That was what my new neighbor, little preschool Donna Beth Wylie, told the slightly older, about-to-be-in second grade me back in 1958 when I moved into the Loman Hill Elementary School attendance area in Topeka Kansas. This was four years after the US Supreme Court had ruled that Topeka couldn’t have two separate school systems, one for black children and one for white children.
Every year or two I begin fixating on a book I would like to write. Its more than that phrase “I could write a book” that you are always hearing people say, teachers especially. I heard someone say this while I served lunch at the Soup Kitchen yesterday. In my case I actually have written one book and I’ve got a blog that, in words, equals a small library. I’ve been wanting to write about race relations for a long time. The book I started thinking about writing twenty years ago would have been a novel. It would have had as its central starting point the infamous Duluth lynching that took place just after WW I when a lot of unemployed veterans were being squeezed out of jobs in Duluth’s steel mills by cheap black labor. I wanted to tie the lynching to Topeka, Kansas, where one of the victims had family and was represented by a black lawyer who later took part in the Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education challenge, and my Kansas grandfather who won a WW I Congressional Medal of Honor as an officer in an all black infantry division raised in New York’s Harlem.
Toward that end I began earnestly buying books about black history. I’ve read a number of them but most still await my attention. The idea of that novel has been getting dimmer in recent years but not a book about race. Its such a big subject that most everyone is clueless how deeply racial ideas, mostly inept ones, infect us even its victims.
I remember when Roots the television series helped make ABC a serious television network after the 1976 Olympics. Its depiction of one families history from Africa through the slave trade into the Civil War years was a revelation to black Americans who’d lived the experience. I suspect many black grandparents who despaired of their children understanding their history were grateful to ABC and the series author Alex Haley for putting a face on an largely unwritten past. Haley also co-wrote Malcolm X’s gripping autobiography.
The most common thought in America where race is concerned is probably “I’m not a racist.” Saying it almost proves you are and so I never say it. You can deny it to yourself but not to others depending on how they define the word. Socrates said he could win any argument if he was the one allowed to define the words being debated. Whether you or I am a racist all depends on the definition of the world. I for instance have made a habit in recent weeks of walking up to to black strangers to introduce myself as a School Board member. Something is going on in my head to be doing that. Maybe its racism. One of the people I met that way a few weeks back walked through the Soup Kitchen today and was quite excited to see me.
I thought of a first sentence for a first chapter of a new idea for a book on the subject this morning. I’d base the book on the books I’ve read on the history of race in America and beyond. It would be a rumination about race and my family’s experiences with black Americans through the years. I created a folder for a book in my computer. I thought Donna Beth’s attitude on integration would be a good beginning to a prologue. As for a sentence to begin a first chapter I thought of this:
“If you are deeply invested in the word for word truth of the Bible and believe that the world began roughly 6000 years ago with Adam’s creation you have been raised to be a racist.”
My prologue would elaborate on Donna Beth’s petulant proclamation. My Mother had a great fondness for Donna Beth’s family and in the five years we lived next to the Wylie’s she got to know her Mother Joyce Wylie very well. When we visited them annually for years after leaving Topeka old Walt would always laugh when he saw me and repeat the scurrilous thing his indignant older daughter had overheard me say about him and reported back to him.
“Mr. Wylie spits and swears and he smokes cigars too.”
Walt was a military policeman in Italy after WW II. Joyce told my Mom that his job entailed going into brothels and pulling black American soldiers off of white Italian woman trying to survive the post war.
If I ever attend to writing such a book it might free me from the compulsion to rise to my Buddy’s every put down when I post something about the crappy experiences of black Americans.
It’s Saturday and I would love to go to Duluth’s “Boo at the Zoo” with my grandsons. The older one will be Luke Skywalker and the little one will be Slimer from Ghostbusters. Sadly, I agreed to clean the church this morning so I’ll miss out.