Tag Archives: black culture

Race 2012: A Conversation about Race and Politics in America. Post #1: The Colored Drug Store

I am honored to be participating in a blogging project for the upcoming PBS documentary Race 2012: A Conversation About Race & Politics in America, airing Tuesday, October 16 (check local listings). The program takes a provocative look at race amidst the 2012 election and beyond.
(Click on the link above to “Like” the program on Facebook and follow it on Twitter.) Many thanks to my friend and fellow blogger, Monica Medina for inviting me!

                       

Though I did an earlier post about President Obama, The Would-be-Master-of Compromise, which is now included on the Race 2012 site, the following is my first official contribution to this conversation.  I will be doing three posts, examining the idea of racial solidarity, how members of historically oppressed groups champion one another, how we feel when barriers start coming down, and this sentiment’s impact on the presidential election. The post below, entitled “The Colored Drugstore” begins with the grandmother I never met, and ends with the event of my voting for Barack Obama in 2008.  

“You be sure and go to the colored drug store, now,” my grandmother said, watching her boys head out the door, referring to the only drugstore in town run by a fellow African American.

Walgreens was close by and bigger, with more of a selection.  Still, my father and his brothers did as they were told.  Whatever their mother needed, no matter how urgently, it wouldn’t have mattered if the colored drug store was in the next county.   You patronized your own.  If a black man opened a business, that was where you took your business.  It was all about solidarity and survival.

The year was 1935.  The Great Depression was in full swing and you could bet there were plenty of white men down on their luck who’d have some choice words for a black man running his own business.  They might even have had some choice eggs to throw, if food hadn’t been so scarce.  As it was, there were threats, there were thugs with bats.  It took a brave black man to open a store.  Which was why, as far as my grandmother Albertina was concerned, it was the duty of every black consumer around to support him.  To shop at Walgreens was a slap in the face to your entire race.

There were no Jim Crow laws in Chicago like they had in the south.  My father attended an integrated public elementary school.  Later he was one of a handful of black students at a predominantly white high school, where no one especially objected to his presence, though all the black students had to have a niche, a way to stand out and prove themselves of value to the student body.  Dad was too small to make a name for himself on one of the sports teams as some of his friends did, but wound up using his wit and artistic talent as the chief cartoonist of the school paper.  Dad and the other black students looked out for one another, just as my grandmother looked out for the owner of the colored drugstore.

Though my father knew blacks who had been chased and beaten for “showing their color” in the wrong part of town—though my father had been chased more than once himself—he did not grow up separate from, hating, or even mistrusting whites in general.  But he had internalized the notion that your black brothers and sisters would have your back. You should have theirs too.  Just in case.

My father married my mother, a Jewish woman who shared his views, also a member of a culture where oppression had strengthened tribal bonds.  An anecdote:  sometime in the 1940s, my mother’s cousin came running into the house with a joke to tell his mother.

“Guess what?” He said, “A boy down the street just got run over by a steamroller, and they folded up his body and slid it under the door!”

His mother, my mother’s aunt, looked up from the stove, concerned about one thing: “Was he Jewish?”

The punch line was of course spoiled, but it hadn’t mattered to my great aunt.  What mattered was that no Jewish boy had been injured.

Group solidarity—members of an oppressed group supporting and championing one another—was not, is not, limited to blacks and Jews.  Women have it too.  We cheer when one of our number breaks through the glass ceiling, or otherwise gains acceptance into turf previously reserved for men.  My Latina friends cheered for Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s appointment to the Supreme Court (well, I did too).  Every group has this sentiment to one degree or another.  People have a tendency to stand up for those like them, even if there are fundamental differences of opinion within the group.

For blacks, however, it is more complicated.  Attitudes toward blacks and blackness: black speech, black features, black culture, are often charged with a combination of fear, admiration and repulsion.  The stereotypes of black Americans as violent, dumb and lazy—perpetuated on television and film (though I believe this is improving)—are some of the most insidious around.   For most blacks, these stereotypes are fictions with no bearing on their lives.  Most blacks I know are proud of who they are, their group identification compatible with their sense of individuality.  But there are some young people who internalize the stereotypes in order to feel accepted, claiming that successful blacks are “acting white.”  So that when a black person succeeds, she risks claims that she has left her people behind.  This came up with the president in 2008; there were questions circling as to whether  Obama was ‘Black Enough.’ This is why many believe that it is important for successful blacks to remain connected to the community, to be a role model, and to acknowledge: I am one of you and one of you has made it to where I am. (More on this in a later post.)

“Breaking the color barrier” was a phrase I heard a lot while I was growing up, from my parents and their friends.  Jesse OwensJackie Robinson, Marian Anderson, Hattie McDanielPaul RobesonThurgood Marshall, Arthur Ashe.  Blacks who went where no black man or woman had gone before, adding color to their field, breaking ground for others.  Both my parents rooted for these black pioneers, hailing their presence on the world stage as game-changing.

My father, who died in 1995, never imagined that there would be a black president.

Once a year, on my father’s birthday, I have this ritual.  Late at night, by the light of a candle, I take out his picture, play his favorite music and I give him an update.  I tell him about my life, my family, but also the world.  I give him current events he’d be interested in.  I tell him things he’d get a huge kick out of.  Like his grandchildren.  Like the Williams Sisters (he played tennis himself).  Films and books he would have loved.  The fact that two of his friends—unlikely compadres because of their different backgrounds—met and became bosom buddies at Dad’s own shiva.  I talk about the adventures my mother has had since he’s been gone; the trips she’s taken, the friends she’s made. I tell him about the internet, all the things it allows us to do: from Google searches to blogging.  These things would amaze and amuse him if he were here to see them all.

On his birthday in 2008, I told him about Obama.  I said, there’s a black man running for president, Dad.  And I think he might win.  I got teary saying it aloud, imagining what Dad  would think if he could really hear me.

On election day itself, I waited to vote until both my kids were out of school so that I could bring them with me into the booth.  I wanted them to see me help make history.  And, as I pressed the red button (those big cranks were already a thing of the past), registering my vote for Obama, I thought of my dad and began to cry.  This made my children laugh; they still can’t understand the concept of crying when you are emotional and happy, not sad.  Finally, my son—then five—sobered up.

“I know why you’re crying,” he said.  “Because Barack Obama is brown like Grandpa Mel.”

I hugged him, hugged them both. “Well, something like that,” I said.

On Dad’s next birthday, in 2009, I said, Guess what Dad?  The president of the United States is a black man.

My father’s sense of solidarity would not have spared the President from Dad’s sharp political scrutiny, any more than my father’s pride in the accomplishments of black artists and musicians spared them his occasionally harsh artistic judgments.  But while Dad might have frowned in disagreement at some of the President’s choices, nodded in approval at others, the fact that Obama had broken the ultimate color barrier—well, that would have just made my father grin.

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A Mixed Marriage in 1950

(This is the first of two short excerpts I’m including in this blog from my essay, First to Go: A Nice Jewish Girl Survives the Love of Her Life, about my parent’s marriage.)
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My Parents Sometime in the Mid-sixties

People wonder, and I’ve often asked myself: if my father was so involved with black culture, black politics, the survival and advancement of black people, then why did he marry a white woman?  He actually died before he could explain that in his memoir (believe me, I’ve scoured the various revisions) so I’ve had to come up with answers myself.  The best I can do is the following.  He didn’t marry a white woman; he married my mother.  He married someone who would be his student, his supporter and his best audience.  Not that she’d never challenge him, but I do believe that at first, and perhaps for many years, she hung on his every word.

Though he stood just five foot eight and always looked much younger than he was, my father carried himself with an air of great importance.  His deep voice, eloquence and measured way of speaking demanded respect.  When he made an entrance, strangers would rack their brains and snap their fingers, whispering: “Oh, that’s—that’s … who is that guy again?”

Of course he wasn’t famous, but everyone thought he was and he never disabused people of the notion.  I believe that my mother was the only woman—black, white or otherwise—who could have put up with all that.

In part, my mother’s tolerance was due to a childhood spent in the shadow of her own mother’s pathological narcissism.  My maternal grandmother had been the leading lady of her own world, her daughters, little more than stage-hands.  If ever my mother brought home a boy, my grandmother would flirt with him and later ask, Well?  What did he say about me?   Naturally, before meeting the guy, my grandmother would have asked the compulsory “is he Jewish?” which, prior to my dad, he always was.

My mother had been a very good girl all her life and had gotten no credit for it.  I imagine there was no better way to stick it to my grandmother than marrying a black man—completely unheard of for a nice Jewish girl in 1950.  She’d married my father for the rebellion of it, but also for the excitement.  She knew she was along for the ride of her life and therefore didn’t mind being off to the side while my father took center stage.

Their marriage wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was pretty good—all things considered—and lasted forty-five years, until the end of my dad’s life.

They married at the tender ages of twenty-three and twenty-six, in Chicago: a small wedding held in my paternal grandparents’ house.  In attendance were my father’s whole family, the younger members of my mother’s family, and their closest friends.  My father’s parents had embraced and accepted my mother from the beginning, though her parents would remain in the dark until the young couple had safely arrived in New York City—where they’d moved for my father’s political work.  My mother called her parents from Penn Station to announce her new marital status. (Oh and did I mention: he’s black?)  There had been no thought to invite them to the wedding, nor any possibility of bringing my father home in advance to meet his future in-laws.

My mother was thus cut off from her parents, informally disowned.  For the act of marrying such a man (a gentile as well as a schvartze), my mother got blamed for every evil that subsequently befell the family, including the death of her beloved Uncle Julius.  Somehow no one managed to connect the dots from his daily consumption of creamed soups to the clogging of his arteries and ultimate heart attack.  (Nah.  Must have been the black guy.)

So there she was, twenty-three years old, alone with her dynamic new husband in New York City—no family, no friends—far from everything familiar to her.

They found an apartment in Brooklyn.  My mother was the one who scoped out all their potential homes, for obvious reasons.  She’d meet each landlord, say her husband was at work, and get the tour of everything they could afford.  The landlord of the place she chose wouldn’t learn my father was black until moving day, and by then it was too late to reject them.  In any case, it took only a few weeks to recognize that my parents were a lovely young couple in every sense of the word, regardless of color.

That happened a lot with my father.  People who rejected his race flat out—who really believed blacks to be the scourge of this country—had a way of accepting my father as “one of the good ones.”  He was familiar with the comment “if all black people were like you …”  This never flattered or impressed my father; it just revealed the character of the person making the statement.  My father believed a racist was a racist.  Still, they needed a place to live.

My mother found a job teaching at the Brooklyn Community School where, gradually, she began to make her own friends.  Soon my parents were established in a community of their own.  Their friends were young, smart, black, Jewish or both.  Many of these friendships would last through the era of my childhood (which wouldn’t begin until the sixties).

So New York became less strange, more like home.  In some ways it was more comfortable than the Chicago my mother had known.  Being Jewish was safer, for example.  My mother was accustomed to being discreet about it, letting people think that Rosen (her maiden name) was German.  Growing up, she’d been chased and beaten up, called a “dirty Jew” on numerous occasions.  Part of her Jewish identity was—is—forever connected to the fear of being attacked.  She’d heaved a sigh of relief, I think, in taking my father’s name and becoming a Williamson.  It was less about shame than safety.  There was some pride in being Jewish, too.  My mother has described the feeling of surprise and delight at finding herself in an environment where you could say “knish” and other people would know what you were talking about.

So another piece of my parents’ bond was the experience of being hated, truly hated.  While my mother could hide, to a degree, among gentiles—the way my father could not among whites—they both knew what it was to be far outside the majority.  That feeling of paranoia, which isn’t paranoia at all because you’re not imagining it.

And once united, my parents shared the new experience of being an interracial couple—living with all that it meant to people who saw them together.  In Chicago, they’d been chased by thugs with baseball bats.  In New York, some frowned, some smiled in solidarity, some simply stared, but then went on with their own lives.