Friday, September 11, 2009

Childhood and Race: Johnson City 1969

I don't recall any black people or other minorities when I lived in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. There must have been a few, but we're talking the late Fifties and early Sixties, we're talking about my age being between birth and five years old. In vancouver, Washington, I recall one friend in my class who was black (his last name was Bell, but I don't remember his first) and we ran around and wrestled and such. Though the distinction in skin color was there, I don't recall any other distinction between us in my mind. I wasn't raised like that. But when we moved to Tennessee--to a small town in northeast Tennessee in the late Sixties--racial tension was obvious.
I still made little distinction between people of different races as I hit my teens, but I was much more aware that other people did. Though there were many black people around, I don't recall there being any in my first two schools: Jonesborough and Cherokee County elementary schools. There must have been some, but I don't recall. And certainly, there were no hispanic or asian kids in my class (again, maybe there actually were, but I don't recall). But when I entered seventh grade and went to East High in the city of Johnson City, there were plenty of other kids there who were black.
In fact, my pal--Dana--was black. I considered him my best friend at school. True, we never did get together outside of school, I didn't know where he lived and he didn't know where I did, but some of that was because I lived outside of town and my parents paid for me to go to the city school. I had my regular neighborhood pals, I had my brothers and sister. But while in school, Dana and I had classes together, ate lunch together, goofed around a lot. But it was also at that school that, as I walked the hallway, other kids--white kids--would look at me and whisper to me as I passed by, saying: "Nigger-lover".
This surprised me. Maybe even shocked me. I was from Washington State (I still considered myself to be from there all the time I lived in Tennessee, even after we moved to Iowa, if someone asked where I was from I'd say Vancouver, Washington) where life was a wee bit more progressive than the upper corner of Tennessee, so the use of the word nigger and the application of it to me was strange in my mind. We moved out of Tennessee by the end of that year. I don't know what would have happened if we had stayed and if the taunting or anger of the racist kids had escalated. Back then, I was not shy about fighting or defending what I thought to be just causes. So, it could have ended up a problem.
But there was another issue that I was thinking of when I started this post. It was towards the end of my short tenure at East High in Johnson City. I was in my homeroom class and a sort-of friend--I think his name was John--was teasing me about a girl who liked me. (She was a very pretty girl, a cheerleader on the junior squad where I played football. I don't remember her name.) "I think 'So-and-So' likes you. I think you're going to get married." He wasn't teasing me in a bad way, a taunting way. "You'll break her heart when you leave." Maybe she had put him up to it. John was a smart kid, a nerd really (though we did not have that terminology at the time), a brain. So, though I was happy to think this girl liked me (and she did, I already knew that), I decided to tease him back.
I looked around the classroom to find a girl that I could accuse of liking him, one that would be a bad joke, and I settled on Alice (I can't recall her name, so I'll call her Alice) who was not an especially good looking girl (by no means ugly or bad, just plain). She was also black. And I admit the main reason I chose to name her was because she was black, knowing that this was virtually taboo in Tennessee, to say a white boy liked a black girl. So I said, "And you know who likes you? You're going to marry Alice."
I smiled at him, thinking how clever I was, how shocked he would be by naming a black girl for him to marry. But John looked over at Alice (who was unaware she had been named) and back at me, and he said, "I happen to think Alice is very pretty."
Now, I was the one who was shocked. He knew exactly what my intentions had been in naming Alice and, in a split second, used that against me.
I wasn't shocked because he would think Alice--a black girl--was pretty. I was shocked because he had the maturity to say such a thing. He took my intended joke and turned it back against me. I didn't think that a Southerner--a seventh grade Southerner at that--would admit to liking a girl openly, let alone one of a different race. And the fact that Alice wasn't considered particularly pretty anyway, for him to say that she was showed a fine sense of grace and intelligence. It also made me feel ashamed for using Alice's race as a point of amusement, as something that would be a cause for rejection by someone else. I was not as pure as I thought.
And that has stayed with me--that boy's comments at that age in Johnson City. It's often shocking to say the right thing, the gracious thing. I still often use that "trick" to this day when someone says something offensive or offending in the guise of a joke. I just turn it around. If the comment is against me--insinuating I'm ignorant or something--I just go ahead and calmly agree with them, but in a subtle manner that shows I'm not really the ignorant one. I thank John for that.
I also recall one other instance. I used to go to the Little League baseball games of my friend, Kent, who lived in the neighborhood. His dad would drive us there (they were in-town) and I'd hang out, watch the game, buy sodas and snacks at the concession stand, interact with the other kids. There were quite a few black kids on the team, one of them named Oliver, who was at home plate taking batting practice. I was hanging out along the fence and some other kids came up, black kids, and started talking to me. They talked about so and so being their brother, who was on this or that team. They asked who I was with, who was I related to. And I immediately said I was related to Oliver and pointed. They looked at me much the same way I must have looked at John that one day at school, but then they smiled. This was northeast Tennessee in the late sixties, but most people got along just fine.

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