Be advised that this piece contains language and subject matter that may be difficult for some people.
It is hard to piece together the events that led to my father orchestrating our act for the Riveria Elementary School Talent Show, other than my father always had a flair for drama. Today, a father that put his son and two of his friends in blackface and taught them an Amos and Andy routine would be looked at with abject horror. The school would have blocked such a blatant act of racism. Social service agencies would have been called to look deeper into our home life, and my hopes of running for the presidency dashed forever!
Here is how I recall it. When my father learned of the talent show he purchased three ukuleles and some black grease paint. He rounded up some loud plaid shirts for Arnold and I, and an Aunt Jemima head scarf for Christy Hunter. Specific lines from the routine elude me. I do remember that they were to be said in a long black drawl, and at the end of each punchline we were to strum our ukuleles wildly, while encouraging the audience to laugh and clap.
Our act, however, did not raise any concern or alarm on the part of the teachers. In fact, I recall that Mr. Knight came up to us as we were putting on the blackface and told us to wipe most of it off the palms of our hands because, “If you look at coloreds, their palms are almost white.” I do not remember any other of the acts in the talent show that year. In fact, I am not sure I would recall the incident as vividly as I do, except that the photograph made its way into our family’s box of pictures.
There were no black students in Riveria while I attended. Greenwood Elementary was closer to what polite people called “the colored part of town.” Those less polite called that neighborhood by a much grimmer name. There were no overt acts of racism or name calling in my childhood. Slowly, black people made their way on to television screens, Jell-O commercials, and into the movies. The racism that existed was much more internalized. At church events we would en-courage Clark Hamlin to sing, “The Coon Song.” Clark was the sweetest and most spiritual man I knew. His eyes misted up when he sang, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” But Clark sang the 1920’s novelty song with great animation, egged on by our families.
By the time I was in high school, Willie and Velma Butler, a black couple, began attending our small church. They were warmly welcomed and I often found myself in their home. Our church was rebuilding after a fire and we had frequent work days. At one, Willie was there along with five or six other men. During a break, Lloyd Granger began to tell a joke. As the joke progressed it was obvious that a black man was the brunt of the humor. It finally dawned on Lloyd that Willie was standing next to him. He paused and turned to him, “No offense, Willie,” and he the stupidity to finish the joke. No one laughed, except Willie, who would not let his face betray any feelings of anger or pain. I never spoke to Lloyd Granger again.
After we rebuilt the church following the fire, we purchased a small lot across the street to build a park in memory of Clark Hamilin. On that piece of property was the Stella Pippin whorehouse. Stella was an elderly black woman who purportedly ran the only house of prostitution in the town. The plan was for the fire department to burn the dilapidated house down. When they decided to burn the Pippin house down, our pastor thought that it would be a good idea to spend the night keeping watch over the final stages of the burn. I asked if I could keep him company on the vigil. We sat up in our sleeping bags and watched the embers of the dying fire. I did not tell the pastor about the nudie magazines my friends Gale and I found when we broke into abandoned house. I just watched the ashes rise like ghostly gray moths into the sky. Across the street was a small ramshackle house. I asked the pastor if it was true that Stella Pippin still lived there. I did not mention her profession. “I think she does,” he replied. I asked him why there was a red light on the porch, even though I knew the answer.
I eventually found myself in Kansas City, Missouri attending seminary. To this day, I don’t know how I financed graduate school. I pieced together odd jobs here and there, but it was in January when we took a semester break and could work full-time. I had done substitute teaching in Ida-ho, and It paid well and was not too demanding. However, I was now in a big city and the schools most in need of substitutes were inner city schools. One of my favorite movies is, To Sir, With Love, with Sidney Poitier. I saw the opportunity as a romantic lark. Instead, it turned into a disaster.
Armed guards in the hallways greeted me as I entered the school. As I walked toward the admin-istrative office, I realized I had not seen a single white student. I was scheduled to teach choir that day. The piece I chose was Burt Bacharach’s, Trains, and Boats and Planes. I did not realize it at the time, but I could have not chosen a piece more removed from the black experience. At first the students were non responsive. They refused to sing or even take the sheet music from their folder. Then they became belligerent, taunting and mocking me. I was short and the girls loomed above me as they dared me to do something about their behavior. I endured one class session and then told the office that I would not be finishing out the day.
Later, I found myself in downtown Kansas City. I was crossing the street. As a black man walked past me, I found myself overcome with anger and rage. I soon realized that I was not angry at him, but at the students from the school. Was I angry that I did not get my “reverse Sidney Poitier white savior” moment? I am not sure. But in the classroom that day, I discovered at a deep level what it was to be the minority. I learned what it was like to nod and smile to cover the rage and pain.