Thursday, March 01, 2007

The One Black Girl in Mrs. Kaufman's Class

My friend Carolyn in my office has asked me to talk more about Michelle Smith and her family. I've resisted because I thought we should wait for the full thrust of time and society to give her and her family weight. Maybe I'm wrong. Michelle's mother was Irene Smith. She was and I believe still is an strong and powerful advocate for the black community and African American's in South Jersey. Their lives in 1958 were severely circumscribed by the society of the day. I mentioned we drove home from my grandmothers through the pig farms. The pig farms were largely worked by the black people of Jericho. They lived next to them. When I was in high school we rode our buses through Jericho and we could see the outhouses in the backyards. This was a world ten steps away from ours. This was a caste system just like the one that separated Ramesh and his Indian bride. This was and is a great divide.
Irene Smith believed strongly in establishing a strong black presence in South Jersey. She bought a property in Wenonah. It must have been a great struggle. As it was it was just one the outside of everything nestled close against Jericho. She was outspoken. She was proud. She was what black people needed in a time when black people were nothing in South Jersey. When I was growing up South Jersey most closely resembled the deep south. There were long arguments among my friends about what their families would do if blacks moved into our neighborhood. My friend, Chris DeHart's mother, was a southern woman and he had deep antipathies to black people. Most of my friends believed black people didn't belong in Wenonah. When I moved back to get well in 2001 there was a house on Mantua Avenue flying the Confederate flag. It was not because of Southern sympathies. It was because the man who owned the home hated niggers.
In my family that word was forbidden. My mother's father, my grandfather, had deep seated hatreds against foreigners, Jews, Catholics, but most of all, niggers. He railed against them at the table each evening. Philadelphia was a deeply divided city and remains so. For all the good Quakers there were a thousand racists. Frank Rizzo was Philly's hero and Frank fought the Negro menace.
My mother hated racism and her father's bigotry. Nonetheless it was part of her. Wenonah was a white as white can be. Michelle and her brother Michael were of our town but until the late sixties never really part of it. I hate telling a story early but part of what this story is about is how my world changed. I had to leave a party when I was seventeen with two of my friends and my brother with our backs against the wall and fists up because we were "nigger lovers". Nigger lovers. What a sad phrase. I know all the words for black people. Spearchucker, porch monkey, spook. I knew boys that tried to run down black hitchhikers on Glassboro Road for kicks.
When I went to work at Cornell Steel in college my co-worker Jim Sterner said he went to Senior Year in HS with a shotgun in his bag to kill any nigger that got out of line.
Got out of line.
My mother had a series of housekeepers from Catholic Charities. They were all black women who worked for a few months or so helping an overworked woman cope with three overactive idiots. They were paid nearly nothing. That was the only reason my mother could afford them.
I know nothing of the internal life of Michelle Smith. I don't know who she loved, who she gave birth to or where she went to college. She and her brother were the only black people I came in contact with till I went to college in 1970. This is an America that we don't need to go back to. You can guess at her alienation from my own. It's just a guess. You can wonder why this country discounted so many people just because of the color their skin. But we all danced to nigger music.
So all I can offer for right now is this: Motown was the music we all loved. Philly was the heart of Soul. White kids loved nigger music. Something there is in this country that won't let us become a balkan state. I envied the black people I saw because they were comfortable with their bodies. Maybe they weren't. I envied their music. I loved it. With all my heart I wish I'd never heard the word nigger.
In my office people use that word cavalierly. People who don't know the hurt it carries. They don't know that if I use it I don't mean nigga; I mean nigger. It's not an expression of familiarity, it's an expression of derision and hatred and disgust. No, it's an expression of negation. Cuz niggers don't count. They're not even there. Like a lot of people. Like Ramesh. And really like me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It amazes me that I did not succumb to the racist ideas of my friends and family. Growing up in the late 50's in Woodbury Heights, I too was close to the pig farms in Jericho. A black family lived across the street from us. Across the street was Deptford, but it may as well have been the moon as far as racial lines were drawn. The only playmate I had at that time was a little girl from that family named Lulu. I would stand in my front yard and cry out, hey little colored girl, will you come out and play? My mother would here me and rush out to tell me not to say that, even though that was what she called black people at the time. I could just as well called out the words my father and uncles used, but fortunately I never did. I never cared what a kid was as long as they wanted to be my friend. I still do not understand the irrational racial hatred members of my family have. The racism of the past is still with us and continues to prevent us from being a whole people.