Saturday, October 03, 2009
Living in New York City as a White Texan
Comparing Myself to Jefferson
I am typically White. I am worse than typically White, I am a Southern White. Worse than that I am a White Texan. EXCEPT, let me stress that I am not JUST a Texan, I am a West Texan.
Lyndon Johnson (the President that did give us the Civil Rights Bill) declared Texas was a "Western" state to try and take it out of the "South" category and to push into the shadows the fact that Texas joined the Confederacy and approved of slavery during the Civil War. Johnson had to give his home state a new image at the time he was running with Kennedy in the 1960 election against Dick Nixon--and Texas did go for Kennedy; OK, so Kennedy only beat the Tricky One by 46,000, he still won it thanks to Johnson's cleverness.
I specify myself as a "West" Texan (and where I'm from is more Old West than it is Old South) because at the time of my arrival on earth (and trust me, people, I realize now I was a lucky little bastard being born at the time and the place I was to the families I was born into) various sections of the Lone Star State were as different and distant as night and day (or "as night is to day" as my old folks used to put it).
My mother, for instance, was a Southeast Texan from Beaumont, a seaport city with a mixed-bag population (modern Beaumont is a Black majority city), born at the time the largest deposit of oil in the world was discovered under a knob of a hill called Spindletop just outside of Beaumont. My mother was born in a house across the street from a rice mill. At that time
Beaumont, Texas, when my mother was 4 years old.
Beaumont was the rice capital of the USA. My mother was called a rice-eater. My mother grew up on rice and crawfish and shrimp and catfish and fried chicken and collards and pokes. Beaumont at that time, too, was a "Coonass" town. A Coonass was a Cajun, an Acadian, an Evangeliner. And Beaumont was full of Coonasses, one of which my mother's sister later married, my one-eyed Uncle Stub (his name middle name was Stubblefield) was "mostly" Cajun as Beaumontians called him; his mother was a Protestant, as he used to call her when he was talking about his Cajun background. Coonass is a "strange" word. I remember as a kid traveling through that part of Texas and Louisiana new Fords would have signs in their back windows saying, "This Ford Was Built in Louisiana by Coonasses." Here's the Wikipedia on it:
My father was a North Texan. He was born at Wills Point, Texas, in the Independent State of Van Zandt, that county calling itself an independent state after the Civil War and Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in defense of its needing slaves to support its King Cotton-bound economy and protect its minority White population.
Wills Point, Texas, at the time of my father's birth. That's the Texas & Pacific railroad tracks in the foreground there--the same tracks I would be born on further up the line many years later.
My mother came from a mixed Pennsylvania/Virginia stock of Whites who became "civilized" in Nashville, Tennessee, before striking out with Sam Houston and Davy Crockett (both Tennessee politicians) for Mexico and a colony of Whites founded and headed by Stephen F. Austin, a place he was calling Texas (it's a Caddo Native American word meaning "allies" or " compadres.").
When my father was a "tit'n" people who first saw him said he was blessed with handsomeness and a charm the ladies would never be able to refuse. And I exit off the main highway here for a minute to say something about this "tit'n." It's a term I found quite interesting and got very curious about as a kid. I don't know if tit'n was a universal Southern expression or one exclusively regional or maybe familial, but for years one of my father's White Trash uncles from his mother's side called him "Tit'n" every time he saw him. Everybody in town knew Uncle Fats. He was famous. They called him Fats, his real name was Walter, though Fats is what the family called him, too. To me he was Uncle Fats. His last name was Flanagan (it means "red or ruddy" in the old language and Uncle Fats was certainly very red and ruddy and jolly and plump)--and God how I hate to admit I have Flanagans in my background, but lo and behold, there's Uncle Fats standing there in my memory with that familiar face that was mirrored in my father's face, so there ya go, I've got Irish in me. Anyway, Uncle Fats, every time he saw my dad would say, "Well, hello there, Tit'n ." How that word embarrassed my mother. My mother looked way down her nose on Uncle Fats and every time Uncle Fats appeared anywhere near close enough to recognize us and shout a hello she shivered and begged my father to speed off in another direction or turnaway and tuck and hide so Fats wouldn't see us ("Mom, he knows the car," I used to chirp from the backseat), but my father was a happy-go-lucky man who in spite of my mother's besmirching of it was proud of his family and the fact everyone in his family thought he was the special one so when old Uncle Fats came into view wherever, my father went out of his way against my mother's beggings to have old Uncle Fats holler down, "Why hello there, Tit'n."
The term I later found out, from my mother, meant "one still on his mother's teat"--"Is that boy still a'tit'n?" My mother told me this in a hush-hush confidence finally after I had practically pestered her to death about it. I now further suppose it implied my dad maybe stayed on his mother's breast for a little longer time than the rest of the brood--I mean he was his mother's special son and that made my dad the envy of his brothers and sisters. If my mother was breast fed I never heard her say, though I assume she was given the time she was born--though she did have a family cow in Beaumont. My dad called my mother's breasts, "dinners," which, I now think certainly had something to do with his being called Tit'n . I, for the record, didn't get the pleasure of being breast fed. I was a Dr. Spock baby and Dr. Spock preferred formulae (Carnation or Pet canned milk with Karo syrup added to give it body) to mother's milk.
My mother's family considered themselves of a much more higher brow than that of my father's family. My mother's mother considered herself well educated, and she was a librarian, a reader, very well read, and she encouraged her two daughters to go to school as far as they could go--my mother's sister finished high school and went to business college; my mother was starting her senior year in high school when she dropped out to marry my already dropped-out dad, though in actuality my mother was less educated than my father's two sisters, both of whom had graduated high school with honors.
My father's dad and mother if they had any schooling at all it was the bare minimum. My mother said my father's father was so damn dumb he would argue with you on any subject, like if you said the earth was round, he would argue until he was blue in the face that the earth was flat. My father's father (G.M. for George Madison) I never knew--in fact, I never knew either of my grandfathers (my mother's father was an A.H. (Ambrose Hutchinson)), both of them dying way before I came on the mortal coil. But old G.M. must have had some "smarts" since he was a master carpenter and brick mason and building contractor. And, yes, he was a Master Mason and he and my grandmother were members of the Order of the Eastern Star, said by the deep-down Christians of that day to be a secret society that was doing the work of Satan. This man my mother called the dumbest man she ever met built the first high school in my hometown and I later found out he had also built schools in several other Texas cities, and also some in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alabama. He built the family home in my hometown and that house was a wonderful rambling house with a front porch and side porches and a back screened-in porch, an Eden of a place to me as a kid, with a big well-cared-for lawn, rich thick Bermuda grass all around the house, going on back past the back end of the house where it ended with a hedged in area that contained a gazebo. Behind the gazebo was a large garden that seemed to always be full of vegetables and flowers, with a small greenhouse at its back in which my grandmother raised bulb plants like irises and tulips--the first tulips I ever saw were in my grandmother's garden. Rumor had it she had paid big bucks for her original bulbs she'd purchased from Holland back in the 1920s. One rumor had her paying $1000 a bulb for her original tulips.
My mother's mother, however, was the flower freak in my crosscultural White Southern family. My mother's mother had a natural affinity for flowers especially peonies. Her peonies were known for their extra-bulky blossoms, blossoms so heavy they bent the big plants down to the ground as though they were praying for uplift. At a certain time of year my grandmother's yard was so full of peonies it looked like there were banks of snow piled against the front of her house and covering the whole of her backyard. At first she raised only white peonies, though later she learned to play with their pistols and stamina to produce light pink and yellow peonies.
My parents weren't dumb at all, no matter how I criticized them as a smartass kid. And god-damn what a little smartass I was. My brother was a smartass, too; however he was lucky because he was raised by my mother's mother, the librarian. He was the first on both sides of my family to graduate college, though my mother had a cousin who became a famous reporter on the Houston Chronicle who claimed to be the first in her family with that honor. This South Texas family branch dude claimed he had a degree from Redlands College in California. Later my grandmother revealed the truth being that this witty gentleman had read a telegraph message while in high school and working as a telegraph operator's assistant that had in code said the Redlands College administration building had just burned to the ground...and all their records had been destroyed. So this South Texas cousin began putting on his resume that he was a Redlands College graduate--it was believed enough to get him on the Chronicle, at that time, one of the biggest and most powerful newspapers in Texas, where he became an award-winning reporter and later columnist. Later, my brother carried on the tradition and became an award-winning reporter on one of Dallas's largest newspapers--eventually going on to become the majority stockholder in that paper. It might be fair to note here that most of my first cousins on my dad's side of the family eventually went to college, several of them graduating, one of them, my cousin G.A. (for Glenn Aubrey, Jr), going on to get several degrees in Electrical Engineering and ending up one of the top lab technicians for the Radio Corporation of America, a man who later became interested in nuclear physics working on a project for RCA and the US Navy involving nuclear submarines (ironically this cousin is the cousin who when he joined the US Navy during WWII they shipped him out of Newport, Rhode Island, on a submarine. After it was several miles off shore he went into a psychotic trance, so fucked up the sub turned around and went back to Newport where they took my cousin immediately up to the Navy Hospital's psychiatric facilities and locked him in a rubber room. It was after he was discharged from the Navy that he went back to college on the G.I. Bill and while studying at Texas A&M, returning back to school from his Christmas vacation at home with his folks in my hometown, going 70 miles an hour in a 1948 Plymouth, my cousin G.A., Jr., skidded off the highway and drove head-on into a concrete railroad overpass embankment, the impact throwing him headfirst through the windshield and bulleting him then on headfirst again into that concrete embankment. That crash straightened up his brain; gave it order. After he healed, suddenly this son of a bitch was a genius--a math genius--a walking calculator--an instant solver of complicated math formulations--solving algebra, trig, calculus and beyond problems instantly in his NEW head.
My mother had a host of relatives all across South Texas, all, as she said, with eminence in their communities. Her Uncle Bill down in the Rio Grande Valley owned a chain of grocery stores. When we visited him (I was about 4) in Harlingen, Texas, just a few miles north of La Frontera, just across the Rio Bravo/Rio Grande from Mexico, I thought Uncle Bill's grocery store was the biggest damn grocery store I had ever seen or would ever hope to see. All the signs were in both English and Spanish and Uncle Bill spoke Spanish fluently; he spoke Tex-Mex naturally; but he spoke English with a thick brogue, Scottish, my grandmother insisted, the Irish being to her the scum of the earth. I never heard my grandmother say one good word about an Irishman--except she did have a well-worn volume of Yeats in her personal library and I remember hearing her give a talk on Sean O'Casey at a book club meeting held at her Carnegie Library. Because of this lecture, when I got to college one of the first things I did was check out O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars, all about growing up poor as a church mouse in the Dublin slums--and oh how many great writers have the Dublin slums produced! O'Casey got me to trying to write plays--I was terrible at it--but because of him I went on to discover our own playwrights, especially Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, and to then see what playwriting was all about: the stage, all the world a stage, the invention of attractive characters based on the twistings of everyday life from day to short day and how these twistings affect us in terms of sex mainly and the various ways of both men and women controlling it.... Holy Christ, I've tried to avoid Herr Doktor Freud, but our problems all do seem to be about sex and the many twists and turns it forces us down in our attempts to lead NORMAL lives! Yes, this was one of my first warped discoveries about life and, yes, it got me into Freud in the first place. Freud and his women.
My father's older brothers were born in Alabama. In Decatur, Alabama.
A tiny look at Decatur, Alabama, around the time my father's family left out of there--that's the Tennessee River--Decatur was like Beaumont, Texas, a river port.
When I worked for the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court in New Orleans, one of the judges I was assigned to was a judge who had been personally appointed to the Louisiana bench by Huey "Every Man a King" Long back in Huey's heyday. By the time I was assigned to him, he was an old man, tottering along every weekday morning into his chambers where he and his secretary would set up his docket for the day. The very first time I appeared before him, I had just come on staff, I was introduced to him by his secretary. He nodded toward me and told me to step forward and present my recommendations in the case. It was a Black kid I was representing. A Black kid who had run away from his home in the projects over in Algiers, Louisiana, directly across the Mississippi from New Orleans. His mother had turned him into the court as being incorrigible. So I gave this rather lengthy dissertation on what I thought was best for this kid, who I praised as being bright and curious and being depressed by his old-fashioned mother and his never-around father. After I finished my presentation, the judge looked down over the tops of his glasses at me and said, "Where the hell you from, boy?" I didn't know what to say? "Er-ah, your honor, I'm from Texas." "No you ain't," he stopped me, "the hell you ain't from Texas, y'ur from Alabama or I don't know my god-damn ass from a hole in the ground." "My father's family was from Alabama." "Then, boy, that makes you an Alabaman. You and me's gonna git along jest fine. My folks were from Alabama, too, and I can tell an Alabama boy from ten miles away. Finest White people there is come from Alabama, especially around Decatur where my family's from."
That staggered me. By this time I was pretty deeply working within the guts of the Civil Rights Movement, starting in Dallas where in an attempt at sitting in at a Dallas restaurant with a Black friend, I was taken out of the restaurant by the Highland Park, Texas, police into the parking lot and beaten within a inch of my fucking life before being thrown in the Highland Park jail awaiting to be transferred to the Dallas jail early the next morning. When I got to the Highland Park jail, the officer in charge took me aside, I was drenched in my own blood, my shirt and tie still wet and richly red with blood, my nose hurting like it was broken, one of my eyes swelling up shut. "Boy, since you loves niggers so much, I'm throwing you in the drunk tank with all yore nigger buddies. You are a disgrace to the White race--jackoffs like you. I hate your guts, but you'll learn someday, maybe tonight after you've spent the night with a cell full of those filthy pig whore-smelling Black monkeys." And I was thrown headlong into a big open cell with about six Black men who were all soundly sleeping in a chorus of snores and wild snorting and whining emissions. The White cop woke these guys up. "Here you boys go. I brought you a little White boy who loves you nigger bastards. Show him a little nigger love, boys. I'll see y'all in the morning." Nothing happened; the Black guys went back to snoring and snorting and whining and I spent the rest of the night bitching to myself, though I was worried about the morrow. At the time, since I worked for the Dallas County Juvenile Court system, I was officially a deputy sheriff and I had a badge to prove it. So I was released the next day before I even got to the Dallas jail. One of the policemen hauling me down to Dallas just happened to be a cop I knew from my job. "What the hell were you doing in Highland Park?" Rather than telling him the truth I lied and said I'd gotten in a bar fight. I never heard another word about that night. No charges were ever filed on me. It was White privilege, don't you see, though at the time I didn't see it that way. I just saw it as a piece of good luck. The Black man I had protested with? I never saw or heard of him again.
Then when I married and moved to New Orleans my wife came in one day and said she'd met Dick Gregory at a CORE meeting and she wanted to join CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. At my first CORE meeting I met Julius Lester and heard talk of a field organizer named Huey Newton. New Orleans had just been DESEGREGATED...segregation and desegregation the terms we used then--they would evolve into the INTEGRATION process, but it was segregation we were against, the idea of Jim Crow, the separate but equal philosophy kowtowed to by the Democratic Party during Reconstruction days in the Old South. Blacks to us were already free and under Old Tom Jefferson's Constitution, "all men are created equal" and it didn't say "all men are created segregated." At that time, Tom Jefferson was considered a guiding-light-type by us fairminded Whites. I had come out of college thinking Jefferson was a wise man, almost a Renaissance man, learned in science, architecture, classical music, the richness of cuisines, and a lover of fine design. His attitudes about Blacks I really hadn't investigated, though I knew most of our White forefathers were slaveholders or even if they weren't treated Blacks like dog shit.
One day after I had been babbling away about old Tom Jefferson, my office mate at the time (it was L Hat, yes it was) came in one day and handed me Tom Jefferson's only book, Notes on the State of Virginia. That woke me up to old Tom Jefferson. In that book, Tom goes all out to prove himself justified in his futuristic plans for setting the State of Virginia up as the perfect example of how he wanted every state to be grounded. In it Jefferson shows his wisdom in a lot of areas--like how state governments should perform in terms of the Federal government; how education and a public school system, including a state's university system (Jefferson designed and built with his slaves the U of Virginia), was essential and should be free and available to all. It's also a great agrarian textbook--Jefferson knows all about soils and planting and what crops are best in terms of production, etc.
Where Jefferson runs into a brick wall in the book is when he's dealing with the freeing of slaves. George Washington had freed his slaves (had he? there is a story that after George died, Martha locked herself in her bedroom because she was afraid that the slaves would revolt and come into the big house and rape her and then murder her) and Jefferson's own Virginia friend and aristocrat John Randolph had freed his slaves. Everyone of Jefferson's Virginia family and friends had freed their slaves, too. Jefferson, however, found deep in his soul he couldn't free his slaves. Why? Well, because without his slaves Jefferson would not have had anything--they built his house, managed his lands and plantings and harvested his crops, cooked his food, woke him up in the morning, got him dressed, raised his horses and cattle, repaired his coaches when they broke down, waited on his sickly wife, and raised his children, out of six only one, Patty, making it into adulthood. For this reason, Tom justifies not freeing his slaves by saying they were inferior to Whites, very inferior to Whites, to the point where Old Tom thought freeing them would be an injustice to them--they would wander the land unable to get work, stealing, getting revenge against their former slaveholders, raping White women, every Black man with his large and constantly erect Black Snake most desirous of Miss Anne and her daughters up in the Big House--in Tom's case, the best house in the whole state of Virginia. In one place, Tom says Blacks don't piss like White people. Their kidneys don't get rid of the stagnant waters that flood their bodies to the point where they sweat out most of their waters, which is why they stink to high heaven, a foul musky odor that drives White people to wearing gas masks (I know they didn't have gas masks then) in order to superintend them. Tom went further in his chickenshit cowardly put down of Blacks by saying the White slaves in Roman times were 20 times smarter than Black slaves--because Tom said they were artisans, you know artists, and our Blacks had no culture to them at all, which meant, by God, they were savages, worse than primitives--half monkeys.
You see, racism is political; it is sociological; it is psychological; it is natural to Whites who believe they are white because they are PURE.
My father's family were probably natural-born Deep South racists. But I never saw them like that. Yes, my hometown was segregated, separate but equal, but it never occurred to me then that segregation was wrong--I was just a kid--and when I asked my mother why Black kids couldn't go to school with me, she said it was a crying shame and an abomination but that it was "the law," so that was that. That, yes, was a racist attitude.
My father's best brother who was head of the truck repair crews at the local Coca-Cola bottling plant hired a lot of Black guys as his assistants. He talked about them seriously sometimes--I know he helped a couple out with loans and one time getting medicine for one of their wives, and, too, I remember he sat at wake for one of his favorite assistants who had died on the job--"He died in my arms," I heard this brother telling my father at the time it happened--but I also remember this gentle man talking about these men as "his boys" and how funny his boys were and then he'd tell something he thought was funny about them which kind of resembled a coon joke, and when he talked like that I suppose he was a racist. He was my favorite uncle, a very gentle man, a G.A., for Glenn Aubrey, a name I liked (my mother's brother was also a G.A. (Grady A.)(I don't remember ever hearing what the A stood for)(and now that I think of it, my mother's sister was a G.A. (Gertrude Ann)--now ain't that parallel-linely coincidence?). My initials are G.W.--holy hop toads, the same as G.W. Bush; however our ex-faux president is a faux Texan and I'm a REAL Texan. Hey, my mother's Tennessee forebears came to Texas with the guy who'd later become the General of the Texas army against Mother Mexico. Then after winning Texas Independence, he became the first President of the Republic of Texas and then the first governor of the State of Texas. Old Mr. Sam. At the time the Southern states were seceding from the Union, Old Mr. Sam was firmly against Texas leaving the Union; he was said to be antislavery and though he owned 12 slaves, he freed them after reading Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. But Old Mr. Sam was overruled by the secessionists and Texas joined the Confederacy in 1862. That ended Mr. Sam's political career and he retired to his home in Huntsville. For awhile, Old Mr. Sam was trumpeted as a Great Emancipater. How he had taught his slave's kids right along with his kids, which was against the law, and how he'd lost a chance to be President of the US after he voted against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the act that would allow slavery to continue on into those two territories that were becoming states. As Governor of Texas he opposed leaving the Union and joining the Confederacy, brag having it he had said "A Union divided cannot stand" before Lincoln did. Turned out these were half-truths and half-bullshit. Yes, Sam did vote against the Kansas-Nebraska Act; and yes he said he was antislavery; and yes he did oppose Texas joining the Confederacy. But on the other side of Old Mr. Sam's coin comes the fact that after he died in his will were 12 slaves valued at $10,300--so NO, he didn't free his slaves before he had to. And though he did try to prevent Texas from joining the Confederacy, after it did join the Confederacy, he supported the Confederacy in every way; his son joined and fought for the Confederate Army. Which shows you the many revisions of truth White kids in Texas had to endure--some defending Texas's outlaw sort of existence; defending its deciding to join the Confederacy, on the other hand talking about how respectful White slaveholders were to their slaves; like Thomas Jefferson not allowing his slaves to be whipped (oh how sweet of him) "unless it was necessary" he added to show his White supremacy--his holding punishment of slaves in his owner's hands. Ownership. That's the American Way really.
I had a "cousin"--a lot of Texans have uncles and cousins and folks hanging around the house who aren't really kinfolks--in this case this cousin hung around my grandmother's library and knew my parents and my brother and my grandmother worked on his writing with him--I've written about him before--but this cousin's mother was Sam Houston's daughter Mary. She had moved to my hometown after marrying a prominent man there. After her husband died, she became the "postmistress" at my hometown post office and a friend of my grandmother. Mary's son, my "cousin," was a poet, you see, and so was my grandmother.
And my mother's family was full of poets. Her grandfather, a Scotsman, a J. L. (for John Lytle), wrote poetry. He also had the finest tenor voice in Central Texas, plus he was a first-class violinist, and one of his relatives at one time was the champion fiddler of Texas. Among my mother's people were Craigs, Cragheads, Poes (my mother's mother always announced when she talked about "our Poes" that, no, Edgar Allen Poe wasn't kin to us because he wasn't a true Poe--he was adopted by a man named Poe), Lipscombs, Dockerys or Dockrays, and Sandlins--my Greatuncle Tommy Dockery was famous in my neck of the woods as having survived miraculously the famous Clyde, Texas, CYCLONE (or tornado from the Spanish, tronada--the vb tonar--to twist) of 1938, which by the way was all he would talk about when you were around him--"Did I ever pray tell y'all 'bout how that thar cyclone blew the feathers completely off mah chickens and drove a passel of them feathers straight smack-dab like nails rite into telephone poles and fence posts--hell, even the side of mah barn overthar."
From The Handbook of Texas:
On June 10, 1938, a tornado ripped through Clyde from the north, killing fourteen persons and destroying twenty-one homes and many other buildings, most notably the school. A freight train was also derailed.
One of the most-told stories in my mother's family was about the time my greatgrandfather (J.L. for John Lytle) had gone off to do one of his concerts at a nearby town, leaving my greatgrandmother and my grandmother alone in their dugout house just outside of Youngsport, Texas. These pioneer White folks would find a nice fairly steep hillside, dig a large hole (manmade cave) into it, put a timber front on the hole, a couple of small windows ("Big enough to stick a rifle through at least") and that was that. This was a time in Texas when ex-Confederate soldiers unhappy with the results of the Civil War and the freeing of slaves went renegade all over this part of the world, from Texas over into New Mexico, on up the cattle trails into Kansas. These renegade Rebels formed into units that called themselves "Nightriders." These weren't Klansmen, but that was their reason for being. They used Klan-like hoods and sheets and one of their missions was to raid freed blacks's homes and either kill them or torture them mercilessly. They also went after any Whites they heard who were hiding slaves or being nice to Blacks--they'd raid your ranch and drive off all your cattle; or they might go so far as to burn your house and barn down and perhaps even shoot you and your family if they felt like it. Texas was so brutally racist about losing the Civil War, it was several years before some Texas slaves found out they had been freed, so these Nightriders would also capture blacks and take them down to Galveston and sell them back into slavery or if they knew they were freed they would simply lynch them or set them on fire--you know, the typical White way following God's word.
So on this night, with my greatgrandfather off singing and swilling (yep, he drank Scotch whiskey; in fact, he drank too much Scotch whiskey, especially after he'd just finished singing and the Scotch was passed around liberally amongst his fellow clansmen from the lochlands of dear old Scotland), leaving his women back in their dugout house all alone.
My grandmother, who was but a young girl at the time, told the story in her high thin twangy South Texas voice. She said, her eyes wide open and her voice suddenly very serious and full of drama, that while she and her mother were alone in that dimly lit dank dugout, scared to death, sensitive to the smallest sound, her mother suddenly perked up her ears. Suddenly she shushed her daughter and whispered that she thought she heard something shuffling about in their bare-dirt front yard. She told her daughter to blow out the light in the oil lamp and to pull the shutters down quietly over the burlap-covered windows--just slits really--and then she told her to be quite as a mouse until it was clearer just who or what was making the sound she had heard.
They were used to wild animals coming in the yard at night--white-tailed deer, mule deer, skunks, armadillas, bobcats, wildcats, even panthers--or it could have been Comanches, too, who at that time were still able to wander free over that part of Texas and Oklahoma Territory and were very feared by White folks, especially White women.
As they listened intently in the dark stuffiness of that dugout to that sound in the yard, they soon heard a slight scratching at the door. They stayed stock still. Then through the scratching they heard a voice. "Hep me," it said in just a whisper. "Hep me, pleezz!" It was a woman's voice. My greatgrandmother went to the door and asked who this woman was? The reply came back, "Hep me...the Nightriders is comin' back a ways, pleez hep me." The woman was a black woman. My greatgrandmother could tell. She took the timber bar that barred the big timber door firmly out of its racks and opened the door just a crack. There was a very young Black woman hunched up by the door. She had a bundle in her shaking hands. "Honeychile, " my greatgrandmother said, "you know I can't let you come in here if the Nightriders are after you." "I jest wants you to takes mah bay-bee...." "Your baby?" "Yes'um, mah bay-bee girl. I kin run faster without her. I kin run real fast, but I don't want 'em to git mah bay-bee if they gits me."
My grandmother said her mother turned to her and told her to take the baby from the woman. She protested, "Mama, are you sure?" "Take the baby," her mother told her. The baby was what was wrapped up in the bundle the young woman was holding. When my grandmother extended her arms to take the baby, the Black woman pulled it back, opened up the wrapping and kissed the baby, then handed it through the door and in the next second was gone off into the night.
After rebarring the big door, my greatgrandmother lit a candle and they checked out the baby. She looked as though she couldn't have been more than a week or two old. Also she was clean as a whistle and as my grandmother put it, "Smelled as fresh as a sweet flower." The baby looked up at these two White women with its big brown eyes full of curiosity though not making one peep, as though already knowledgeable about breaking protective silence. Soon, my greatgrandmother blew out the candle and told my grandmother to take the baby all the way back in the farthest far corner of the dugout and to make sure she kept the baby perfectly quite.
Both women could now hear the hooves of the Nightriders's horses coming from a short distance it sounded to her like down the trail (road) that ran a hundred of so yards across a field from the dugout.
They shivered together in silence, two White women and a Black baby, cuddled in the far back corner of the now pitch black and cauldron-hot dugout. Afraid to even breathe; the baby quite and behaving itself magically it seemed like.
The horses hooves got closer. The women could even now hear men's voices over the hoofbeats. Men shouting and whooping it up.
And then they were so close it seemed like they were already in the front yard. They heard one horseman sounding like he was riding right toward the front door, the horse's hooves quaking the hardpacked ground.
Then it was obvious, the yard was full of men on horseback. Nightriders.
The two women didn't dare move. The baby hiccoughed one time and my grandmother put her girlish hand over its mouth. They didn't dare speak even in the quietest whisper. They were holding each other very tight now, with the baby between them tucked under them. The baby began to gurgle. My grandmother again placed her hand over the baby's mouth but the gurgling kept on coming. Then the baby started giggling.
The Nightriders were up close to the front door now. Soon there was a heavy thud against the door. My greatgrandmother put her hand on her daughter's arm and squeezed it. They were both so tense their limbs were beginning to stiffen up forcing them to have to shift their bodies. My grandmother got a cramp in her side. The baby was still lightly giggling. She was beginning to have fun innocently unaware of the extreme if not deadly situation she was in. My greatgrandmother held her tight against her bosom.
There was another thud against the door. "Hey, open yere door in thar! Open it or we gonna break it in."
The women were now frozen stiff with tension and trying to stay quiet.
"Thar ain't nobody heah, Young, let's go," they heard another man say.
"That nigger gal's around heah somewhar; I kin smell her."
"She's prob'ly off across over that a'way. Back in them woods out thar."
There was then a series of heavy poundings on the sturdy door. "If'n I knocks this door down and find somebody in thar, I'll beat ya good, I tell ya I will."
The women remained quite.
Then the baby sneezed.
"You heah that?" one of the Nightriders said.
"What?" another one asked.
"I heard somethin' in thar!"
"Come on, Young, yore hearin' things. Let's go git that nigger gal."
There was one more thud on the door, then there were smaller thuds against one of the shuttered windows.
"Awright, dammit, I 'spose there's nobody heah. You think that bitch went over toward that thar woods...let's ride around by the Bailey place and come in back of that patch. Le's go."
There was then a burst of horses hooves and horses snorting and then the hooves thundered off out of the yard and then faded off into the distance.
My grandmother sighed and said outloud, "Mama, that was so...." Her mother put her hand over her mouth. "Shhhhhh, honey, they may have left a scout behind. Stay quiet and let me check." My greatgrandmother went over and slowly loosened one of the shutters on the far right window slot. Then she raised the burlap just enough to peek out. The yard was empty and so was the field between the yard and so was the road.
Then the baby started crying and my greatgrandmother lit a lone candle and took the baby in her arms. "Oh golly she's wet herself. Help me with her diaper." She was diapered with the diaper of the day, a cleaned and bleached flour sack held on the baby by two big rusty snap-closed pins. Just as my greatgrandmother was loosening that diaper, they were startled by a quiet knock at the door.
My greatgrandmother blew out the candle and held her breath. My grandmother grasped her mother's wrist so hard it hurt but she didn't mind the pain knowing how frightened her daughter was.
Then they heard a voice. It was a woman's voice. "White ladies!" it said. "White ladies, it's me, the bay-bee's mama."
My greatgrandmother then took the big timber bar out of the racks and cracked the big door slightly open. She took a big chance that the girl wasn't with the Nightriders, but the chance had to be taken.
The Black girl was there. My grandmother pulled her into the dugout. She then relit the oil lamp and they got their first look at the baby's mother. She was pretty but tough looking, too. She was hardbodied, her legs sturdy and big like small logs.
"How did you get back here? The Nightriders just left here 'bout 15 minutes ago."
"I never left yore yard. I hid up over your house, just up the rise in that clump of cedar trees up there."
"So what are you gonna do, girl? You can't stay here; nor can you leave your baby here...she's so precious; never made a sound the whole time those Nightriders were here. What's her name?"
My grandmother said, "That's my name, too."
"Effie?" the Black girl asked.
"Yes, Effie, that's my name, too."
The Black girl took little Effie in her arms after my greatgrandmother had rigged up a diaper out of an old pillow case she took off her and her husband's bed.
"What are you gonna do, girl? Where you goin'?"
"I got my places where I can go...back the other way from those Nightriders...."
"Yeah but they're just over on the other side of the Bailey farm...."
"That's fine. Let 'em stay there," the Black girl said, "in the meantime, I'se be long gone thataway." She pointed toward the West.
My greatgrandmother let the Black woman and Little Effie out the door and she watched as the woman soon disappeared into the darkness headed out across the field just to the west of the dugout.
"Mama, will she be alright?"
"I 'spose she's used to runnin', child. I know what runnin' is; runnin' with babies, too."
And that woman did know what running was. She had married a 72-year-old Republic of Texas Army officer when she was 12 and when he'd tried to consummate the marriage, she'd kicked him in the nuts and went to her room and refused to come out. This old man sent his sons in to kick some sense into her and both sons tried to rape her and she resisted them. Then one son took out a revolver, pointed it at her, and told her to start running. He said he might give her a five minute start but she had to hurry. "After five minutes," he reemphasized, "then we're coming after you to kill you." My 12-year-old greatgrandmother jumped out a window with nothing on but a thin dress and ran like a lizard out across the lowlands of Lampasas County in the Central Texas swamplands that ran from where she was down to the Lampasas River. She spent a week in those swamps running from those brothers until she finally made it to the river and then followed the river up 20 miles to a little river town where she had relatives that took her in.
That was how the story ended.
That grandmother, my mother's mother, told that story over and over; I've heard it at least 7 times, each time told in the same way with the same dramatic effect. This story was always followed by my grandmother's talking about Black people and how wonderfully kind and gentle they were and what good mothers they made and how awful White people treated them, to the point that one day God would punish White people severely for their treatment of his special Black people. This is also when she taught me that the Civil War was anything but civil. She told me that thousands upon thousands of young men were killed over slavery, whether it was right or wrong. She said all decent White people knew slavery was wrong and the South had made a big mistake defending slavery as being righteous under God. That's when she also taught me that Negroes were not niggers, to which my mother backed that up with the threat of washing my mouth out with lye soap should she ever hear me using that word.
In Dallas, Texas, where I was raised, we lived up on a hill in far East Dallas, over a ravine just across from the largest Black section of Dallas at the time. To get into Dallas, you had to drive from our house right straight through the Black section. I was always fascinated by the experience and I would soak in the sights and sounds of that area everytime we went through it.
One time I was riding into Dallas with another family in their car and as we came to Ethiopiaville, as White Dallasites called it, the son stuck his head out the window and started hollering, "Hey, Chocolate Drops, kiss my White ass!" He hollered it louder and louder, finally going into a kind of rage, "Hey, you, Chocolate Drop, kiss my White ass." The father then started talking about pickaninnies and then the father, a jake-leg preacher, stuck his head out the window and hollered at an old Black man, "Hey, Uncle Tom, bet you'd like some White pussy wouldn't you, you fuckin' nigger bastard."
I was shocked. I was scared. I'd never heard such shit from the people I normally hung out with and certainly not my parents. I had never done such a thing either. The son looked at me and said, "Come on, don't you wanna tease some niggers?"
I remember the first time I went to the Texas State Fair. We went on the day set aside for Negroes. My folks had no qualms at all about going to the State Fair on Negro Day and we went and with Blacks we rode the rides and with Blacks we went in the State Fair Theater and saw "Oklahoma" with the original cast except John Riatt had replaced Alfred Drake by then. I remember that day on the Midway. There was a special area set up called "Harlem" and in Harlem were tons of stripper shows, one called the Cotton Club Review and I remember seeing those Black women out in front of the big tent in which they did their "sexy" strips; and I watched with great delight these Black women half-naked with a sharp-tongued Black man with a microphone saying things like, "Hey, White brothers, come on in here and see your Black sisters do there thing." I was amazed that this Black hawker was talking about White brothers having Black sisters.
The most popular site that day on the Midway was called "The African Dip." Two big Black brothers were sitting on these little perches over this big tank of water. Out to the side of each Black man's cage was a target with a red bull's eye center. What you did was, you bought 5 baseballs for a quarter. Then you took the baseballs and you threw them at the target. If you hit the red spot, the perch would drop out from under the Black man and he'd fall into the water to the delight of everybody. That day while Blacks were throwing balls at these guys my dad bought me five balls and, yes, I threw at that red spot with great delight--and I considered myself a baseball player by then, too--and the Black dude I was trying to drown was teasing me, "Hey, little White boy, you sure you know how to throw that little White ball?" I was amazed that these Black men were jeering at me. I was amazed that Black men could freely jive on White folks. I threw and missed. "Woooie, little White boy, you couldn't hit the side of a Black barn could you, boy." He was pissing me off. The next ball I threw went sailing wide and high. "Lordy, White boy, you the worst pitcher I ever seen." That did it. I threw my best Bob-Feller fastball at that red spot--hit it dead on--the Black guy fell in the water and I won a little plastic coin on a string that had a picture of Elsie, the Borden's cow, on it.
Later I left my hometown and went off to college. The college I went to was the first college in the Southern Collegiate Association to integrate. I was in the first class that graduated Blacks. The first Black I met and became friendly with was a young woman from Dallas, a hauntingly beautiful woman who was very light skinned, almost white, with freckles across her nose. We would stand by each other and talk and one day I told her I wanted to kiss her and she said she wanted to kiss me too but she said we knew we couldn't kiss. It wasn't allowed. I grabbed her and kissed her right there in the college Union Building, up on a balcony overlooking a big huge room full of White kids. After that kiss, there was nothing; no reaction from the Whites or the Blacks.
An incomplete story...because still to this day my people, White people, are still stunted by their fear and distrust and total ignorance of Black people--they still judge Black people in terms of White measures. And I feel most of my people are still racists, though a lot of them don't won't to be except they have been so trained in racism...
Yes, White people still think white stands for purity. That's what that white means in our red, white, and blue flag. As long as White represents purity and goodness and Black represents darkness, evil, that which smells, we'll never all be equal like Tom Jefferson said we were in his Constitution. He himself was a hypocrite when it came to all men being created equal and so still are Whites.
I have separated recently from a Black woman I've been involved with since I met her in 1975. The separation happened when one day I was talking confidently about my experiences with Black people and what my parents had taught me, and I started singing the little diddy: "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world/red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight/Jesus loves the little children of the world," and my friend of 30 years suddenly turned on me and angrily called me a racist Texas dumb son of a bitch. "The trouble with you White people. You think you know everything. You think you're so fucking good because you had a family that was fair--fair hell, they were racists. You White people will never understand that you will always be racists in Black people's eyes no matter how hard you try and prove you're not." That broke my heart. And though this woman and I continued on and off for a while, the harmony of our relationship was gone and instead of having fun together, we began arguing constantly, always the argument returning to me being a racist and she couldn't stand me anymore. Love left the stage and hate took its place.
I am very proud of my nonconforming way of living. For that reason I am a professed Atheist. For that reason I also rebuke anyone who bases their measuring of man on the color of his skin. For that reason I have always believed differences in races was nonsense; unprovable; all of us the same except for the color of our skins. Those colors only signifying that in evolution skin color is determined by pigmentation, which is determined by the amount of sunlight your skin is exposed to. Our earliest ancestors, Lucy et. al., were born Black. Chimps's skin evolving Black as they came down out of the jungle canopy and were exposed to the hot African sun or the steamy insides of an African jungle--and yes, Black skin sweats easily--it's an air-conditioning thing. Therefore, we all are descendants of Black people, skin colors differing as you spread out from Africa and up into the colder and less sun-exposed northern areas--becoming White I think first in the Mongolian highlands before coming down as tribes to eventually emerge in the 11th Century (maybe later) as what ancient historians called "The White Huns," and who today we call according to the countermarks on their coins the Hephthalites who at one time were rulers of the area that today surround Kabul in Afghanistan. That is a theory I had been working on for years.
I decided to declare myself independent of all the beliefs I'd been taught, all the prejudices I'd been taught, all the facts that I'd been taught that were bullshit and throw them out the window. I would associate with Blacks if I wanted to; I'd marry a Black woman if I wanted to...and one day here in New York City I was standing at the bar in a predominantly Black discotech in Midtown Manhattan sipping on a Heineken when two women entered the place and one of those women attracted me so magnetically I determined without one hesitation that that woman was the woman of my dreams. The face, the body, the eyes, the hair, the everything was the woman of my dreams. That she was Black I didn't even notice. I didn't. To me she was just a woman.
And that is the saddest part of this story. For thirty years I strutted around town with this woman. All my friends Black and White knew of our relationship. My best friend, however, a Black man, warned me that she was dangerous. He rationalized that down deep she hated me because she found herself so attracted to me--he said this, not me. He said she was a bad one and if I kept pursuing her love she'd end up cutting me--cutting me deep, as he put it. I told my friend I knew this woman; I knew she really did love me though we did have an off-and-on-affair, though when we'd get back together...oh well, that's the romantic fool in me. And it's that romantic fool that got self-sure and cocky about how he didn't see people as Black or White, but rather as just people--the same under the skin.
In the end, she was right. And now that she's out of my life, I have to admit my stupid theories were wrong though their intentions were honorable, still they were from a White point of view. And that's what this woman meant about me still being a racist--"Just because you're White." And as she continued, "You White people are all racists and you don't even know it."
So, you see my dilemma! And, you see, I am a stone racist just because I'm White, born into a segregated society, to White parents, brought up on White tales, brought up by White women who I swore didn't have a racist bone in their bodies, though, yes, they still were racists because they still were White and they went right along with the biased and cruel laws of separate-but-equal without a protest. I can now understand how Blacks can never fully trust even the most understanding of White people. I especially notice this in New York City where Blacks and Whites don't really mix as much as you'd think they would at this date in time. I once wrote a story about the Tan people--the new people of the Amalgamated United States--the true Americans, a mixture of White, Black, Asian, Latino, whatever, all melded to form a Tan people. Tan being the perfect color in terms of living on the Earth. That was my Utopia, but like all Utopias, it was only a tall tale trapped inside my romantic head.
for The Daily Growler