Pops liked the long drives along winding roads through back country. He knew the trails, the regions where moonshine was distilled. Before the great war he drove an old Ford and ran moonshine. “That’s Golden Pond. During prohibition feds would come with plenty fire power and chase folks up through those woods,” he’d say. This was poverty territory, black and white.
I often wonder what was lodged back of his brain when it came to people of color. “They just not ambitious like us, not as learned and shifty.”
Deciphering pop's toxic rhetoric and sorting through the daily doses of scorn heaped on others was a challenge for a child. We attended mixed schools from kindergarten through high school. Across the row were kids of color; bright, athletic, engaged, and at times stand offish. These kids scored better grades than us. I seriously believe this was the beginning of long term disconnect between father and son which persisted well up into his 70s. Pops just couldn’t shake history – his history – the prejudice.
When you are dirt poor you have to find someone poorer than you to rail against. This is the measuring stick. “They can’t even afford shoes, look at them – they eating canned food again, bet they all beggars living off the government – I pay taxes you know.”
Early fifties I got my first taste of institutionalized racism during family vacation and drive through downtown Memphis. Pops stopped for a chilled coke. Most times he’d buy one for himself and we’d hit a water fountain. I bent over a faucet middle town and slurped away when a woman comes over and scold’s dad. “Can’t your boy read, it says coloreds only.” I step back and catch the long view and yes there were two fountains with scribble lettering, “Whites Only, Blacks Only.”
Hate and prejudice began to register farther south. Pops loved weaving his way through Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama and his second home – bug infested Florida.
We did the “Grapes of Wrath” stopover in Big Sandy Tennessee early '60s where dad went in search of lost relatives. This was as backwoods as you could get.
Pops located a distant uncle who then loaded brother Wayne, Pops and I on a flat board and towed us thirteen miles into back woods country. This shit was real.
The poorest of the poor. A big smoking hollow tree stump was all the warmth available. Upon our arrival people come from every corner of the forest and gather while pop’s uncle explains our intrusion. There were kinfolk and plenty kids in torn pants, missing teeth - barely capable of mouthing vowels. There were more grunts than“yes and no’s.” I’ll never forget the scene. It was as if these were refugees time traveling from another dimension. It stays in my head like a moving photograph.
Not long after pops decides to visit Minerva, a black woman who basically raised us the first years of our lives while mom worked at a parachute factory and dad at Colgate’s as a security guard.
Minerva’s small abode was hotter than a blast furnace. She was confined to a rustic recliner and still full of life curled next to the wood burning stove. She recalled dad’s early life and how funny he was and how she loved looking after his boys. I could sense her embrace, her body shape and soft words but only in ghostly form.
A few miles back in the sticks pops locates an aunt living in a small trailer completely wrapped in vines, I mean strangling in green rope. She coughs, spits then reach for a tin of snuff and keeps conversation friendly - lips stained in tobacco and face covered in lumps and warts. “Bill, you remember how hard we worked pulling tobacco, that was bone-breaking. Still sad your daddy lost the farm.”
I think about this – the class battles that run from birth to present day. The diehards that believe a con man like Donald Trump will bring prosperity to their front door. It never happens!
The old south was teeming with charlatans, “funky ass” preachers, rain makers, unscrupulous bankers, carnies of every persuasion.
High school proved to be the tipping point in race relations and identity. Whatever pops said I learned to believe the contrary. Fights between blacks and whites would come through rumour. “There’s going to be a big fight on the court house lawn after school.” Most times a few combatants would show and jaw each other. Then one day black and white show in mass and the slugging begins. This I avoided and dodged as I ran the back alleys home. Next day there’s talk of knives and chains and arrests.
Cassius Clay is beating up on all comers and becomes a symbol of black struggles and coming change. Louisville, a city divided. Plenty establishments refused to serve black customers and got away with it right up until 1965. Pops railed against Clay. He like all his white counterparts prayed Clay would get knocked cold. It never happened.
Here’s the dichotomy. Pops loved many things black. The music, the athletes and had good relationships with folks from the black community. There was a side of him that wanted to liberate and expel the seeds of prejudice that bloomed in his belly but he didn’t know how. Underneath there was a modern man who couldn’t find a solution to bigotry imprinted on his soul.
It was 1984 and father and son had been estranged a good four or five years and cross path in the hills of Pennsylvania. It was a shaky unification. Dad was still blowing racial epitaphs to whoever would listen, but the protestations were lost on this growing brood of young folks - one tense occasion, like something out of a mythical chapter in a roots Americana novella. I ask dad for a walk in the woods. Reluctant at first he then lifts his long body from a front porch chair, crosses the road and we trod off into the forest.
Pops was 6’6” and pretty scary. He wore a baseball cap and face – a big scowl. Even when he was funnin’ it was serious. No funnin’ back. Thin skinned!
Somewhere a hundred yards in or so I shift and ask, “Why do you demean people of color, why do you say that crap in front of young children? He pauses and says, “that’s all I know.” Quiet sets in. “Dad, you have to change, you really have to change.” Silence. “I don’t know how,” he says. Wow, it dawns on me, he is serious. “Why do you run down folks who lives are unbearable and lost forever in poverty.” He thinks. “There’s only so much space in this world and some won’t have any. It’s get or get eaten. We can’t feed the world you know.”
We spoke a bit longer, tone softened, then slow walk back to family. I could read concern on relatives faces but we kept this mostly too ourselves.
Dad wasn’t much different than any other white man of his generation. Bigotry was passed generation to generation. As I look at the current election - overt in your face racism, police brutality and the still great divide between races, I know which side dad would have picked. Poor white men vote for those who will tell them prejudice is OK and minorities are robbing them of deserved, evasive wealth – the kind Trump hoards. They want to believe there is a great white messiah living in the shadows who will one-day step forward and deliver them back in time when things were under their control. Few understand; they never called the shots!
My father was a good man, a man who wanted to learn, wanted to be in the jazz world, wanted those kinds of friendships but couldn’t shake indoctrination. He wanted his kids educated and self-reliant. I have close African American friends from my high school who knew my dad intimately and love him. It so heartens me knowing his soul was capable of crossing the big divide in a place it should have been all along. He like others of his time and those that follow, their prejudice will one day be extinct. Evolution has always planned it that way.