The street above was my classroom. I learned more than just tossing that ball. What I learned was to be part of the problem. So did many of us. Could I ever evolve? Could we?
When I was a tyke in the forties we played many street games: catch, punch ball, hide and seek, Ringolivio, kick the can, that kind of street-stuff. But one game was, “N… in the Cornfield.”
One of us would have to stand in the middle of the street while the rest stood on the curb. The curb group would yell out to the person standing in the middle of the street, “N… in the cornfield what are you doing there?” We’d say it in a singing way. The kid in the middle of the street, the “cornfield”, would respond with, “Picking corn”. The curb group would respond back to him, again, in sing-song fashion, “What would you do if the white man came?” The cornfield dweller would respond, “I’d hop away” or “skip away” etc. Whatever method he chose to get away we’d have to employ to catch him before he reached a safe point, the opposite curb, an imaginary “river” or something. Then one of the group would take his place and we’d begin again with, “N…in the cornfield what are you doing there?” I don’t know how that game got to our Queens, NY neighborhood. But it speaks of the tenor of the times.
In my youth, in my total innocence, I didn’t know what “n…” meant. I had to be taught. I thought the white man was someone painted white, I envisioned a big chalky, white-washed monster. I didn’t know it meant my skin color. That is until one day a black man was crossing the street down at the corner, a short hearing-distance from us. I remember someone pointing out that that was a “ n…” and that we had to wait for him to get across and out of hearing. It was my first introduction to racist language. My first loss of innocence.
Above, my brother, Rod, and the street where we played many different games.
My dad, whom I loved and still do, long after his passing, used offensive terms but never the N word in my presence. My mom never used any derisive terms about anyone. But Dad would say, “undesirables are moving into the neighborhood.” or “certain elements are evident these days.” He was an honest, compassionate man who always wanted to see everyone get their fair shake in this unfair world. But that’s the way he spoke, that’s the way I know he learned to speak. It was the way of the times. It was passed down to him by his dad, the same way it was being passed down to me and so with our neighbors. It was being reinforced by the racist outlooks of some of our neighbors and probably some of the men he worked with, rode the bus with, chatted with over the fence. The same way it was reinforced to me and yes, the same way I reinforced it in others in my earlier days. It was all about words, how they reinforced mind sets, which lead to actions. I wasn’t impervious to the culture of ignorance.
But one day, when I was a teen, I used the N word in my sister Marilyn’s house. She said, “We don’t talk like that in this house.” I never said it in her house again, nor anywhere else after that. I do remember that conversation, those specific words, some 60 years later. Words, they do matter, from your own mouth and from others…in many ways.
I joined the Marines in 1959 and had my second break with racial innocence. The Corps instilled in us recruits that we were all the same, we had to get buzz cuts to reinforce that sameness. It felt good, Marines…we are all one. Good words.
One night I went into town, Jacksonville, NC with a black guy from my Platoon. Maybe he was from NY too, I don’t really recall. I know his last name started with a W, I’m pretty sure it was Wilson, we were platooned in alphabetical order. But we were very proud “Boots”, fresh out of Parris Island and just now stationed at Camp LeJeune.
Private Wilson and I went to a bar in Jacksonville but met a big guy standing in front of the door who said to us, “Whites only.” I was astounded! Innocence, once again torn asunder, but now I was not a tyke but a 19-year old Marine! I thought being a Marine trumped all. I said, “But we’re both Marines.” What else would we be? The streets were filled only with Marines. I said, “We’re going in anyway”. He said, “If you do you’ll be arrested.” The Drill Instructors never warned us about “town.” They never said, Marines are not one in town. We were focused on training, and Corps values, not the goings-on of racial division in the South. I was the epitome of naive.
Now I’d like to say that we did go in, fought the good fight, battled the bouncers like good platoon buddies back-to-back, getting banged up, getting arrested, but striking a blow for moral justice. But we didn’t. We just didn’t want to get arrested. We mumbled, cursed, walked away and took the bus back to the base. And I saved getting arrested for other occasions involving more mundane episodes of drinking and MPs but that’s another story. Or two. Well, maybe three. But they were all misunderstandings. On the MP’s part of course. Power crazy. All of them!
Wilson and I went back to Camp LeJeune, sat in the EM club, ate salty, hot, Slim Jims and got hammered on cheap cold beer. But I was embarrassed for the first time in my life by my country for the way it treated other Americans, black Americans. Americans in the United States Marine Corps. From then on we only went to town with our own, he to his part of town with “his”, me to mine with “mine”. The rest of my time in the Corps it mainly stayed that way, blacks socializing mostly with blacks, whites with whites. Above, I visited my original Howitzer Battery at Camp LeJeune, 50 years later.
I took the trip home on leave to NY whenever I could. In the early days I took the bus. Later, car pools were the preferred option. But when I took the bus the stops it made along the way were revelations too. White-only water fountains, white-only restaurants and restrooms. Was I on Mars? All of it so new to my New York naiveté about life in the Jim Crow south; still going on in the late 1950’s.
But the years ahead still held lessons for me: Many years later in the NYPD Bronx Warrant Squad, I had a black partner. We worked well together as teams learn to do. But once again I experienced things I would not have been exposed to had I not been right there alongside a black man.
In Warrants, back then anyway, you usually worked in two-man, plainclothes, teams. Whoever carried the case knocked on the door in a warrant investigation. Now, when we knocked we were there to arrest or to just interview-to-locate. But we both came to realize that if my partner knocked on a door in certain white neighborhoods and only his face was visible through the peep hole or window, that door wouldn’t open as easily as it would if my pink face was in the frame as well; no matter how many police shields he stuck up in front of his face. They didn’t trust he was really the man. So, I kept my countenance in view. None of this was ever spoken about; we knew what worked. But it was another vivid reminder of skin and how it mattered, practically, in daily life.
On one occasion my partner went into Bronx Central Booking with a white prisoner. He walked up to the desk with his shield hanging out on his chest. The desk officer glanced up and said to the white prisoner, “Put him in the first cell and come back”. He was telling the prisoner to put my partner in the cell! Obviously the Desk Officer made an embarrassing mistake, nothing intentional, but it gave me yet another vivid taste of the power of skin perceptions.
A photo of me and my Brothers in the Felony Warrant Squad. Me, center-right, next to a young Transit Police Chief, Bill Bratton. My fantastic partners, Luke, 2nd from right and Hawkeye Miguel, far left.
As I look at my hand now at these computer keys I wonder what my life would be like if it were a dark hand; If I walked out my door and lived life with it.
What would happen when I tried to wave down a cab in Manhattan with it, would the cab stop? Would I always have to depend on the F train to get from Manhattan to Queens? Or if I used that black hand to pick a coat off the rack to try on; would the store-owner look furtively down the aisle at me? Life is bowl of cherries at times but a sucky soup at other times. Would this black hand give me an extra serving of sucky?
Maybe the cab driver didn’t see me. Could really happen. Possible anyway. Maybe the store-owner scrutinizes every customer. Maybe he’s been victimized by minorities in the past. But I think I’d be so used to what my skin means in my life that I’d likely see it all through bitter eyes. Yes, bitter eyes.
Blacks who go through life dealing with this every day and somehow overcome the bitterness have my deepest respect. Blacks who have received many a raw deal through life yet still put on a uniform and serve this great country have my deepest respect. Blacks who see the flag, for what it is, a symbol of the great democracy it is, warts and all, as I do, have truly overcome. I thought the incident at the Jacksonville bar was jarring and abominable to me. But what if I was one of the returning black soldiers of WW II and had to deal with that. Would the incident just end there with them? Wouldn’t that color their perception of whites for the decades ahead? Above, WWII Tuskegee Airman. Yes, I found life to be a real bitch at times even in this pasty-white, skin I was issued. I can’t imagine having to go through it with all that’s involved with being a minority. I don’t believe in reincarnation but when I do die I surely hope that when I walk toward the light It doesn’t turn out to be a fluorescent light. And that the sting I feel, and sound I hear, is not the slap of a doctor’s hand whacking my butt in the delivery room of a Harlem hospital. I have to say, I simply hate to think what that would mean.
I had many influences passed down to me from my ancestors and they were reinforced by many of my neighbors and friends, mostly with words, some with actions. Some were very good…some, not so. They’ve all had a part in forming and reinforcing my perceptions. I’m sure many of you grew up in better circumstances, different environments, you were amidst more progressive thinking.
They are more pathetic than anything else. Maybe others, close to them, are even more pathetic, for not finding the courage to speak up. Words, they do matter. They affect the mind sets which affect the actions.
I had to look at all my early influences and ask, “What good words and actions have I been exposed to that will bring about the compassion and simple fair shake that I and all of us, would want for ourselves, our sons and daughters to receive?” I knew what they were and I passed them on to my own children, and they to theirs.
I feel bad that I was once a part of the problem, used some of the words, was part of the generational ignorance. But maybe I found a way to be a tiny part of the change too. Today I had to ask, “What can I do to help propagate that change?” and I wrote this post, of words, on my humble blog.
Check out what my blog is all about:http://leebythesea.me and see other posts there as well.