Continuing my reminiscences about growing up white and occasionally encountering “the other,” I’m going to try to move on from discussing individual black people I knew. I want to turn my thoughts toward “blackness” in general or black people in general, as I learned about it/them growing up. Of course my family enjoyed white privilege; of course we didn’t know that, or the name for it. In short, we didn’t worry much about the lives of black people because they rarely intersected with ours. My father was nominally a liberal on race. The word “nigger” was never used in our house; we called them “colored” people or a “colored guy.” Like other white people of my and my father’s generation, we didn’t see “colored” as itself a racialized term. There was also a distinction I picked up from somewhere outside the confines of family: that a “good” black person was a “Negro”; a “nigger” was a bad black person. As if goodness or badness was inherent. All this sort of satisfied me and deflected any guilt I might have assumed.
During the 1965 urban riots, I recall, my dad and I were visiting his sister, my aunt, and her husband, my uncle. My dad and Aunt Dorothy were close; Dorothy lived into, I’m guessing, her 50s as a single woman. She married late in life, and all I knew about it was “Aunt Dorothy is getting married.” I don’t know how she met the man, what kind of courtship they had, nothing. Just, all of a sudden, I had an Uncle Johnny. Looking back, I see that my dad did not approve of him or of his sister marrying him, but he kept it pretty much to himself. But when were visiting them that summer and video of the riots came on the TV news, Uncle Johnny muttered something about “they [rioters, black rioters] should be lined up and shot!” Uncle Johnny was a hunter, something else that was alien in my growing up. My dad surprised me by talking back to Uncle Johnny, scoffing at his notion. I admired my dad for taking this stand, but now I wonder if it didn’t come more from his dislike of Johnny and less from his compassion for poor urban black people.
Generally, my family admired black athletes, particularly Roberto Clemente. Or we didn’t get racial attitudes get in the way of our admiration for them. As a high-schooler, I thought everyone in Pittsburgh admired Roberto Clemente, even if the white folks, anyway, wanted to call him “Bobby” and pronounce his last name with an “e” sound at the end, not an “a.” I went to my share of Pirates games at Forbes Field, and my friends and I liked to sit in the right field grandstand. Those seats were relatively cheap and we could watch Clemente play outfield, which no one in his time could do like him. One day, the opposing batter launches a high drive into right center field. The Pirates’ center fielder was a (white) guy called Bill Virdon. He and Clemente are running toward the ball. One of them caught it; I forget who. But I do remember a (white) fan nearby hollering, “Kill that nigger, Virdon!” Wow. I puzzled over that for a long time: why would some random white man have such hatred for Roberto Clemente, the Pirates’ best player? Was it because he thought the white centerfielder should catch the fly ball? That the black, Latino right fielder had no business ranging out of his territory to make the catch? I couldn’t let myself think there were racist whites at a Pirates’ game.
Lest I come across as an anti-racist kid, let me say that, without uttering it, me and my friends thought that black athletes like Roberto Clemente or Willy Stargell were great ballplayers, but still alien as men. I think now that we exercised our white privilege to like what they did but not want them to get too close to us. I think we patronized them. As I moved on to college, I became, somehow, a fan of “black” popular music. When I was home for the summer, I had the local “black” station on the radio all the time. I liked “soul” and I wanted to partake a little bit of it, without, of course, being black myself. I thought I was on the right side of the then-unnamed culture wars. One DJ on the station went by the air name of “Sir Walter.” He had a deep voice and spoke slowly and with an affected intellectual tone. In those days, radio “personalities” often read commercial announcements themselves. One of the sponsors for The Sir Walter Show was Ex-Lax, and Sir Walter talked about it like he believed. He’d say, in his deep voice, “Constipation: the worst misery of which I know,” and he say that one way a person could take Ex-Lax was in the form of “choc-o-lated pills.” He made it a three syllable word, which gave me a chance to laugh at his pretentious intonation, to see through his verbal pose. When I first went to graduate school, I met a woman from Kentucky and wooed her. I presented Pittsburgh as a really funky place, and I’d tell her about The Sir Walter Show and try to do his on-air voice, to make her laugh and think I was attractive. I never once thought that this was a racist attitude. Racist? Who, me? No, man, I’m a liberal! I support Civil Rights! Blah blah blah!
For the fiftieth anniversary of our graduation, my high school class launched a website. It helped reconnect people, like me, who’d lost touch with virtually everybody from that time and place. The site is still active, with classmates posting occasional comments, stories, poems, pictures. Recently someone, not me, started a discussion about race — or race in our high school and the neighborhoods that fed it. That discussion got me thinking again about my white youth, my white privileged youth. I’ve said before that the kids I was in class with, ate in the cafeteria with, etc. were virtually all “pro-civil rights.” In 2018, that sounds so quaint! But Allderdice High School was in one of the most affluent — and white — neighborhoods in the city. And I’m going to guess that many of my classmates’ parents were college-educated. My father was not. That was one of several ways I felt a little marginalized in school. Still, as a white boy and an athlete and in a couple of Advanced Placement classes, I was accepted and mainstream. So far, the discussants on that site have been a small percentage of our class — and all white. Someone (me?) asked if there had been any black people in our class. To myself, I thought not — or at least I couldn’t remember any. Anyway, the recent posts on the TAHS Class of 1964 website sent me to our yearbook to see. The Class of 1964 numbered 475, of whom three were black – -all girls, two of whom I take to be sisters, perhaps twins. I remembered none of them. Speaking just for myself and not my 471 white classmates, the invisibility of these three girls is a sign of our privilege. There were some black boys on the football team, one or two, but no one from our class. It wasn’t til I got to college that I had more interaction with black peers. But I do want to mention a couple of high-school-age black friends, or friends of friends. There were several of these, not Allderdice students. Through our church, my horizons expanded a little. Around my freshman year, the church I’d grown up in merged with another Presbyterian church not in Squirrel Hill. It was in East Liberty, what was at the time a declining commercial district with a transitional population. The high school in that part of the city, Peabody High School, was racially mixed, reflecting the neighborhoods it drew from. So there were a few black kids in Eastminster Presbyterian Church, one of home, Addison Booker, was a friend of some white kids I’d gotten close to through a youth group. I remember he was a dancer, none of whom I’d ever known either, and talked about joining the Freedom Riders in the summer of 1963. I don’t remember if he went or not. I also made sort-of friends with some black athletes. I played Colt League baseball for the Shadyside Boys Club team, Shadyside being adjacent to both East Liberty and Squirrel Hill. There were black kids on the team, but I can remember only one name: Tony Henderson/ I believe he had a brother who was also on the team. The games were here and there in the eastern part of the city and neighboring boroughs, and we had to make our own way to the games. This also was the summer of 1963, and although I was 16 I did not have a driver’s license. So sometimes my dad would drive me to wherever the SBC team was playing, sometimes I’d go by streetcar, and at least once, anyway, I rode with Tony Henderson and two other black teammates, one of whom I recall as Tony’s brother. More than 50 years later, I still have a vivid memory of riding to a game with these guys. laughing and joking. Chuck Berry’s “Mabelene” came on the radio, and the three black kids sang along. In my memory, we were riding in a V8 Ford ourselves. I didn’t known the song, but I felt like I was being accepted into another world. I think this is the first time I felt any kind of a bond with black people my age. But I lost track of these guys went I entered my senior year of high school. I still couldn’t drive, so my relative lack of mobility limited my friendships, and I sort of came alive as a student my senior year — finally getting some decent grades and becoming more involved with extracurriculars other than football. So my vision turned away from my SBC baseball teammates. I never saw any of them again.
Months ago, I started musing on race and racism through the eyes of one 70-something white man. This is a continuation of that with more memories of my experiences.
My mother died when I was five. Soon thereafter, my father hired a live-in housekeeper, the first of several who were part of my family up through my high-school years. All were white. The first, a wonderful woman named Katie Durso, developed rheumatoid arthritis while working for the Wingards. She would die in just a couple of years, but while she was in our home and increasingly unable to do work with her hands, my dad hired a “cleaning lady” to help her. This black woman’s name was Bernice. I never knew her last name. I suppose she lived in the Hill District, one of the black neighborhoods in the city. It was a daily sight to see black women in their 40’s and 50’s getting off the bus in virtually all-white Squirrel Hill in the morning and reboarding the bus in the evening. We (white kids in Squirrel Hill) all knew without being told who these women were and why they were in our neighborhood. No big deal. But Bernice was the first person of color who really had anything to do with my life. She was large, I remember that, and kindly. But one time I overheard my dad complaining to Katie about her, calling her (Bernice) an “esmeralda.” I had no idea what that meant, and maybe my dad didn’t either, but I knew he was disparaging her — or her intelligence or her work habits. For some reason, I later decided he was calling her a “mule,” with connotations of “not very smart, stubborn, but hard-working at a limited task.” At some point, Bernice left my father’s employ — maybe after Katie died — and we never had another cleaning lady. Lots of my friends did, though; it was common practice.
When I got to high school, I would hear some of the boys talking about going to the Hill to get laid. Apparently, their were brothels there. I think it cost a dollar to have sex with a black prostitute. I was shocked and confused by the talk. But I also picked up more than a whiff of contempt on the part of these white schoolmates for these women. I never partook, but not because I saw the racism in the economy of Hill District prostitution. Or, for that matter, in the economy of housekeeping in Squirrel Hill.
At the same time, as I said in another post, many of my high school friends came from liberal homes — more liberal than ours. The zeitgeist of Allderdice High School when I was there was “pro-civil rights,” and many of the kids were pretty hip on the issue. Of course, it was easy to identify racism as an exclusively Southern phenomenon. At any rate, I came out of high school with liberal ideas on race. Naive, but liberal.
I played football in college, and there were a few black players on the team. I was never really friends with any of them, and, looking back, I wonder how they felt being at a mostly white college. As I recall, my teammates accepted them — especially if they were good. There was one black player, a guard, who was outstanding — probably the best blocking guard in the conference. He was also uncouth, in white terms: loud, grabby, kind of goofy. White guys used to joke about not lockering next to this guy because he had body odor, which was taken as a natural phenomenon of blackness. I don’t know; none of the other black players smelled bad to me, any more than my white teammates did. But I never said anything. Spring of my senior year, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Riots erupted in black neighborhoods in several American cities. Black people were pissed off — understandably so. But a couple of the black guys, including one star running back, de-activated from the fraternity that they and I were members of, in protest of the murder of Dr. King. The attitudes among most of my white frat brothers ranged from mystification to anger: Why would they de-activate? None of us did or said anything to them? Isn’t that a little extreme? Screw them if they don’t want to be part of our club! Looking back, to my surprise, I spoke up in defense of their action; I said that if I were black I’d do the same thing. I don’t think I got through to any of the white guys.
I’m not trying to heroize myself here; just recalling some incidents in one young white American’s life where racism — usually invisible — asserted itself.
This year will be the 50th anniversary of my college graduation. Of course, there are events planned at the college, and one of my (few) friends from those days is on the organizing committee for a class reunion at homecoming, fall of 2018. I told her I wouldn’t be going, as I told a former fraternity brother who called me about the event. There are several reasons I’m not going, but one of those is my reluctance to be again, even for just a weekend or even just in the minds of my classmates, the guy I was then: not openly racist, maybe even liberal, but far from woke. Maybe I’m doing my classmates wrong by thinking this way, but I don’t believe any of them is, to this day.
Or maybe I should go, and try to talk to some of them about systemic racism?