My fuchsia bicycle with the flowered banana-seat conveyed me all over town, my travel unrestricted. Stranger Danger didn’t get forced on a kid in the ‘70s like the present day. I pedaled pretty much anywhere the strength of my legs could take me.
I got to ride that bike to visit my friend, Veronica, from school. My mother knew where I was going and said, “You can go but only if you don’t tell your daddy.” I could ride my bike there by myself, but my father would’ve forbidden me from going. I’d never been to a black family’s house in my nine years of life.
This was the 1970s, not Jim Crow, not the segregated South, although the Midwest wasn’t exactly a cozy nest of inclusion. Few of my elementary school classmates were black, whom I could count on one hand from three third-grade classrooms.
Our home may have been typical in a small town, but I didn’t know since kids didn’t compare notes. While my mother didn’t condone our dad’s racism, her inaction was complicit. She’d also been raised to think the races need to remain separate, to “stick with their own.” She must’ve fallen into a torpor from the seeming normalness of that environment. Almost as if you can’t beat ‘em, so join ‘em in their prejudice.
My dad was inexorable and totally justified in his behavior. We’d been raised with this example as normal, but we knew better inside. Such an ugly secret we hid behind closed doors felt wrong. The balance of our blooming consciences grew lopsided to what seemed right, no matter what we knew as normal in our home.
Me and my sisters were warned to never bring a black or Asian guy home or we’d have no home. We’d be disowned, which scared me enough to never dated outside my race. As a teenager, I realized what bigotry meant but that my father wasn’t even a consistent bigot. He wouldn’t been fine with one of us dating someone Native American, but he would’ve lost his shit with any of us dating an African American.
He once said, “I know one at work, and he’s okay. He’s a hard worker.” Like that was a bonus, as if the man would otherwise slack because of being born black. I have no idea what caused his negativity about other races. It didn’t seem personal. His parents never acted that way. Their rural background likely didn’t involve much, if any, interaction with anyone other than white people. Maybe simple isolation took its toll on him.
My dad’s racist attitude and language overshadowed his other virtues. Being a hard worker who provided and care for his family didn’t weigh as heavy as the hatred and inconsistencies I witnessed. Someone who claimed, “Never think you’re better than anyone else,” was the same one who told us who could be our friends. I remember him saying, “Nobody is any better than you either, no matter how much money they have.” Such mixed messages.
He didn’t like Jews and gave running commentary on the nightly news, especially if it included the likes of Henry Kissinger or JFK, although he never gave a reason why. Astonishingly enough, I think he voted Democrat. We couldn’t watch video of Eddie Murphy’s comedy routine without a hateful diatribe if our dad walked into the room. Why demonize these people we didn’t even know?
It was personal for me. Veronica was my friend, and going to her house excited. Everyone welcomed me there. With its unique decorations and varied kitchen aromas (as in anyone else’s home), theirs was an average middle-class household. We lived on the north side of the railroad tracks that delineated the poorer side of town. Ironically, I crossed those tracks to go to Veronica’s house not five or six blocks further down the same street.
I came home afterward to report, “Mom, Veronica has three mamas. They all live at her house.” Looking back, I imagine extended family lived there. My mom made sure to explain that couldn’t be right, that they must be different.
Always different, never the same. Making folks different could keep us separate. Twenty-three years after his death I still wonder what stemmed my father’s antipathy.
I’m lucky to have learned a different way of living by moving to a bigger city and meeting individuals of all races, nationalities, religions and lifestyles. My own life experience is richer for it. I know people are ultimately just people.
Some of those people are good and others bad, regardless of skin color. Unfortunately, indifference exists in all human beings. A generation later, I could cross railroad tracks all over the country — or the world — and find the same wherever my wheels take me. But making it personal makes it better.
Photo: deer_je via Flickr
*Studio 30+ writing prompt: bonus
With a sad spirit, these thoughts are dedicated to a transcendent artist now missed by the world – RIP Prince.