Leaving the folk: the journey out of a Cleveland childhood.
At my university, I am frequently called upon to give moral and psychological support to the black students who attend this predominantly white school. No one has ever demanded this of me; it is implicit in my existence here. Many of the black students I encounter feel deeply alienated from the very institution that provides them with a free $25,000-a-year education; they are distrustful of whites and often cannot handle the schoolwork. In class they tend to stick together. In public their faces are impassive. Their speech to outsiders is often laconic and ironical. They have shielded themselves emotionally from an academic and social environment that they find profoundly threatening. Beneath their stony exteriors is a trauma that outsiders cannot know.
Those black students who mingle with their white classmates have probably gone to upper-middle-class suburban high schools or private schools. One immediately recognizes the exceptional black students on campus: their faces tend to be relaxed, they are likely to say hello, as is the community manner, and--I will not let this pass--they tend to be light-skinned. They look like my parents, say, might imagine a black student at such a school to look. They belong at the school rather than in the school's black community. The very best of them are making a break that every black intellectual, in his own way, makes--away from the world of the folk and into the realm of ideas. And I suspect that despite their excellent manners they are more than a little uneasy.
Five years ago, along with a psychologist and a historian, I taught an interdisciplinary course on racism. Although my colleagues gave informed lectures, what I remember were the moments of psychodrama and rage exhibited by the black students huddled in groups in our large, sunlit classroom. From time to time the black students confronted the whites with evidence of the racism they found embedded in every aspect of academic life at the college. At one point I asked why the blacks remained at such a despicable place, why they did not walk out. The unofficial spokesman for the black group, addressing me in a tone one uses with overeducated dummies, told me that they were there for the scholarship money.
My students' behavior paralyzed me for the rest of the day. I felt that I should have had some prepared response, for, as I have said, part of my academic function is to provide guidance to black students. All I have to offer by way of explanation is the sense that the impasse between me and my black students is not extraordinary. It has repeated itself often in my life and in the lives of my parents, and perhaps in the lives of their parents as well. My black students are living black America's central but largely unacknowledged reality: division by class. They are entering the impasse in which I came to know the world.
I was born in 1950 in Cleveland, Ohio, where my father came to work in the steel mills and auto factories after World War II. He and my mother moved from neighborhood to neighborhood there, in a pattern that led from Glenville to Mt. Pleasant to Lee Harvard and finally to Forest Hill, the once-exclusive section of Cleveland Heights. There was nothing distinctive about this journey; it had been followed. in different forms first by middle-class Jews and later by middle- and, finally, lower-class blacks. The consequences of the demographic shifts on Cleveland's East Side do not encourage sentimental attachments to old neighborhoods. I would not, for example, get out of the car now to inspect the studio apartment in Cleveland's Glenville where my parents first lived. A few years ago, however, I drove into Mt. Pleasant to show my wife and children the shingled three-bedroom house on the leafy street where I'd grown up. In front of what had once been the Reverend McKinney's sycamore-shaded lawn, I paused behind a large, white Cadillac. From the house that had once belonged to the Reverend McKinney ran two young black men. Although I saw them pass a small packet into the Cadillac's window, it took me much longer than my wife and thirteen-year-old daughter to recognize what had happened--in the broadest sense. When we returned to my family's house in Cleveland Heights, my father, now eighty years old, gave me a look when he heard that I had driven my wife and children in a Volvo station wagon down Kinsman Street to East 137th Street--then he broke out into his broad, incredulous laugh, amazed that anyone could be so stupid.
Forty years ago, around 5:00 P.M. on Saturdays, in front of the house on East 137th Street, my father would stand in the driveway and hose the stray grass down into the street. The loose cuttings streamed down the asphalt to the gutter, where they flowed into the sewer. My father stood there erect for a good half hour, moving slowly down the drive, his jaw set, his eyes placid with thought. By that time in the day he had cleaned the entire house and often had worked on whatever car we owned (we always had a large American station wagon that my father held together for six or seven years). He was then in his early forties and worked, by my count, sixty and sometimes seventy hours a week as a custodian in the Cleveland public schools. In one of those significant parental acts that no child can fathom, he kept me, his eldest son, by his side for most of Saturday, telling me tales of his early life. Before he became the rather self-satisfied black burgher that he seemed to me at nine years old, he had been an undertaker's assistant in Kentucky, a drifter, a shipmate working on the great aircraft carriers as they were being built in Newport News during World War II, and a lackluster student in auto mechanics at Hampton Institute, where he had sung spirituals and blues. When I was old enough to ask why he wandered across the country at nineteen with neither money nor kin, he replied that something had said go, and he went.
I was a slender, bookish boy who lived in my imagination; I appalled my father, much of whose experience consisted of watching disasters overtake heedless people like myself. And many of the stories he told on those Saturday mornings and afternoons were about such disasters. He remembered, for instance, the typhoid fever that had struck his hometown in Kentucky, killing most of the black children his age. When their temperatures went past 102, he said, they usually died. Working on an aircraft carrier, he had watched as two men killed a third by playfully sticking an air hose up his anus. In one of the factories where he had worked, he had seen men electrocuted. His own father had worked in the mines in Kentucky and died of stomach ulcers, howling on his bed while his wife and children listened, utterly unable to comfort him.
My father told these stories in an enormously calm manner, with no change of expression. He rarely maintained eye contact with me but instead looked off into the distance, much as my black college students do when I question them too insistently about their studies. After finishing the lawn, my father would walk me around the neighborhood and chat with the neighbors, Mr. Beasely and Mr. Gregory. At first the men would solicitously ask me questions about school and current events, but inevitably the talk settled into the same placid tones of voice, the same faraway looks--the signs of shared understanding that this world was full of suffering, expected and unexpected. The great unending trauma demanded endurance--the set lips and impassive gaze with which black men learn to confront the world. (It has taken me years of working with black students to understand that it is this same stem faculty of endurance I inevitably encounter in their silences and quizzical glances. They have the nihilistic attitudes of the folk, but secondhand, by way of the rappers on MTV and the buffoons on black situation comedies. Nevertheless, their postures seem to carry authentic weight.)
My mother would often angrily interrupt my father's storytelling in the driveway in order to redirect him to his work. He loved to talk, and my mother saw his talk as a kind of intolerable irrationality, a luxury that kept the family from further achievement. My parents had acquired what little they owned only through her frugal budgeting, her fierce restraints upon my father's spending habits, and the utter suppression of any kind of pleasure that cost money. His stoic worldview accompanied a present-mindedness that allowed him to draw pleasure from the very world that confined him. In defiance of my mother, for example, he would buy handfuls of fruit candy when we went downtown to shop.
Lacking my father's self-possession, my mother was never satisfied with our circumstances. She was forever on the move; even in repose she was not still. Had my father not been so unshakably rooted, he might have been disturbed, but he looked on her with a certain amusement. Seated on the gray sofa, he watched her the way one might observe a newly caged cockatoo. Her friends were the left-wing teachers at Park Synagogue, the only white nursery school in Cleveland willing to hire a young black woman in the late 1940s. She had pounded the streets of the East and West Sides past mobs of pushing, poking, babushkaed, newly arrived immigrants. She now had the job of teacher and was renowned in Cleveland's cultured Jewish society for her skills with her students, children of wealthy Jewish families. She had seen the boom of prosperity that gilded the postwar lives of her students and their parents (the synagogue designed in the international style by Eric Mendelsohn, its Chagall-like air of old-world modernism amid what was still a woodsy Cleveland Heights), and she grimly discerned the world of black middle-class Cleveland from the vantage point of the flowering possibilities of Shaker Heights and Beachwood. It is easy now to stereo-type the vulgarity of suburban life in the Fifties, but that way of life represented an essentially green American spirit of promise. My mother grasped a springtime sense of the world's fluidity, which in that moment seemed to be symbolized by the movement of successive groups through the Canaan of Cleveland's East Side, and it was there that she wanted to move from East 137th Street.
I now live in what I have come to recognize as a distant offshoot of my mother's world. The age of leftist black and white cooperation in which she lived is now gone. Most of my students come from upper-class families in New York City and its surrounding suburbs in Connecticut and New Jersey, and although I used to know all of the cultural signs of the left, I am now bewildered by the improbable collage of styles and shapes that pass through my classroom. When I read my students' papers, it occurs to me that I am teaching the children of the generation of postwar toddlers my mother taught. My closest friend in prep school once showed me a Park Synagogue nursery school report written by my mother and still kept by his family. It was a two-page note closely written in a determined and meticulous hand. Its focus was a lengthy analysis of the way in which my friend played with his class's pet animals. I try, and fail, to imagine my mother at age thirty-one or thirty-two, observing the habits of wealthy Jewish children with hamsters. Her efforts, I suppose, are little different from my own as I watch my wealthy white charges' attempts at comprehending Jonathan Edwards, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Toni Morrison. The deep irony of black life, which my mother had noticed already in the Fifties, was that the greatest intellectual fulfillment for blacks is to be found in atypical places, in unexpected connections and unimagined conditions. But although my students have inherited the same deep promise of American life that drove my mother to her remarkable accomplishments as an educator and parent, many do not recognize me as a brother. In their eyes I am the beneficiary of obscene privileges that will be denied them. They regard me skeptically at the beginning of each semester, and over the course of the term cautiously watch one another across the newest ethnic fault line in American life.
So unlike were my father and mother that one had to remind oneself that they were both black. Only during the rituals of Saturday morning breakfast did one come to understand the complicated set of anxieties, hopes, and satisfactions that had brought them together. At the breakfast table they told and retold the story of their unexpected union, and there, for brief moments, I realized that my parents had been young once: my mother a light-skinned, long-haired girl, madly in love with my father at Hampton, giving up a fellowship to the Bank Street School in New York City for the fall of 1947; my father a factory worker and erstwhile mechanic, a failed sociology and physical education student at all-black Kentucky State. On the face of it, they were an unpromising match: she was nineteen, with her future before her; he, a good twenty-nine, with bad prospects. At Hampton, they rowed together in boats, fished for eels, and plotted a life in which their differences made no difference at all.
The black middle class is now in the process of constructing a romance around the history of its black colleges, but Hampton Institute was a tough, bitter place for my parents, even though both had come from difficult backgrounds. Whenever I complained about racial discrimination, my father would wryly observe that it was particularly bad among black people. My mother, he knew, had been hurt in ways that only one who held black middle-class aspirations could be. Her father, himself a mulatto child of a slave-master father, had, through hard work, thrift, and the leeway given racially mixed people in her part of Virginia, built a large successful farm, which he lost in a horrifying apocalyptic fire when my mother was seven. Raised by her older and well-off married cousins, she bore, as an orphan, the brunt of the family's legacy of decline. To attend Hampton as a disadvantaged student despite what my cousins called her "blow hair" (hair long and straight enough to blow in a fan) must have been an enormous trauma. A poor grind, she was looked down upon despite her light skin (something that took some doing in the Hampton of the Forties). Even though she was an excellent student, she gave up a scholarship to Howard, fearing the snubs that the children of black doctors, lawyers, and undertakers reserved for their fellow blacks. At Hampton she concentrated on her studies while working nearly forty hours a week. My father, misplaced in the trade school, was working almost equally long hours, exploited by teachers who on more than a few occasions called him out of bed to repair defunct wartime cars. Under autocratic professors, amid snobbish classmates, my parents could never escape their backgrounds in dirt-poor rural Virginia and Kentucky. Indeed, when I encountered the black academic world, their pasts would shadow me.
However much my parents respected the New England culture that the white missionary professors had brought to Hampton from Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut, they despised its appropriation by an academic black middle class cager for a glory and a social standing that the transplanted New Englanders went out of their way to disdain. My parents saw these black academics and their Phi Beta Kappa children attending Dartmouth and Columbia as the very embodiment of ruthless black status-seeking arrogance. My father's first dean at Kentucky State, who was black, had dismissed him from school, admonishing him to go home and find a job cleaning for the white people. My father was fond of imitating a young black martinet who had just received his Ph.D. from Indiana University. Standing in overalls in the garage, my father would mock the black professor (as he was called), holding his finger like a candle. "I am Dr. Mark," he said in a falsetto voice, "and I will fail you."
My home was filled with pious respect for what black students at my college now disparagingly call white Western culture, a respect whose perfunctory signs were ragged paperback editions of Freud's writings and Shakespeare's tragedies. Oblivious to my parents' real relationship toward the cultural world into which they pushed me, I dutifully read the books they gave me, practiced for the piano lesson's they arranged at the Cleveland Institute of Music, studied French at Western Reserve's summer school, and earnestly observed what I saw at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Yet even the haphazard cultivation available t6 a black boy on Cleveland's 137th Street inevitably led me to discover that my parents' respect for culture had little to do with their actual lives. Like everything else they possessed, they held their enthusiasms in trust for their children's future. I can qualify this generalization only by noting their appreciation of the great African American singers they had heard as college students at Hampton in the Forties. The names of Paul Robeson, Roland Hayes, and Marian Anderson were mentioned with nothing less than religious awe. And some of the fiercer arguments at the Sunday dinner table concerned the tempos with which spirituals had been sung that morning at Antioch Baptist Church, a question ultimately turning on a deeper dilemma; namely, whether the great slave hymns were, as my parents felt, the self-pitying moans they had become among the urban black lumpen of the North or were, in fact, what W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson claimed they were: the American Negro's most dignified and profound contribution to the culture of the West.
This passion perhaps explains my contact with a spinsterish, wire-haired, eccentric black woman in her late sixties named Mrs. Apple, a teacher discovered by my parents at the Cleveland Institute of Music. One afternoon, on the pretense of being frustrated by my inept performance of a Chopin prelude, she spent over an hour playing Chopin, Liszt, and Brahms for me, discoursing all the while on Romanticism as I listened, spellbound. It had never occurred to me before that this music, along with the foreign-language texts on her desk, was part of a world of thought, time, and place. I wondered with whom she discussed her love and knowledge of music and literature, this apparently secret treasure that she had clearly hoarded for herself. In her ramblings I had the first premonitions of the life abroad not only in music but in the books and names in the dull gray library at 140th Street and Kinsman.
At the end of those Saturday morning breakfasts, my parents basked in the reminiscence of their intention to come to Cleveland because it was a place where they could educate their children in good schools and museums and live in the relatively inexpensive large homes of Wade Park, Glenville, and Mt. Pleasant. These neighborhoods eventually turned into ghettos, but even now their vast fronts convey the promise Cleveland offered its postwar immigrants from Europe and the South. If my father possessed these dreams, he had taken them from my mother, even as she had appropriated his placid assurance that this middle-class utopia could, in fact, be reached. The Cleveland they arrived in looked more like what one expected of Warsaw or Prague than a Midwestern American city on Lake Erie. As a young boy I noticed that more people on the buses read Polish, Hungarian, or German newspapers than the lackluster morning Plain Dealer or the sensationalist Cleveland Press. In this new world, my parents had created an unlikely romance. Once, deep into a Saturday afternoon, my father showed me two packets of letters wrapped in pink ribbon, their correspondence when my father came to Cleveland to find work in the factories while my mother stayed in Hampton after their marriage. It was hard to imagine that my parents, who had spent many of their nights arguing over the bills, had once been enthralled with their new fortunes. But it is clear from the letters that Cleveland would be an escape from the endless color snobbery of Hampton institute, from my maternal relatives (who thought the marriage such an obvious disaster for this bright young girl with a scholarship), and (this point being even farther from the surface) from the restrictions of the color line that imprisoned them outside the middle-class black world. Their deepest, most pleasurable memories had a pastoral simplicity: riding the pedal boats in the Wade Park lagoon, my mother reading alone in the library on 106th Street, and the long walks they took through then green Glenville, dreaming of the bourgeois life and happiness that they would one day possess.
This happiness rapidly ran afoul of the prejudices held by the blacks my parents came to know in Cleveland. Although my mother's skin color, her education, and her social aspirations might have qualified her for an upper-class black church such as the Euclid Avenue Congregational Church, my father's job as a janitor suited him only for the storefront churches along Cedar Avenue. They compromised and attended Antioch Baptist Church, where they were roundly snubbed by the elite of doctors and professionals and assigned to the lower class of maids and laborers.
Their minister, the Reverend McKinney, belonged to a light-skinned Mississippi family. The son of a sharecropper, he had nevertheless attended Morehouse College. In the sanctuary of the pulpit, he flaunted his class privilege by reprimanding members of the congregation who responded aloud to him during his sermons. In a nasty bit of class consciousness, he made fun of the large, expensive leather purses carried by a number of elderly black women. These women were maids, and for them, as for many lower-class people in Antioch, church attendance afforded a show of dignity denied them in their employers' homes in Shaker Heights and Beachwood. My mother was the last person to romanticize lower-class blacks, but even she was struck by the utter cruelty of McKinney's frequent jibes.
All the same, church was the ideological pivot of our lives. The sermon was the first literary form that carried the structure of ideas for me; the sacraments, my first encounter with mystery in the form of metaphor. The church's articulation of mystery allowed me to feel for the first time what I could not adequately explain to myself. To go to a black Baptist church in Cleveland in the late Fifties and early Sixties was to encounter the deepest hopes and aspirations of black people at a propitious time in history. My parents attended morning and early afternoon services, teaching Sunday school in between. The songs of the young adult choir were often spirituals. There was a junior church for older children and young adolescents. At Communion, Christians were served a sweet undiluted portion of Welch's grape juice; I can still feel its stickiness on my tongue. Music was provided by a choir, to which I belonged. There, for the first time, I heard "We Shall Overcome, sung by three girls who crossed their arms and joined hands. Theologically, we were exposed to the Reverend McKinney's interests, which I now understand were those of a typical nineteenth-century evangelical. I recall little emphasis on hellfire, but I came to know in a powerful way that life would end. What would death look like? Perhaps the bright glimpse of green that I caught under water during my baptism, by full immersion, in the church's glass-walled font.
The eschatological slant of the service persisted into our Sunday dinner. Frequently, Mrs. Watkins, a tall, elderly black woman, was invited from church to eat with my grandmother, a small, wizened woman nearly eighty years old. Mrs. Watkins, I now realize, was a common black churchgoing type, relatively rare in our congregation. Sitting on the gray sofa above the thinning, scrupulously vacuumed carpet, she held forth. She would spend long hours discussing the apocalypse with my grandmother, who knew extraordinarily lengthy passages of the Bible by heart. Mrs. Watkins, as such people will, mistook my close attention for a certain kind of religious potential and began indoctrinating me with her visions of the end. And on one Sunday afternoon when I was about eleven years old, I ran from room to room convinced that I heard God calling my name.
My father, however, was not interested in conversation about the apocalypse. His close acquaintance with disaster had made him unmoved by talk that touched bottom. My parents had friends who had recently come up from the South and thus were familiar with bankruptcy, garnisheed wages, and failed credit. Not only would the world end, as Mrs. Watkins claimed it would; a world was ending, the coming of some final day being in evidence all around us. My parents worked deep in the city of Cleveland, where signs of an approaching end, at least as they conceived of it in their provincial Southern way, were hard not to see. And Sunday dinner--with its fried chicken, iced tea, and lemon meringue pie--was a time for stocktaking. Although the inner-city schools--huge, dank, drab prison-like buildings where my father worked--would take on apocalyptic terrors in the Sixties, a dismal foreshadowing was already visible in the Fifties. In the mornings after church, I accompanied my father to check a school building and watched him repair the windows broken by stones that lay on the classroom floors. Even more ominous were the growing thefts of typewritters and business machines that increasingly required my father to rise from bed at three in the morning after the school alarms had been tripped and the police had been called. The crimes were nothing compared with the outright violence of the world of the street, a world utterly removed from my view but available for inspection in the lurid tales of black-on-black murder and rape reported in the Cleveland Press and the local black newspaper, The Call and Post.
As the Sixties passed, my parents encountered increasing signs of social collapse, and by the time of the riots in the summer of 1966, no one could accuse my father, who by then had been a custodian for nearly fifteen years, of being naive about black urban life. After one of his schools was burglarized in Hough, Glenville, or Collinwood, he would drive there and wait in his car until the police gave him the all clear to approach a huge dark building that they themselves were only too happy to leave. But even the routine destruction of the windows that he fixed on Sunday, the maliciously stopped-up toilets, and the casually strewn excrement did not prepare him for what he began to see in the late Sixties and early Seventies. The stories he brought home about his workday were gradually marked less by outrage than by incredulity as he described how, day after day, eighteen-, nineteen-, and twenty-year-olds (the Cleveland school system being what it was) routinely kicked in doors and ripped thermostats from walls. He was similarly amazed by the young pregnant women who were violent in the face of perceived and imagined insults, not only from boys and men but from other girls like themselves. As time progressed, both groups were increasingly ignored by teachers and principals, and especially by custodians, who had no wish to be shot by people for whom they had no responsibility. By the Seventies, the daily schedule of violence was taking place amid the aura of marijuana, floating from the bathrooms to the halls and, finally, like the yellow fog in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," everywhere.
My father's perspective was also informed by his commerce with the black working man. In his schools he supervised crews of twenty and thirty laborers, cleaning women, and various repairmen. The people drawn from the lower-class black community traditionally brought to their jobs the tricksterism and cynicism bemoaned by conservative social scientists and social pathologists and now celebrated by major black critics in the Modem Language Association as the spiritual heart of African American culture. Cleaning large schools with such people required a sharp tongue, a stem hand, and calculated shows of force designed to impress people who had been deconstructing white patriarchal rhetoric for some time. Yet even my father was amazed as their habitual resistance to work began to take on new forms. His men had no interest in the traditional route from laborer to fireman to custodian (a route taken by my father under the supervision of an older generation of Polish custodians deeply suspicious of his ability to learn the intricacies of shoveling coal) and were, increasingly, individuals best represented by a young man who each day dressed in a new bizarre wardrobe--one day a suit, the next day African dress.
The same tale was told from another point of view by my mother, now an administrator in the Cleveland Head Start office. She had dealt first as a teacher and then as a supervisor with the children of the violent young men and touchy girls now carefully avoided by my father in the schools. Predictably, the young parents' rage continued at home--that is, in the unlikely instance that both were home. By the early Seventies, this rage had begun to take on surreal manifestations that made my mother, already hardened by years of ghetto Work, wince. Cigarette bums, severe welts, and broken limbs, freely and casually admitted by the three-year-old victims to be the work of "daddy," now appeared regularly. A successful gardening project that my mother had started some years earlier withered away along with the plausibility of the bourgeois values of thrift, autonomy, and self-respect that had sustained it.
Long an advocate of continuing education, my mother arranged with a local community college to place teacher-educators in an associate degree program for early childhood education. By the end of the first term, these students would be receiving mostly Ds from young white radical and liberal professors who were constantly on the phone with my mother, asking whether they might give these students a grade below C. By the next semester, now perfectly aware of their status in the university, these students cruised through the spring with D averages. Afterward, they inevitably dropped out of Cuyahoga Community College, Head Start, and public life itself, only to be seen briefly by my mother in silk dresses, stepping out of new Elektra 225s on their way to marathon card games played in ghetto apartments before huge new Sony color TVs. The emergence of this new leisure class was a continuing mystery to my mother--she, after all, had given up a graduate fellowship to the Bank Street School to work full time and raise a family. More puzzled than angered--why would these people, who clearly were given everything, quit school?--she began to ponder an emerging white liberal explanation for this phenomenon: that work, social mobility, respectability--indeed the entire gestalt of the American middle class--meant nothing to these people. But this was an explanation that she would never accept. She rejected it over and over again in increasingly fierce arguments with privileged liberal suburbanites whom she began to suspect of a cynicism deeper than anything out on the already nihilistic streets.
This world continued to come apart. Young pregnant students would bring their smallest children to school; their fathers would bring guns. When I was a child it was hard for me to make out the exact dimensions of this world, but they were revealed by the few inner-city children in my Sunday school class; already they were brazen, their mouths set, their faces impassive, and their minds scarred with a cynicism that defined the way in which they engaged life. Shortly after a space launch, my Sunday school teacher, Dr. Toney, an orthodontist who taught at the Western Reserve School of Dentistry, asked one of my classmates what he thought of the, American space program. The boy, who was no more than ten, replied quickly and unequivocally that there was already more than enough trouble on earth for white people to attend to. I remember Dr. Toney's flinch.
In time, my parents escaped the coming terrors of urban wrath, and, in a typically middle-class black journey, they progressed from a one-room apartment in Wade Park to a duplex in tree-lined Glenville to their first single home on 137th Street in Mt. Pleasant to a slightly larger house on 173rd and Intermere in Lee Harvard to, finally, the woodsy, once-enclosed gardens of Forest Hills, where, three years later, as an elderly couple fearing robbery and assault, they decided not to open the door of their $90,000 house on Halloween.
The vision of the city left behind shadowed us and received considerable reflection at the Sunday dinner table. In the midst of their accounts of the trials of black life as it was lived in Cleveland from 1947 through the Sixties, my parents brought up the same quarrel with almost ritualistic frequency. The prosperous North Carolina farm my mother grew up on had been surrounded by dirt-poor sharecroppers who had remained on the land of their antebellum masters. The sharecroppers had never moved, and they exerted only minimal energy in attending to their own needs. Late in the winter, when their thin stores of canned vegetables disappeared, these people--perhaps the wife and a young child--would come to my grandparents' door and ask for a "mess of beans." My grandmother readily acceded to these requests, only to rage at the sharecroppers' indolence long after their emissaries had gone. At the dinner table, my mother continued her mother's rage, now directing it at the urban poor who kept my parents awake at nights, busy on Sundays, and enervated every day of the week. My father had a different line of reasoning. He argued quietly and firmly that these people were not to be condemned for what they did, that their seeming indolence made a kind of sense, although he did not say what this was. His view only enraged my mother further; she argued that this was what was wrong with the race in general: "no gumption." Her father, denied any money by his white father, had as a young man hopped a freight train in North Carolina and landed in New York, where he bell-hopped until he made enough money for a down payment on a plot of land between Roanoke Rapids and Weldon, where Route 95 now runs.
Here my mother would pause. Her father had died of pneumonia after the great house, the embodiment of all his dreams for his family and himself, burned down. She and her mother had been plunged into a life of dependence and poverty, albeit genteel for a black family during the Depression. But without gumption, she insisted, the race would accomplish nothing. Her exchanges with my father would continue through the last piece of lemon pie, until my father picked up the Sunday paper and went upstairs, silently, to the bathroom. In the kitchen, my mother would fume.
My father's view now haunts me wherever I go in this ambition-ridden life. I suspect that he and the sharecroppers of my mother's childhood were well acquainted with the void into which their fragile livelihoods might collapse. What did he mean when he said that the sharecroppers were perfectly right to sit there in all of their begging indolence? Moreover--and this was the heart of the matter--what peace could they have made with themselves after having encountered my grandmother's icy contempt? What did it mean that their way of life was justified? My father seemed to be as deeply committed to the family's fierce mobility as my mother, yet in his stoic acceptance of a final emptiness I found an ironic counterpoise to the hustle and bustle of her middle-class zeal.
The deepest lesson of my life is contained in the impasse between my parents on those Sunday evenings. African American culture may be grounded not in one impulse but in two: the world of intellectual and social accomplishment embodied by my mother; and the world of the folk, the world of my father, a world defined by its endurance of the harsh realities of deprivation, pathology, and racism.
This latter world--the world of the set jaw of my father--is now chillingly inhabited by my black students. Born in the Seventies, they are perhaps the first generation of African Americans to confront the deep terrors of urban black existence with little more to sustain them than the nihilistic ironies of the ghetto. The profound destructiveness and rootlessness that seeped into middle-class black life during the Fifties and early Sixties is now their cultural style, its fragmentation and alienation commodified and legitimated by corporate interests. This commercialized world of the folk provides the explanations with which many young black people confront the experience of oppression. And, to an unprecedented extent, it is the context in which black intellectual life is now formed.
The life of intellectual aspiration, however, requires an aloofness from the world of the folk. This is the distance my students are trying to calibrate, to articulate for themselves. This is why they consider me sullenly across the space of my classroom or endure stony conversations with me during walks across campus. No black of aspiration--especially today--can abandon the tragic vision of the folk, especially as they pass through their valley of destruction in today's urban holocaust. Yet I hope that the very best of my black students will, like the best of African American intelectuals, find a self and a consciousness that exists--however fleetingly--above this nation's cauldron of racial despair.
Phillip Richards is associate professor of English at Colgate University, in Hamilton, New York. He was recently a fellow at the National Humanities Center, in Durham, North Carolina.
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|Title Annotation:||Cleveland, Ohio|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1995|
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