In the space of a half hour last week I noticed three black people on the streets of Northampton. This caused me to mention to my companion that that was more black people than I’d seen when I was growing up here in the 1930s and ’40s.
I wondered, does even noticing make me a racist?
A Northampton, Mass., upbringing never prepared me for the world beyond its borders. Blacks were not a minority; they hardly existed in our consciousness. Therefore, we didn’t know enough to be considered racist in its commonly accepted sense. My dad’s 1940s gas station had a couple of black customers from Amherst. The Pettijohn brothers were brimming with personality, non-threatening to a fault, and rare in their visits across the Coolidge Bridge. I enjoyed their company and probably reveled in my youthful sophistication in knowing and serving exotic people like them.
Eighteen years would pass. World War II was in the rear-view mirror, but all of a sudden Korea shone in my headlights. What to do? Wait for the draft call that was sure to come, or join my high school buddies in the Air Force. Off we went, not into “the wild blue yonder” of its song, rather, to experience a crash landing in reality. The only world of racial difference that I knew was on the radio.
Amos and Andy’s two white comic actors spoofed black people in every insulting way possible. Conversely, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson gave as good as he got to Jack Benny every week. Benny’s writers, like Goodman Ace, lived up to America’s ideals. Sadly, Hollywood’s images failed our fellow African-American citizens in film after film.
Therefore, just about everyone in mid-20th century America was a closet racist. We couldn’t help it. Our indoctrination was a CIA- or KGB-quality brainwashing. We lived in a sci-fi Ray Bradbury world where everything seemed normal, but was anything but normal to the descendants of slaves who lived here, nearby us in space and time, but non-existent to the majority. We were we, they were they, and the twain seldom met.
My own distance between the ignorance of my upbringing, and the stark reality of a lower class black existence lasted just the few hours that it took our troop train to travel from Springfield to Philadelphia, Pa. It was January 1951. Shockingly, our youthful eyes took in scenes of people, black people, staring back at us from unpainted shacks that backed up to the tracks. We quickly realized that we were traveling far from New England, and that the grown-up world was going to test everything we thought we knew. The aftermath of America’s Civil War, which to us had been settled by “Gone With The Wind” in 1939, was a story in progress and not consigned to history books here, or where we were heading, Texas, where separate and unequal was the way of life.
Our stunted educations about racial differences and opportunities were not helped by World War II movies. Every military outfit’s white guys included a city-wise guy from Brooklyn, an innocent Midwest farm boy, and a tough sergeant who kept them together. A Hispanic heritage soldier was rare, and often mistrusted.
No blacks appeared as heroes, although we now know that most drivers for the “Red Ball Express” were black soldiers from segregated units who drove trucks to the front so that our army had supplies, ammo and food. In the air the Tuskegee Airmen, black pilots in red-tailed fighters, flew escort for bombers, and had a sterling record of bringing them home. Neither group made it into wartime movies.
The Army Air Force became the U.S. Air Force in September 1947. One year later, in 1948, and against advice, President Harry S. Truman desegregated the services. My foray down South in 1951 taught me that military desegregation was still a work in progress. Again, being brought up in Northampton, and clueless to racial differences put neophytes like myself in the crosshairs of cultural change. When I made friends with a barracks mate from Chicago, Bill Carter, I came under suspicion. Bill was friendly, a basketball player like myself, and an all-around good guy. We had to live with a redneck bully who called me a (n-word) lover to my face and threatened violence for treating Bill as an equal. Actually, Bill was smarter than I was, and braver too. We survived.
Which brings me to today’s question. Is President Jimmy Carter correct when he claims that a great deal of the mindless abuse being heaped on President Obama, and his policies, is that a minority of citizens from all parts of the country refuse to accept the fact that America has elected an African-American president?
Carter is being heavily criticized for his statements, but they have the ring of experience behind them. Jimmy Carter was born and raised in Georgia, trained for the U.S. nuclear-sub Navy, and witnessed the last 85 years of American history up close.
The times may be changing, but prejudices run as deep in our veins as the oceans where competing submarines prowl.
Sooner or later, subconsciously, they may rise to the surface