Someone ought to stand with a hammer at the door of every happy contented man continually banging on it to remind him that there are unhappy people around and that however happy he may be at the time, sooner or later life will show him its claws and disaster will overtake him in the form of illness, poverty, bereavement and there will be no one to hear or see him. But there isn’t anyone holding a hammer, so our happy man goes his own sweet way and is only gently ruffled by life’s trivial cares, as an aspen is ruffled by the breeze. All’s well as far as he’s concerned.
- Anton Chekhov, “Gooseberries”
Whenever a public outcry or riot’s been triggered by yet another racially motivated assault on a black man or woman, politicians inevitably utter (and commentators then endlessly and faux-earnestly repeat), “We need to have a national conversation about race.”
It’s a phrase I’ve heard many times in 66 years, but I, for one, have never actually been a party to any such conversation. Not with a black person, anyway—basically because I hardly know any.
When I do talk about race with the people I do know—white people—it’s to point out what’s staring us right in the face but what we somehow never quite see. Look at how racially segmented everything is, I’ll say. Walk into any Starbucks or Staples or McDonald’s in Manhattan where I live and anybody you see working there will almost certainly be—as if they were servants—black. And, next time you’re in a theater or a restaurant or a museum in even supposedly enlightened and diverse New York City—unless you’re in a black neighborhood—you’ll see almost every face is white. What does it say that blacks are the most unemployed and consistently hold the worst jobs and receive the lowest pay? And didn’t you know the New York City school system is the most segregated in the country? With private schools having swept up much of the white students, public schools overwhelmingly consist of minority kids. And what about the crazily punitive drug laws? And absurdly unjust bail practices? And the scandal of mass incarceration? The epidemic of voter disenfranchisement? Boy, oh, boy, don’t get me going, because when I do, I can really pile on the outrage! It’s not hard: the list of outrages to be outraged about is so long.
But why? I mean . . . why do I vent?
Because I’m a good Jewish boy who grew up in the ’60s and is deeply concerned about black people . . . in the abstract. I’m saddened and pissed off by the state of race relations in this country . . . at least intellectually pissed off. I’d really like the status of African-Americans in America to improve, to be, well, fairer. Conceptually, anyway. Given the opportunity, I’ll mouth off and rant about the economic and social indignities, the suffering that afflicted minorities are forced to endure. And then what do I do? Nothing. Socially aware (partially), emotionally affected (for a while), financially contributing (occasionally), politically inactive (always): that’s me.
Even if I had the chance, I doubt I’d even try to engage in a cross-racial conversation about race. I’d be too afraid that I’d trip over my own words and say something provocative, offensive, stupid. Wrong. Too afraid that the prejudices I’m conscious of—my fear, my envy—as well as God knows what other ones I’m not yet aware of, would be exposed. And as far as I know, the people I know—white people—are in the same strange and astonishing boat.
For when it comes right down to it, to us, black people are concepts, not individuals. Surrounded—on the streets, in the subways—by millions of black people, yet knowing but a few, I live what’s in reality a segregated existence in New York City.
Then again, perhaps it’s not all so strange and astonishing, considering how few and far between my encounters with black people have really been.
When I was a little kid, no more than 5, I’d say, we had a cleaning lady. Loddie. For all I know, Loddie may have been hired just to be my babysitter (“nanny” would have been too grand a term), but then had been roped somehow into also performing cleaning duties by my mother who, incessantly busy working in the mom-and-pop grocery store she ran with my father, had little time to spare for either domestic task. As I think back on it all, “Loddie” must have been “Lottie,” short for Carlotta maybe, but my ears heard everybody pronouncing it as “Loddie.” I loved saying her name, especially the sound those soft palate d’s made after that long drawn-out “ahhhhhhhhh.” I endlessly repeated her name, because, in addition to the soothing appeal of the sound, I guess I loved her, though my love may have arisen, in part, out of compassion, or perhaps more precisely, pity.
Loddie seemed to walk, even to breathe, as if she’d been beaten down. An overwhelming sadness enveloped her, the weariness in her bones palpable even to a 5-year-old. At times, suddenly overcome by an inexplicable impulse to scream out her name over and over again for no good reason, I’d run from the living room into the ammonia-smelling kitchen where, arms spread out wide to greet me, she’d squat down to my height (the bottom of her dress bunching into folds as it touched the floor, soaking up some of the puddle she’d created by having theatrically shoved the mop back into the bucket in honor of my noisy arrival) and smile a big fat Loddie smile right in my face and, in return, shout out my name over and over and hug me and shake me like nobody’s business. But my fits of screaming her name weren’t really “for no good reason.” I had a good one: I wanted to cheer her up and smash into smithereens that storm cloud hovering over her.
Loddie was, my mother informed me, a knee-grow because her skin was black. Except for her pink palms, though, Loddie’s skin didn’t look black to me, but a dark, dark brown.
On our primitive television set, back then in the ’50s, I’d often watch decades-old black-and-white cartoons, a number of which, oddly enough, contained a segment that would mark a character’s journey across a map with various areas of a giant land mass labeled as “Dark Africa,” “Darker Africa” and, inevitably, the hero’s final destination, “Darkest Africa.” There—surprise!—he’d encounter a tribe of big-lipped, nose-ringed, spear-brandishing caricatures of natives in grass skirts who were shaded just as dark as I’d ever seen Mickey Mouse to be, but while I never thought of Mickey as “black” or frightening, I certainly knew the natives in those cartoons were supposed to be. As I think back on it now, I remember the fear the ominous drumbeats and chanting were designed to evoke, the telltale sounds that carried the threat, deep in that jungle in the middle of nowhere, of being cooked alive in a body-sized pot of boiling water, never to be heard from again. Cannibals!
Yet beneath the cartoon danger, even then I sensed something more was going on, a deeper kind of mockery than cartoons generally dished out. If cartoon after cartoon had made it clear to me that Elmer Fudd, for example, was being made fun of because he was an idiot, it wasn’t because white men were idiots, it was because he—that particular individual white guy, Elmer—behaved like one. But the black characters in “Darkest Africa” weren’t individuals. Far from it. They were interchangeable extras being made fun of as a category. As a race. Was it really okay to treat them that way?
I remember Loddie shaking her head, smirking in mild disdain as she vacuumed around me and the TV.
Just as Alexander Portnoy watched his mother run steaming hot water over the fork that had touched their schvartze’s lips, I was saddened by the brusque condescension with which Loddie was treated by my mother. It seemed gruff and rude to me, undeserved. A child of the Great Depression, was my mother embarrassed somehow, uncertain of how to play the role of “lady with a servant”? Had she awkwardly decided that distance, even contempt, was called for? Or was it simply prejudice and fear that dictated how she’d deal with a Negro? Whatever the reason, in addition to the commonplace exchange of money for services, between the two of them l felt a lot was going on—in both directions.
Even as I basked in her affection for me, I felt bad for Loddie’s having to have dark skin: no matter how hot the water she washed the dishes in, that brown never washed off. Because that skin color made her have to confront, on a daily basis, not merely mockery but hostility, it hit me with a thud one day that she’d have to absorb humiliation, or worse, for her entire life. For something that wasn’t even her fault. And, in summer, didn’t it make her feel extra hot?
Once on the subway, the elevated line going downtown with my mother, I knelt on the seats and stared out the window, marveling at the apparently limitless Bronx speeding by. At one point, while we were still above ground, I was told that way off in the distance was where Loddie lived. Way out there? In Darkest Bronx? Was it a jungle? Did they have dirty run-down shacks there or nice apartment buildings like ours? I tried to imagine it all, to put myself in her place, to put my head in her head.
Somewhere out there, in that vast and impersonal sprawl was Loddie and her skin and people’s reactions to her skin and whatever hardships all of that forced her to endure. I had no idea what they were—she never shared a single one with me—but I’d already seen enough to know her having to live through them was unfair.
Fear and Envy
In the ’50s and early ’60s, in the part of the Bronx I grew up in, there were no black kids—none on the street, none in elementary school, and just a smattering in junior high. But by the late ’60s, change had arrived; black people were everywhere. Whites were fleeing to the suburbs or to the new and gargantuan housing development called Co-op City that was siphoning off the Bronx’s white population, and blacks were moving into the many empty apartments left behind. The speed of the transformation was breathtaking. Within a decade, the demographics had been almost completely reversed. The social and political forces at work were complex, and while many factors shared in the responsibility—landlords, for example, if they didn’t completely abandon them or burn them down for the insurance, often let their buildings slowly deteriorate; city services declined—it was the black influx that unfairly bore the brunt of the blame for turning the Bronx into a mess.
Street crime, once unheard of, was now a constant on everyone’s mind. And however over-trumpeted by the news, crime wasn’t merely an abstract concept, it was reality. My father was mugged by two “black animals,” prompting my parents’ flight to a new white haven in Queens. A few years later, during my cab-driving phase, I was held up. By a black kid. With a gun. More than once.
The New York of those years of decline and decay seemed less like “Fun City,” the PR-invented nickname it was going by at the time, and more like a cauldron of danger and menace. My lifelong isolation from black people was over. I still didn’t know any, but they were now part of my daily life. In my mind, there was no longer any distance between me and the savagery of cartoon Darkest Africa. With the help of the News and the Post and the support of the rest of the media’s focus on the unrestrained violence that blacks were perpetrating—whether individually, as muggers; or collectively, as revolutionaries, like the Black Panthers; or as rioters in Newark, Harlem, Watts, Detroit, etc.—the incessant drumbeat of “crime” and “drugs” and “riots” became inextricably linked inside me with black people.
And then a new twist: envy.
It surely wasn’t only discovering Norman Mailer’s earlier 1957 essay “The White Negro” that did it. No, there was so much more going on: the increasing number and dominance of black athletes, especially in boxing; the unmistakable black influence on music, whether blues or jazz or R&B or rock ‘n’ roll; the media’s focus on the natural and shame-free connection that black people apparently had to their bodies—dancing, sex, the legendary size of the Negro penis and the knowing openness of black women; the growing presence of blacks in movies, no longer as passive saintly characters but as take-no-prisoners action heroes like Shaft. Waking up to all these developments, I still continued to view black people as objects—objects not only to fear, but now to envy and venerate as well.
But it was Mailer, in his typical mix of incandescent insight and pomposity, who put it all together on the page, in less than 20, in fact. His feverish essay attributed the cool and freedom of the white “Hipster,” a precursor of the liberated hippie of the ’60s counterculture, to his being an “adventurer” who had “absorbed the existentialist synapses” of the Negro. Beaten down, mistreated, hated by white America and therefore “hating himself,” according to Mailer, the Negro had been forced to live “on the margin,” and, as Mailer half-romanticized him, was thus a freer being than the non-Hipster white man. A creature of the night, risk-taking, streetwise, bold, driven not by reason but by the urges of the body, motivated by his own needs and desires and critically alive in the “enormous present,” the Hipster (and his forebear, the Negro) lived out a far braver existence than that of the Eisenhower era’s reigning stereotype: the pathetically conforming—white—Organization Man.
And what did that make me, this white, overly sheltered, teenage pussy, reading “The White Negro” a decade later? Yet another pathetically conforming Organization Man in formation. I may not have been hated by white America, yet here I was hating myself anyway, fearful of walking down a once-safe street in the Bronx and being confronted and beaten up by some stronger, bigger, marauding, dangerous black man or mocked by some lascivious black woman. Now thanks in part to Mailer, I had something else to confront. These would-be enemies weren’t juvenile delinquents or criminals or whores. They were my superiors, defying society and living out a truer, braver, more glamorous existence than I was.
If you’d asked me, even at the time, I’d have told you without a moment’s hesitation that the new stereotype that was forming in my mind—black people as a formidable tribe to fear and envy, anthropologically distant from my own—was as simplistic a distortion, as grossly unfair a caricature as any I’d seen in the cartoons I’d watched as a kid.
But that didn’t for a moment stop me from living under its sway.
As my life proceeded on its Organization Man course, my contacts with real, nonthreatening black people actually increased. Drafted into the Army where blacks and whites lived together, I was surprised how little racial tension or conflict I experienced or observed—or conversation for that matter. Beyond the locker-room mockery based on geography—North v. South, city v. farm—I can’t recall a single discussion about the role race may have played in our wildly different upbringings. Our off-duty time may have been spent separately, but sleeping, eating, shitting, and whining were all performed on a color-blind basis. So too with order-giving. From drill sergeants in basic training to brigadier generals, a great number of blacks had authority over a great number of white guys . . . regardless of how some of those white guys may have felt about it.
Later still, as I moved into life as a corporate lawyer, the handful of black executives I encountered naturally stood out because of their color. But it was no big deal. (Because they were only a handful?) At least in the office, they were just as bland as any white guy in a suit. I didn’t get to know them as individuals and thus gained no insight into what it was like to be black—either in or out of the office. (Because I made no effort? Because I felt too guilty to be making one? Because they felt inhibited? Because corporate life makes everyone paranoid and inhibited?)
Perhaps the strictures and mores at play in the closed systems of both the armed services and the corporation—rules demanding adherence, and in the case of the Army, rigid rules demanding rigid adherence and rigid enforcement—rendered us all (for a change) oppressed. Feeling equally oppressed, all of us were more likely to and thus often did treat each other as equals. (While not oppressed on account of race, we remained equals only within our own class or rank. Outside of our assigned station, we all continued to be, relatively speaking, oppressed.) The rage and fear simmering beyond the confines of the army and the huge corporation I worked for were sublimated into a loathing of the system that, by conscription in one case, and greed in the other, held all of us hostage.
As I moved into middle age and my career flourished, it was time to “give something back.” I worked with nonprofits—as director or donor or volunteer—that helped poor black kids to stay in school or avoid pregnancy. How noble of me—privileged, white, feet planted firmly on the other side of the color and class lines—to deign to help the underprivileged Other. How, at the same time, so marvelously generous and so regally condescending.
Then, last year, a jovial administrator at my law school alma mater called to ask if I’d “take on another one.” Five years earlier, that same jovial administrator had suggested I might be able to provide some guidance to a first-year student who happened also to be working part-time for the school. I’d never regretted saying yes to that first request. Motivated, attentive, committed, funny, ambitious, bright, Mentee Number One had been a joy to work with. After graduation, she’d eventually wound up at a job she loved (and still loves), a phenomenon which, given all the lawyers I’ve known over the past 40 years, is no better than a million-to-one shot.
Half a decade had gone by and now I was being jovially asked if I’d please consider employing “that old black magic” on yet another student, this time, a recent graduate who was having trouble getting a full-time job. Any “magic” involved the first time around, I insisted, had been all Mentee Number One’s. But underlying the administrator’s joke was the fact that Mentee Number Two, like her predecessor (and, for that matter, like the jovial law school administrator herself) was black. Did the jovial administrator sense I had some special affinity with black women? If she did, I definitely didn’t share her belief. Always afraid I’d say or do something wrong or misguided that would widen the gulf I felt skin color inescapably created, always aware of the difference, I was certain my very timidity revealed and confirmed my own racism.
Mentee Number Two, it turned out, had passed the bar and was working from home at not one, but two incredibly low-paying part-time jobs, both of which provided next to no opportunity to learn anything of significance from her employers. As she spoke about her life, I sensed a broken quality not unlike Loddie’s. I stared into the darkness of her skin and read into it the unconscionable unfairness of her having to endure—for her entire life—the prejudice her color triggers in others and the toll that inevitably takes. (I never sensed that beaten-down aura around Mentee Number One. Her buoyant confidence—or the appearance of it, at any rate—was contagious. She always left me feeling as confident about her future as she did.) Mentee Number Two and I met for over an hour and, figuring that my mission was to help her get a better job, I gave her some simple assignments to work on, to gauge her commitment and start us down the path of working together.
Bombarded for years with news of a “student loan crisis”—both the size of the debt and the number of debtors were reportedly astronomical—I asked her if she had any student loans. Or, I should say, I made the mistake of asking her if she had any student loans. I say “mistake” because I then had to cope with her answer, which at first shook me up and then literally brought tears to my eyes. (I’m not kidding. I started to well up. Not the tears of joy and relief that unexpectedly flooded my cheeks on Election Night 2008—when I naively felt as if, in one fell swoop, racism and fear had been magically expunged from America—but tears of hopelessness and despair.)
Her college and law school debt, she informed me, amounted to just under $400,000. That’s FOUR HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS. It goes without saying that for almost anyone, $400,000—without even taking interest into account—would be an enormous amount of money to owe and one day have to pay off, but I will go on and say it: even before you factor in interest, $400,000 is an enormous amount of money for someone to owe and one day have to pay off, an amount which seems improbable she could—certainly not for decades and decades to come, at any rate—ever be able to pay off.
“One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic,” Joseph Stalin supposedly said.
Sitting right in front of me was a tragedy.
I didn’t ask her to break it down: why so much? did anyone advise you? did you understand the ramifications? None of that. No, I was too stunned. I just sat there trying to absorb this horrible absurdity: all the debt that schools induce their non-wealthy students to amass—a group which clearly included the very non-former student I was staring at—all that debt was being piled on in order to obtain an education that would prepare them for a career that would enable them to pay back the loan. Except there was an insidious twist: for so many of those students—including the very educated graduate I was staring at—the would-be career winds up either eluding them or failing to generate sufficient income to pay down their debt, which will simply linger like a cancer, never to be eradicated, an obligation for life—nondischargeable in bankruptcy—that will, like her skin color, never be lifted.
As I considered how I might help her, a troubling doubt started to intrude: was I any better than all the anonymous legions—the bankers, the politicians, the university officials, and God knows who else—all of whom, wittingly or otherwise, had done their part in putting her in this insane position? Weren’t those tears of mine that welled up a moment ago—however compassionate they might at first appear to be—weren’t they paternalism in liquid form, a convoluted variation of the white man’s burden? My bleeding liberal heart, my concern—could they just be elaborately disguised prejudice? My do-gooder offer to mentor, to attempt to bridge the unbridgeable chasms of race and class—was that not as condescending as the manner in which my mother doled out Loddie’s pay, dollar by dollar, almost contemptuously slapping each bill into Loddie’s non-white/non-black palm? Wasn’t my observation of Mentee Number Two, sitting right across from me, as if through a microscope, reducing her to a specimen—classifying her by the color of her skin—as gross a caricature as the cartoons of my childhood objectified Africans? Wasn’t I just as biased as any outright bigot, except that on top of it all, I was a phony pretending I was not?
As I was self-righteously “struggling” with my self-doubt, Mentee Number Two added, listlessly, that while some installments had been deferred for a bit, she had managed to make a few payments with the help of . . . her 90-year-old grandmother. Oy.
We parted, her assignments, due in a week, in hand.
I never saw her again.
When I later checked in with the jovial law school administrator, she assured me that the vanishing had nothing to do with me. Was the administrator telling me the truth? Was she just appeasing me? She said that Would-Be Mentee Number Two had behaved in just that way with everyone who’d tried to lend her a helping hand. I still had my doubts. Once I’d looked at her skin, had I reflexively become overbearing, condescending, controlling, aggressive, intrusive, clumsy, racially insensitive? Had I—my age, my manner, my color—threatened her? Was I the oppressor? Was she afraid of me?
Black Unlike Me
This summer, I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and learned, at this late date, that the tough black kids he grew up with, the ones who terrorized his Baltimore neighborhood—as others, years ago, had come to terrorize mine in the Bronx—were riddled with fear, that the history of how America had treated the black man’s body was ample enough reason for them to live in that fear, and that the macho gangsta persona which they’d adopted was to disguise that fear. As Mailer, however goofy some of his ideas may have been, had told me years ago, they had good reason to be afraid: they’d been enslaved, humiliated, killed, maimed, beaten, lynched, raped, imprisoned, abused, and mistreated from Day One.
Sixty-six years in, “tied to old ways,” the self-protective/self-deceiving bubble of my own fear and prejudice had prevented me from seeing what had always been staring me in the face, what some part of me had always known, but what Coates was only now waking me up to see: black people were not only angry, they were afraid. Maybe not all of them, maybe not all the time, certainly not merely afraid, but fearful they were. Not of me, but of my Whiteness, of all that that Whiteness had done to them and their ancestors, and what, without warning, it still might do to them and their children. For, at any moment, the “people who believe they are white,” as Coates writes, the people who believe that “hue and hair” signify deeper “indelible” attributes, may suddenly commit yet another unconscionable effrontery or assault on a black man or woman simply because that black man or woman is black. And each time such a violation takes place, especially when the perpetrator goes unpunished or is not called to account, the long, dark accumulated history of violence and injustice that white America has written on the backs of black people comes rushing back. A black person’s hold on physical safety—on dignity—is revealed to be fragile at best. Nor is that long dark history past. It’s still being written. It continues to accumulate with each new assault on the body or the dignity of a black person. Every single moment of every single day, countless violations—from the subtle to the fatal—are taking place. A few may fortuitously be captured on video, but recorded or not, they all leave their scars.
And my fear was, at least in part, the product of, a reaction to, their fear. And, given all the incalculable horrors we white people had visited on them, their fear was infinitely more justified than mine. How ridiculous and shameful to “discover” something so self-evident at this late date. Black people were not simply objects to pity or fear or help or run from or feel guilty about. Black people were . . . people.
Astonishing revelation. And absurdly embarrassing for it even to be a revelation. Delivered by a book. Written by a flesh-and-blood person. A black person . . . not an object.
Can this awkward assemblage of experiences be the beginning of a semblance of a conversation about race? If so, maybe one day I might even have a real conversation about race with an actual live black person.
Then again, if history is a guide, maybe not.
Fred Wistow lives in New York City. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tell us what you think about this article by emailing email@example.com, or log in to the website and add your comment online.
PHOTO © Michael Prince / Corbis