Thursday, August 19, 2004

Black Men And White Trash

May Auld Acquaintance Be Forgotten

I knew a guy in high school who was one of the worst assholes you could imagine, yet he had some undeniable demonic charm and was likeable, nonetheless. Bart Burden thought that Hank Williams was God and that the real God, whatever his function in the real world might be, was the exclusive property of Caucasian Americans, no matter how badly he or any other white American acted. He wasn't stupid; I guess he was sort of an intelligent redneck. Maybe his people had never owned slaves, but he was a member of one of those last generations to swagger around publicly announcing that it was no big deal to treat people badly. Maybe if I were better versed in psychology, I could find the right terminology for him. He was on the football team; maybe that was what was wrong with him. I knew him from various classes we attended, including journalism.

You're probably wondering how much of a redneck he could be, if he was so intelligent. Well, there's this—he liked to tell you how sometimes he'd go "nigger-knocking" on weekends with some of his more uncouth friends. For those of you with no conception of what this atrocity consists of, it involved spotting a young black man and driving past him slowly enough that someone in the car could use a baseball bat on the pedestrian as if he was nothing more than a mailbox. He insisted they never really damaged anyone, "just gave 'em little love taps". I never much believed you could have that much control over velocity and impact, not under those circumstances.

Of course, I have no proof that his stories were even true; it's not as if I ever accompanied him to see for myself. Maybe he just liked to tell vile and crude stories and make himself seem rougher and tougher than he was. Yet I tended to believe him then and I still do. Though striking someone from behind is obviously a cowardly act, 40 years ago you could claim that it "took balls" because you had to be driving through "colored town" to so easily find a black man that unwary. Black males didn't walk through white sections of town back then unless they were workers accompanied by a white boss.

What I Know About Negroes (Not Much)

I knew a little about "colored town"—though obviously in a shallow way and only from the outside—for I'd lived next to it all my life. Because of that proximity and desire for peace, I generally adhered to that euphemism when I was at home or near home and tried not to call it Nigger Town. The white boys I knew at school did call it that, but they didn't live right smack on the corner, only 2 narrow lanes away from the black people. It's hard to say now whether my liberalism or my practical nature came first. The street in front of my house terminated at the street that divided my white section from the black section. You could turn left or right, but you couldn't drive through. The ghetto, like most ghettos in the world, didn't have many roads leading in or out.

There was a house where the street would have continued through, if such a thing had been possible. That house was occupied by an old Negro man named Charley and his son John. John himself seemed old to me, too, when I was 10 and 12, though he was probably about 50. I can hardly remember ever speaking to Old Man Charley. He seemed a little scary to me back then, though I realize now that he was probably just profoundly deaf. I walked over to his house and spoke often with John, though he stayed on one side of his weathered picket fence, me on the other.

John was no rocket scientist, but he was a gentle and kindly man and a kid like I was couldn't help but enjoy speaking to him now and then. His thick speech made him a little hard to understand sometimes, but also exotic. I can't recall that we ever talked about anything more intimate than the weather or traffic or other light conversation. He may have been much smarter than I imagined then. At least, I can imagine now what didn't occur to me then, that he knew he had to be wary about speaking to white people, even children. I know I never saw the inside of his house, never even stood inside his yard. I knew better than to attempt that sign of intimacy, and John knew better, too. In that time and place, his low picket fence was an almost inviolable barricade.

My family had a similarly polite but limited contact with the rest of the black community along that street. There was an older black lady across the street who was my babysitter from time to time. She didn't pay more mind to me that she had to, just set me up somewhere to color or draw, and went on with her work. She took in some laundry and a lot of ironing for her livelihood and as a child I thought her house had a very peculiar odor. It was, I suppose now, the accumulated musty smell of her very old wooden house blended with years of detergent, bleach, starch, and most of all the fumes of the heated iron. To this day the smell of a room where someone just finished a lot of ironing can elicit the smell of her old house, the look of her furniture, the neat stacks of folded ironing everywhere. I was lucky if I could find a chair to sit in sometimes, there was so much ironing! Whatever other smells were in her house, the hot iron always predominated.

The Black Children

I don't remember “getting into it” with any of the neighborhood black children except once. I slightly remember a black child who threw a rock or something at me and hit me in the side of the head. It was nothing serious, just the kind of thing that makes you really mad. I'm not sure if the child even lived on my street—though I kept an eye out for him, I never saw him again. After a couple of weeks I didn't think about it anymore. At any rate, I didn't think about it any more than I thought about the pushes, shoves, swats, and conks on the head that I exchanged with the boys who lived on the White side of my house.

Moving Away

By the time my parents sold out and moved away, I had already moved away from home. That section of town, including my old street, is predominantly black now. I passed that way a couple of months ago, but a friend was driving. The street that once died out at Avenue B now goes through into that unfamiliar tangle of streets I never saw in the old days. My friend didn't drive straight ahead, so I've still never seen those hidden streets.

Old Man Charley's son John or some other inheritor must have sold the place long ago or maybe the city just took it for taxes and eventually paved that street. Considering how Americans of all colors love to drive and hate to go the long way around, it was probably considered a good thing at the time.

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