My father owned or worked in a series of more or less failing grocery stores in black neighbourhoods on the South Side of Chicago for some twenty-five years, roughly between 1940 and the mid-1960s. His stores foundered because of the appearance of large, new, chain supermarkets, a feature of post-World War II capitalist development that doomed the corner groceries. It was also the era when the South Side, as historian Robert Stepto writes, “burgeoned as thousands of African Americans, almost exclusively from the south, migrated to the city during the Great Migration of the World War II years.”
Among the first black people to whom I was formally introduced–at about age five, one Sunday morning while accompanying my father to the store–was a plainclothes Chicago policeman named Two-Gun Pete. When we shook hands, his large paw engulfed my tiny one, and I noticed how the pink flesh of his palm contrasted against the dark brown skin on the back of his hand. Was I shown and allowed to touch the mother-of-pearl handle of one of his fabled guns, or merely told about them? My father impressed upon me Two-Gun Pete’s prowess and fearlessness. He’d just as soon shoot a man as look at him, people said of Pete in tones of awe.
Not long ago, on television, I watched scenes of black “unrest” in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the wake of a police shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager, the latest in a string of similar killings over a number of years there. Like the other viewers, I was left with a few violent, familiar visuals: the plate glass window of a shop being smashed; a gaggle of young black men, several of them shirtless, running across a flame-licked urban landscape; a grainy video clip filmed at night, whose soundtrack carries an occasional police gunshot; the talking head of the sombre white mayor of Cincinnati declaring a curfew; a grieved mother. The visuals–a sort of check-list of scenes meant to prove that this “riot” is comparable to previous riots impressionistically stored in viewers’ memory banks–successfully hinder any understanding of what might be going on.
“Race-relations” or, more properly, the impoverished, horizonless condition of masses of black people in blighted city cores across the United States, remains the great American internal political disgrace of the second half of the twentieth century. But the bare declaration of the atrocity–and it is an undoubted atrocity, long drawn-out as well as punctuated by incidents such as those in Cincinnati–hardly conveys the horror of hundreds of thousands of slowly-lost black lives in America.
When I look back on the time during which I grew up, the ubiquitous racism is now more apparent, even if it was only the muted version absorbed in my family, which, on my mother’s side, included several small shopkeepers whose customers were mostly black. Then, African-Americans were known as Negroes, coloureds, or, among lower-middle-class Jews, the Yiddish term Schwartze, derived from the German word for “black,” was used.
(George Stanley recently observed how thoroughly and rapidly the term “black” succeeded “negro” in the 1960s; a brown-skinned woman of Caribbean descent with whom we were talking argued that the later “African-American” is a questionable usage arising from dubious aspects of contemporary “identity politics.”)
Did my aunts utter the sentence, in reference to the impending arrival of a coloured cleaning woman, “The Schwartze is coming over today”? Even though these same European-descended Jewish Caucasians, seeing brutal scenes on TV of black civil rights protesters being menaced by police and dogs in Alabama or Mississippi in the mid-1950s, might be appalled by the Southern practice of segregation (separate toilets, drinking fountains, schools for Negroes and Whites), their own unthinking references to blacks simply assumed them to be a separate and yes, inferior, people. Significantly, the contemporary white race riots of the early 1950s, against Negroes being apportioned a share of the newly-built public housing projects right there in Chicago, received far less attention than the televised barbarities in Georgia.
Apart from acquiring a liberal attitude in support of the black civil rights movement, as a teenager, I was less absorbed by the politics of race than I was by the ontological mystery of the differences. How was it possible for human skin to be different colours? I’d encountered hundreds of black people–customers, workers, and people in the neighbourhoods on the South Side of Chicago where my father’s successive failing stores were located. They included the young black men my father employed and trained, as he did me, in the skills of meat-cutting and clerking (valuable trades to acquire, given black unemployment rates), who in turn taught me to play basketball and instructed me in the rudiments of boxing in the alley behind the store during our breaks. I maintained a correspondence with one of them, Frank, a young man three or four years older than me, after he’d joined the army and was stationed in Alaska. With the ambition of a budding author (age thirteen), I proposed that I could “write up” his adventures in the wild.
Although it became conventional in the left-wing identity politics of the 1980s and 90s to intimate that sexual desire for the coloured “other” was also a form of imperialist racism (based on a judgment about white men sleeping with black women), it’s a proposition I’m inclined to dispute as simplistic and partial. The mystery of skin colour wasn’t fully impressed upon me until I became infatuated, around age fourteen or fifteen, with someone I’ll call Jesse Williams, a black schoolmate in my high school gym class.
I contrived to get the clothes locker next to Jesse’s, and whenever I could, I lingered in the locker room. I sat next to where he stood on the wooden bench, looking up in mute adoration. In the crowded change room, with the sound of showers hissing in the background, and the noisy horsing around of teenage boys banging locker doors and snapping towels, onlookers would hardly have noticed me, although I had the sense that Jesse himself was not unaware of my furtive glances at his groin as he stepped into his white jockstrap.
I couldn’t have articulated my feelings then. I had barely thought about homosexuality yet; at most, I had a dim notion of the Freudian concept that boys passed through “a phase” of love for other boys. Yet, I felt a distinct difference between my desire for Jesse and for others to whom I was attracted–pale blond Protestants, or the Irish and Jewish kids of my acquaintance. Having grown up with all of the latter, it seemed as if my attraction to them arose at least partially out of a shared cultural background in which I had gradually learned about the possibilities of beauty, whereas with Jesse, the force of Eros was startling, unprecedented, as if I had invented this particular recognition of desire all on my own (or as if it had invented me). Though it’s hardly a cure for racism, desire and a healthy curiosity about others, a.k.a. xenophilia, seem like first steps away that are as plausible as any others.
A similar illumination on the intellectual side occurred when I walked into an algebra class on the first day of the semester and discovered that the teacher, Mr. Harris, was a black man. Clearly there was a dissonance between the slightly demeaning notion of Schwartzes and the presence of an African-American man who would instruct us in the mysteries of mathematics rendered alphabetical.
The developing cognizances–erotic, intellectual–of actual black people I knew are more informative than the abstract political rhetoric of racism deplored. Recently, I happened upon Wayne Miller’s photographs of Chicago’s South Side, 1946-1948 (California, 2000), gradually becoming pleasantly lost in the images of scenes I may have seen for myself as a boy.
There was no photograph of Two-Gun Pete in Miller’s book, but I was intuitively certain I would find something. After looking at the pictures, I turned to Miller’s introductory memoir of shooting those photographs and immediately found the passage I was seeking. Of the many hundreds of pictures he had taken a half-century before, Miller says, he remembers those “of Silvester Washington–a Chicago Juvenile Police Officer nicknamed ‘Two-Gun Pete’; like the maverick General George Patton, he sported a pair of pearl-handled revolvers.” There’s a photo of a contemplative black teenager in a suit and tie who, according to the caption, is “at the Wabash Avenue police station presided over by Silvester ‘Two Gun Pete’ Washington.” The boy appears to be listening to someone just outside the photo’s frame, likely Two-Gun Pete himself, who also moves just outside the frame of my memory.