at the same time.   “Si!” chuckled the customer.  [I’ve always loved charades!]  Yes, the cheaper paint would work just fine.

As I left the store, I thought again of the man and woman who had stormed out. Why did they have to leave? Why couldn’t they have found and purchased what they came for?  Was the sound of a different language, the sight of a “foreign” people, so despicable that they couldn’t think straight? And if so, why?

Suddenly I thought of that great American philosopher Elvis Presley. I imagined that the guy and his companion in the Alabama attire were at least a little bit fans of Elvis. (Most white folks in Bama attire are.)  One of philosopher Presley’s wisest quotes is this: “Don’t criticize what you don’t understand, son. You never walked in that man’s shoes.”

Thank God for Elvis, I thought.  And then, I have to confess, I said a little prayer—that the couple in the Bama get-up would stumble into a hornets nest of Grammar Nazis.

Link

Lately I’ve been studying a book of basic physics. Don’t ask me why. I’m wading through Newton’s Laws of Motion.  The First Law—an object at rest tends to stay at rest and an object in motion tends to stay in motion in a straight line at a constant speed—is pretty easy to comprehend.

But the Second Law thickens the swamp.  It’s expressed tersely as an equation

F=ma

Hmm?

The book says this means Force equals mass times acceleration. As I noodle on this, I get the impression that the more mass something has, the more force you need to get it moving. On the flipside, if something is already moving and it has enough mass it can cause something not moving to move.  And the greater the mass of the moving object, the faster the acceleration the smaller object when the big one hits it.  Make sense?

It does to me because it puts me in a memory from nearly half-a-century ago.

Mammaw, my paternal grandmother, has a two-handed white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel of a newly bought Oldsmobile Delta 88. I’m in the front passenger seat.  We’ve just shopped at the Western Supermarket in Five Points West.  I’m along to help her load and unload the groceries.

She has safely backed the car out of the parking space and, with great concentration, shifts from reverse to drive. Now we’re rolling at a speed of 5 mph—tops.

I notice, coming up on our right an abandoned empty shopping cart resting just off the curb in front of the store.  The new car is apparently wider than my grandmother thinks.

“Mammaw….”

“Hmm?”

The Oldsmobile, moving at no more than 5 mph, hits the shopping cart, and I kid you not, that sucker is launched like a missile—way, way faster than 5 mph. It slams into a huge white refrigerated chest of ice bags and rebounds like a ping-pong ball.

I turn around in my seat in time to watch the cart skitter on its side into the middle of the pavement we just passed over.

“Mammaw….”

“Hmm?”

She’s busy making the left turn to head back home. Not only did she never see the cart, she never knew she hit it! Several people are gathering round the wounded cart. They’re pointing to us in the get-away car. But the traffic light just ahead of us burns green.

“What did you want?” Mammaw asks me.

“Nothing,” I say, “just speed up.”  She does, and we glide through the intersection as the light turns red. I exhale. We’re home free.

So, back to Newton.  As I see it, the massively superior mass of the Delta 88 met an object at rest, a puny, wiry little cart and set it in motion. The cart then met another object of superior mass, the ice chest, which, being superior, remained inert, thus turning the cart’s motion on itself.  Voilà! Newton’s Second Law!

Thanks, Mammaw!