Saturday, April 12, 2008

Those People

What’s missing from a lot of discussions white people have about race, is any sense of the concrete, complex humanity of the people being discussed.

“Blackpeopleintheghetto” is a glib abstraction, a sort of quick mental categorization, which does not bear virtually any relationship to the people who were my neighbors in Richmond, California. For those who know the area, I grew up almost exactly between the Kennedy Manor and Easter Hill housing projects, in a solidly working-class black neighborhood - in the 1960s and into the 1970s - we were the only white family in the neighborhood. (We moved in 1976, to a town called Benicia - kind of like Mayberry RFD, only with Californian rather than Southern accents.)

Some of the most noble and Godly people I have ever been blessed to know lived in that neighborhood. Most of the parents in the ‘hood had moved in the 1940s to Richmond to get War work in the shipyard (building liberty ships mostly).

Think about how long ago, say, 1988 is from this moment. That was the amount of time separating the folks in the neighborhood in 1975 from a time when they lived in the Jim Crow, pre-civil-rights South, and could be lynched - taken out on some back road, emasculated and hung - for calling a white woman by her first name.

Imagine the psychological devastation that was wrought in people who experienced that culture: because of an accident of melanin, they could be murdered for performing the intrinsically human act of speaking with kindly familiarity to a woman they might actually be acquainted with.

There was a family down the street I’ll call the Millers. Dad worked in the Chevron chemical plant, mom was a part-time secretary at the school district office. 5 kids, the youngest of whom was in my class at Pullman Elementary.

The oldest boy, named Duane, had had polio, and walked with a pronounced limp. Duane had one of the kindest, most tender hearts I’ve ever been privileged to know. He used to look out for me sometimes when things in the neighborhood got rough.

One day when I was..oh, probably 6 years old, I was over at the Millers’ house visiting my friend from school, and Duane got the new Chihuahua dog they had just gotten, and handed the dog to me to see - and the little mutt bit me on the stomach and held on with its teeth. I screamed with pain and fear, and Duane hurriedly got the dog off me.

His mom came running, and when I told her what had happened, Duane, right there on the spot, was beaten by his mom. She shoved him, his bad leg just collapsed, and his mother just…attacked. He got the beating of his life right there in front of me.

When she was done, she turned to me and apologized in obsequious and anxious tones: “Duane didn’t mean it - he was just playing - just tell your mama it was an accident…”

At the time, it struck me as strange - here was this big, powerful woman, and she was begging for my forgiveness?

She had met my parents, had sat and talked with my mom many times over coffee - she knew my parents were about the furthest thing possible from the racists she had left behind in Alabama.

But here’s the thing. In a time in her life no more remote from that moment than 1988 is from us today, Duane’s carelessness with a white boy might have put their well-being, even their lives, in danger. She struck Duane not out of anger, but deep, unreasoning terror.


Yes, the neighborhood could be, at times, almost saturated with an atmosphere of latent violence - but there was also deep, agape love, a love so profound and simple that it gave me a taste of what heaven might be like.

There was elderly Mrs. Pender next door, who had had a stroke and walked with a walker. Her husband, Mr Pender, had the most awe-inspiring lawn on the block - he probably weeded the thing with tweezers - but his wife was the real gift to the neighborhood. She would take me in sometimes when the ‘hood got extra crazy, and tell me that she knew, just knew, that one day I would grow up to be someone really special.

There’s the elderly black lady I met one day when I was selling door-to-door. The whole enterprise, while technically not fraudulent, was making me pretty uncomfortable. Lots of the salesmen loved selling to ghetto addresses – they would just wave a couple free months of service in the naïve resident’s faces, kinda forget to mention the charges that would hid after that two month grace period, and rack up sales. I worked the ghetto when I had to, but for some strange reason I never seemed to get very many sales there.

One day, I knocked on some humble little basement-apartment door, and the door opened to reveal a frail woman who had the kindest eyes I had ever seen - it was as if she were staring right through the glib salesman veneer, past all the BS, and directly into my soul, and genuinely appreciating, unconditionally loving, the qualities she saw there. It was as if I were staring dumbstruck into the very Face of Christ. To paraphrase St Thomas Aquinas, I could sell no more.

There is a woman I know who lost both of her grandchildren to murder - both in their mid-teens. To see this woman is to see the virtual physical incarnation of soul-crushing grief - she walks with stooped shoulders, and to look into her face is to see care-lines that have little to do with age, and lots to do with gazing into the coffins of two grandchildren she had loved with primal, protective, simple, profound, unconditional love.

And yet, she spends practically every waking moment working in outreach programs for at-risk youth. She sees some straighten out their lives and make it out. Some she loses to murder or prison (the ones in prison she writes to; the ones who were murdered she prays for.) She is a saint.

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