Saturday, August 1, 2009

Honorary Negro

My son has a hard time wrapping his head around my childhood. He can’t imagine never living a full two years anywhere. In spite of my family’s high-strung, flighty temperament I grew up primarily in the central corridor of St. Louis.

St. Louis is famous for its almost perfectly symmetrical racial division. The exception used to be right through the middle. We grew up expecting physical and cultural diversity.

When I was four to six years old I lived at Kingsbury and DeBaliviere. It wasn’t a wealthy neighborhood. I don’t think many kids were even born in a hospital.

I remember thinking black kids were anatomically different from white kids. When we peed in the gangway I’d stare with curiosity at their uncircumcised penises.

When I was six we moved to Laclede Town. The place was a cultural experiment to begin with. Our baby sitter was a Japanese woman named Sue. Fate sent her to the country to visit relatives the day her family was incinerated in Hiroshima. She was five.

My dad was a colorful Gaslight Square character they called Jerry the Indian. There was segregation even in the north in those days. My dad was proud of the fact he could get in the black clubs. He told me even as far north as Chicago there was a black only club he got into to see Roland Kirk.

My mother told me a story the other day. My dad went into a black club somewhere in St. Louis. They told him he would have to leave. My father was incredulous. He was with a friend who told him, “They mean it, man.”

My father even harbored a little old school racism. When he saw I was beginning to have girl friends, he decided it was time to have a talk. I never did get the sex talk. What he told me was, “It’s okay to date a black girl but don’t marry one.” “Society isn’t ready for that yet.” I was surprised to hear this from him. He had always been a paragon of tolerance.

Speaking of the sex talk I never had, when I was around nine my mother thought it was about time. She said she couldn’t really talk to me about it but she intended to get a book for me. I wonder if that talk would have prevented my girlfriend from getting pregnant when I was fifteen. We were using the rhythm method but had our timing incredibly wrong.

When I was nine we were living in the Shaw neighborhood. This was farther south than we usually lived. Martin Luther King was shot. A friend of mine told me he didn’t understand why everyone hated black people. It was like being hit by a car. Until then I hadn’t noticed everyone in the neighborhood was white. I couldn’t get over how unnatural it seemed all of a sudden.

My ex was always embarrassed when I couldn’t let a racist remark go by without comment. I have spent my entire life cringing at intolerance.

My son Dylan went to Fanfest with his mother last week when St. Louis hosted the All-Star game. My girlfriend Valerie got free tickets for volunteering. He told me he was a couple of feet from Lou Brock. I asked him if he mentioned my dad. He had forgotten my dad knew him. If you’re not old enough to remember Lou Brock, he was the Ozzie Smith of the sixties. He was fearless when it came to stealing bases. My mother gave me this Honorary Negro card he signed to my dad.


dominic schaeffer said...

WOW! When i first read the signature on that card i read "Soul Brother"... my jaw dropped when I realized who signed it!

Awesome post, David!

Don Torrence said...

What an awesome revelation this is. The older I get the more I realize how little I know. This techno social networking has amazing powers. Much respect to your parents, who I never met. Your upbringing could not have produced a more well rounded and tolerant man. I'm sure they are proud!

Anonymous said...

Love it. "Must be renewed after each riot." Perhaps we are about to be the older and wiser ones, David.


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