Since we voted a Black man (or African-American male) into the office of President of The United states, I have been hearing some rumors that this means racism is officially dead. I am therefore writing this article for posterity and to answer the question that future generations will inevitably pose “Daddy, what’s racism?”
Merriam- Webster defines racism as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race“. This definition just doesn’t slice and dice and explain the feelings and situations that racism can produce. So, I am going to dig into my bag of memories and try to create some word pictures for you. My experiences, like the Revolution, was neither televised nor photographed for future generations, so you’re just going to have to trust me when I say it happened just the way I am going to write it.
American Workers Bring Segregation to The Third World
My earliest experience with this thing called racism is based on events and situations that I was too young to understand. Which is to say, I did not know that my race had anything to do with the way we were made to live. When I was 5 years old , my parents moved to a place called Kwakwani on the upper Berbice River in Guyana, South America. My parents were both nurses and they went there to work at the hospital. Kwakwani was/is a bauxite mining town, bauxite is an aluminum ore and this is why the folks from the Reynolds company set up shop in Kwakwani.
I lived a happy existence and never questioned why the white people lived on the “hill” and we did not; nor did I think it odd that on Thursdays we could not patronize any shops- because after all it was their shopping day; but I certainly did care that when fruit fell onto the ground from the trees on the “hill” we couldn’t pick it up or we (and that includes adults) would be severely punished. Absolutely ridiculous, I know, but racism doesn’t have much to do with common sense.
The Lords of Flatbush Wasn’t Just a Movie
The year that I turned 9, we moved to Flatbush in Brooklyn, NY. At the time Flatbush was a Jewish neghborhood and I was into the Jackson 5, the Osmond Brothers, and David Cassidy because my friends were a rainbow and I didn’t know any better:) There were five kids and 5 adults in a two-bedroom apartment ( back then New York apartments were quite roomy) and eventually my Mom bought a three story brownstone in East Flatbush .
East Flatbush was populated mostly by 2nd ,3rd and 4th generation European immigrants (Italians,Irish,German, etc.) and they were not happy to see the third black family on the block. Maureen and Patrick (the kids next door) were our age and would come over to the house and play with us. One day the older (early 20s maybe?) guys and gals were hanging out across the street and as Maureen came around the corner with us one of them (mightha been Theresa Spinelli trying to impress the older boys) said “Maureen, you hanging out with the jigaboos?” Maureen began to spend more time on that side of the street than on our side, guess that until that moment she had failed to notice that we were “different”.
My sister and I had two really good friends the summer that I was 14, Diane was Italian and Kathy was blonde, maybe Irish. We used to hang out on Diane’s stoop all day and sneak cigarettes in her back yard. But when Big Rocco and Little Rocco came around we would hide in her basement, shaking with fear, until they had passed by. The Roccos were the neighborhood badasses and did not care for niggers or nigger lovers (sorry, but that’s how they saw us and that’s what they called us). That kind of intense pressure is just not good for kids and their friendships, lemme tell you.
Sometimes the young males from the neighborhood would band together and march down all the streets where blacks lived singing “We hate living in a nigger neighborhood” to the tune of the Beatles “Yellow Submarine”. Within 4 years the most rabid had all moved to Bensonhurst or out to Long Island. Maureen again felt comfortable being our friend ; besides, her family was poor and lived above the corner store (where her brothers would cut a hole in the roof to steal from John the owner and their landlord) and they couldn’t really afford to move. The whites who stayed assimilated with the blacks that came, some of the boys ended up marrying black girls etc.
But We Are Just Kids Too!
We attended the Church of the Evangel right on the edge of Crown Heights and one Friday night the Youth Group decided to go play basketball. One of the boys, Hugh, lived on the “good” side of town off of Ocean Parkway, so we went to a park near there. When we got to the park there were some kids playing baseball, and we just went to the basketball court and the boys played hoops while the girls made fun of them (or whatever teenage girls do). After a while we noticed that the baseball playing kids were gone, but we just figured it was dinner time.
I believe that it was the roar and the revving engines that brought our attention to the fact that the entire neighborhood had come out to the park, with bats, chains, bikes, motorcycles, cars and other WMDs. The leader of the pack said to us “If youse touch a hair on these kids heads” and maybe she said some more stuff that I don’t remember. All I know is that one of my wisecracking compadres saw fit to drop one of his wisecracks at that point and it didn’t go over well; they were on us like (pardon the pun) white on rice. Fear can turn a tortoise into a hare, I honestly don’t know how we got out of it in one piece. We scattered to the four winds and just ran like the devil was on our heels, we had to dodge the bikes, the cars, the chains. At some point we realized that we were running and they had stopped chasing, I guess there was some boundary that we had crossed and they needed to push us back across it.
My sister attended elementary school in Bensonhurst and every day was like this for her, the neighborhood kids would chase them to the bus stop (just like on “Everybody Hates Chris” but without the laugh track and happy endings). It was all about superiority and fear, I wonder what those kids are doing with their lives now? Time and circumstance changes people and things, if you were a participant in similar activities, please leave a comment.
There are so many more stories to tell, but then this would be a book and not a blog post. I hope that you save it somewhere, and are able to use it when/if your kids ask you the racism question.
Update: Just read this article via a tweet from @AroundHarlem. Sorry to see that racism, sexism, and homophobia isn’t dead after all.