Sunday, November 22, 2015

I Hate

            I hate.
My hate is the engine that gives me courage. That allows me to take risks.
Over the decades I’ve landed on strange planets without any travel guide. At 17, I landed in NYC, the East Village, and the Punk Rock scene. I knew nothing about any of this. In later years I landed in places like Egypt, Ghana, and Sri Lanka without the operations manual.
Now, after lunch with Dad and coffee with Uncle Melvin, I was ready to return. I don’t know when the last time I was in Covington, TN, but it had to have been as far back as the mid-70s.
Times had changed. Memphis had a black mayor.
I wasn’t ready to forgive, but I was ready to understand where my hate comes from. I had a certain gratitude. I had gotten out. I had survived. I had my ghosts. My nightmares. My panic attacks. But I knew I would be dead if I had stayed. Even leaving didn’t protect me at all times. I nearly didn’t survive a few times. I was driven to self-harm. Only my hate sustained me. Saved me.
I hate.
            Not the kind of hate that was all around me as a child. The hate a white community has for “uppity niggers,” but a more personal hate.
I hate Grandfather Joe. He might be dead all of the 46 years, but smell of his cigar burning my flesh still stings my nose.
To think of him as a victim, instead of the victimizer I knew him to be, drove me back.
It just couldn’t be so.
How could this man who beat me, who hurt me, be the victim of racial assassination.
Everything I knew seemed to be turned upside down if this turned out to be true. I have spent my life escaping him and people like him.
Grandfather Joe wasn’t the only bigot and bully in my family, but their stories are for another time. For them, the takeaway from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, assassination was not how his death was a national tragedy. It was not how a criminal like James Earl Ray fired his rifle and killed the man who symbolized hope in the flesh for not just African Americans, but for all compassionate Americans who believed in a united nation. 
What King’s assassination represented for Dad, for Uncle Melvin, for Uncle Ben, for Grandfather Joe was more evidence of the danger and threat of African Americans to the values they believed America was founded on.
On April 5th, 1968, the day after King’s assassination, the Memphis Commercial Appeal led with the news that the National Guard had been called up to protect the city from black rioters. King’s assassination was below the fold. The primary narrative was not the King tragedy. Rather, it was that our (meaning white) fathers and sons and brothers were being put in harm’s way to protect the city from black people.
            Memphis’s afternoon paper, The Press Scimitar, took a different approach. They focused on the national tragedy and lost nearly half their subscriptions. By the time I had an afternoon paper route in 1972, Uncle Ben told me he would never subscribe to “those nigger lovers.” I didn’t understand what he was talking about, and he didn’t deem it necessary to explain.
            At that time my experience with people of color was extremely limited. Uncle Ben’s maid, Emelia, was a combative woman who was best steered clear of. A man name John came weekly to mow Uncle Ben’s lawn. The most contact I had with African Americans was riding the city bus to school everyday. I would get on at the beginning of the line and ride for an hour to school and then reverse my trip at the end of school. The only other riders were black domestic workers and an old white man who looked like he stepped out of a Faulkner novel, with a seersucker suit, suspenders, and battered leather briefcase.
            Unlike Uncle Ben, who was one of the original owners of Holiday Inns and lived in a big house, Susan, Mom, and I lived in a townhouse about a mile down the road. Mom worked a minimum wage job, and we qualified for Food Stamps. We had little money. What little we did have was directed to paying for segregated white private schools so Susan and I would not have to attend newly desegregated public schools.
            In order to get to these schools, we had to take the city bus. Mom had to be at work too early to drive us to school. Once the public bus system in Memphis was desegregated, white Memphians stopped riding. Like a child who doesn’t like the rules of a game on the playground, they took their ball and went home. Susan and I didn’t have the luxury of choice. As I rode the bus everyday, I watched the women who rode with me. They seemed to be of a world that I would never be able to enter.
            I had been instructed early on in life that blacks were dangerous. I remember in 1964, when I was four and we lived in Drexel Hill, Mom went out for the day and left us with the woman who ironed and cleaned for her. I don’t remember much about the woman, but what she did. She took Susan and I to her apartment in the inner city Philadelphia. We rode the trolley into town, something I loved to do. When we got off the trolley, we emerged into the teaming North Philly ghetto. I saw no one but blacks. We walked several blocks and climbed a flight of stairs. The smells and noises where so strange. I remember smelling biscuits mixed with strong body odor. Susan and I sat in the kitchen with our babysitter’s mother and other people. They all smoked and drank coffee. Because it was summer and it was hot, the windows were open and chaos of the street drifted in.
The trip felt like a real adventure, more exciting than our trip to the World’s Fair in New York City that summer. It was a world I could not have imagined on my own. But when we returned, Mom was furious. She fired the woman. I got the feeling that what we had done had been dangerous, and because it had happened in the company of a black woman, black people were dangerous. The woman who cleaned our house and ironed our clothes was the only black babysitter we ever had. All the others, and there were many, were white teenage girls or older women. The message was that Susan and I were not safe with blacks.  
When I began riding the bus to school in Memphis a few years later, my only context for black lives was my adventure to North Philly on a hot summer afternoon. Since it had ended poorly, I had been trained not to feel safe around black people.
On the bus, I’d listen to the casual conversations about shopping and church and children and, eventually, another or alternative narrative emerged. In this new understanding my companions on the ride into midtown Memphis in the morning and returning in the afternoon were no more threatening than the mothers of friends. They sounded normal, like mothers. They worked hard jobs like Mom. I imagined they lived in places like our babysitter did. I wanted to know about their lives, but I had no ability to reach across the aisle. To speak. To join in on the conversation.
I was taught to be polite and use my manners. One component of that was that I should not ask intrusive questions of adults. As I look back now, I didn’t have the tools to construct the communicative infrastructure to reach across the aisle. Everything I had learned had made that barrier between us even stronger than any thing I could imagine.
So I sat on my bench and wondered and had to leave it at that.
That one more thing that I had been told was wrong. The knowledge stoked my hate. It seemed everything I was taught was a Potemkin Village. These people who were my mentors, my teachers, my role models, my parents, my grandparents, my uncles, my aunts were wrong. The pain was not benign. It was meant to hurt people, just like Grandfather Joe and Dad hurt me or perhaps more so since I was a child.
The lies, however, weren’t just to harm African Americans, but they were meant to harm whites as well. They were part of a larger fabric of lies that told Mom that she wasn’t worth anything because she was no longer a virgin or married. Somehow, the marriage’s failure was her fault and she had to held accountable by society. Like Kimbrough, the boy of divorced parents, who I bullied in elementary school, I was treated with pity by my teachers and scorn by other kids.  
One of those defining moments of hypocrisy was when I ended up at The McCallie School, a boarding school on the western slope of Missionary Ridge in Chattanooga where a major battle was fought in the Civil War. Within the first month I was caught with a quart of bourbon in my room. I was fifteen. I had been drinking since I was eleven. It surprised me at how rare being caught was. Few students were ever suspended. Since this was my first offense, I was suspended for two days to work with the building crew. The supervisor gave me a tooth brush and a spray bottle and told me to clean the pews in the chapel. After completing my suspension, I attended the next meeting of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. When the meeting began, the faculty adviser called me up. He launched into a story about how brave I was to return to the group after my shame and humiliation. He made references to the Prodigal Son. He praised my humility and desire for redemption.
I stood there not comprehending. It had never occurred to me that I should feel shame about what I had done. I didn’t know I needed to be redeemed. I just got caught at something every other kid in the room had been doing as well. If I wanted to play sports, I had to attend these meetings. That was my motivation. I wasn't looking for redemption.
As the faculty adviser bowed his head and prayed over me, I wanted to bolt and never play sports again. Even though I didn’t move, something inside me had shifted. I might have outwardly followed the rules to a certain extent, but I no longer believed. I felt blank and empty. They stoked my hate like coke shoveled into a furnace.
Five months later, I was expelled. Between my first suspension and my expulsion, I had been caught fighting twice. My friends and I had stolen the keys to the teachers’ offices. We would sneak late at night into the teachers offices and steal the answers to test. I was caught for that as well. Finally, my last infraction was drinking again. Another bottle of bourbon. I was gone.
Gone. I was saved.
Now, I was coming back. Most everyone was dead, but trail was still there. I needed to know. I needed my hate to be justified. Right now, Dad and Uncle Melvin's story of Grandfather Joe’s death put a chink my wall of hate. The hate that kept me protected from the past.

No comments:

Post a Comment