Friday, July 04, 2014

More (recycled) Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act

(from my memoir Early Plastic)

In the 1940s my parents had leftover traces of the Roaring Twenties in their systems, and they continued to engage in weekend fun and games. Sometimes they dropped me off to be looked after by a nice, reliable black family that lived near my father's office. It was one thing to be taken care of by a black "mammy" in your own domicile, quite another to be cared for by the woman in her own home. The peculiar form of proselytization known as Separate-But-Equal was a concept next to impossible to grasp for any six-year-old, especially if they've spent time in the home of loving black people.

If you grew up during a certain period, especially in the south, you were aware of Dinah Shore's "tragic mulatto" status the same way you knew about polio. Poor Dinah could never open her mouth to sing on TV without someone in the room drowning her out with words to the effect they knew someone who knew someone else who had a friend in Tennessee, where the singer was from, who just knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that America's Singing Sweetheart was part black, but hadn't known it until she gave birth to a baby of a tell-tale color, and secretly had to give it up for adoption. More than realpolitik debates over school integration was this racial idee fixe that had hung in the air for as long as I could remember.

After my father died, my mother, sister and I moved out of the house my parents had built and, after staying with Mama Smith, my grandmother, for a while, moved into a [Charleston, WV] housing project: Washington Manor (universally pronounced by those who lived there, "May-nor"), a place I remember most especially for its racial lunacy. The apartment windows where whites lived faced out on the black section and, conversely, windows in the black section exclusively looked out on the outside white world . In the five years that my mother, sister and I lived there, I never saw a single black face except from my window. The idea was to reinforce racism. On me it had just the opposite effect. I became deeply wrapped up in the notion of the "other." Making matters stranger was the official management policy of immediate expulsion from the projects at the merest hint of racial fraternization. One night when I could countenance the madness no longer, I awoke at two in the morning, slipped out of my pajamas and into my jeans, climbed over the fence dividing the two halves and defiantly stood, quaking, in the black part of the projects for several minutes before scurrying back home. The next day I spent half-waiting for some sort of axe to fall over my furtive symbolic gesture, but nothing ever came of my somnambulist experiment in, quite literally, crossing the color line. Washington Manor was a utilitarian, bunker-style affair where even the floors and walls of the apartment interiors were made of concrete. I can still recall lying on the floor, my cheek pressed against the cold hard blood red enamel that covered the floors and chipping off little flecks of the disgusting looking stuff with my fingernails. I thought if I hacked and hewed away long enough I'd hit hardwood. Wall-to-wall carpeting was strictly forbidden but if you were well enough off, like we were, rolldown rugs were permissible.

note: the above noted dividing fence was next to the incinerator in the accompanying photo

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