Q. How were subjects like race, class and religion discussed around the dinner table?
Easiest to speak of the third. Religion was there at dinner, lunch, breakfast, day in and out. There was a Baptist publication called The Secret Place that had a daily devotion rooted in a text from scripture, followed by a prayer. As a rule, my father did the readings, though my mother took a turn often enough. I can’t remember a time when I was not thinking intensely about the complexities and contradictions of what I was hearing. (This is probably what led to those religious studies courses I was to take as an undergraduate. I would never take Ahura Mazda as my Zorastrian savior, but I would have some sense of Robert Hayden’s B’hai faith when I met him; I would know what I was looking at when I came to the two sided statue at the Buddhist temple I visited in Wuhan.) It struck me that my father and I, when it was our turn to “say grace,” invariably recited the same formula, as though there were never more nor less to pray for or to. Being a Baptist, with that denomination’s emphasis upon a personal relationship to the deity and the priesthood of all believers, I always had a Bible. But that just multiplied the problems. Why was the creation story told twice, with minor but telling variations? Why were there two versions of those ten or more commandments? Why did Bruce, my Mexican American Catholic friend across the street, have a different and longer Bible than the ones in our house? (And why did they always eat fish on Fridays over there?)
Church structure or strictures just compounded the confusions. I soon came to see that anybody could teach Sunday School. Including the obviously mentally ill woman who one Sunday morning told us about the little devils she had seen hovering in the corners of her ceiling the night before. Or the guy in Richmond who told us solemnly that when you had a nightmare the blood in your body stopped circulating and that if you didn’t wake up in time you would die. (A piece of advice that put me in mind of the words of that prayer adults for some unfathomable reason taught to small children that included the lines “If I should die before I wake / I pray the Lord my soul to take.”) None of this did much for my general opinion of the intellectual capacities of the grownups of the world. I was growing a generation gap long before Time magazine talked it up. I was agnostic even about gnosticism. I did not know the word “hermeneutics” yet, but all this was making me a textual critic, not quite what my parents had in mind in putting scripture in my hands.
We didn’t discuss class much, but it was clear that each of our churches in turn seemed to be a step up the ecclesiastical social step ladder. I gathered that we Baptists were somehow not in the same league with those Episcopalians with their country clubs. It was not till I visited the deep South much later that I came to a town where the Baptist church was the high class affair, with the endlessly varying charismatics stringing themselves along the unspooling line of class, speaking in tongues. (Usually the same tongues, it seemed to me, despite their many doctrinal disputes.)
Race, it turned out, had something to do with our going to that church at 8th and H NW instead of one of the many Baptist churches in Arlington. My father had been elected to the presidency of the American Baptist Men’s Association not long before our move East. The Baptist congregations in Northern Virginia were aligned with the Southern Baptist convention. I knew enough of church history by age twelve to know that the separation of the two conventions had its origins in the arguments about slavery in the 19th century, which fact didn’t do anything to ease my suspicions of Southern White folk. (I did not yet know of the National Baptists, a Black Baptist convention formed out of those same tectonic movements of the spirit.) The church we went to at 8th and H had not always been there, or been at all. It had formed, also in the 19th century, when Baptist congregants at an existing church split over the issue of praying for President Lincoln. (The Capitol, even during the Civil War, harbored an astonishing number of copperheads.) It was the pro-Lincoln group that had left and established the new church we were to join in the next century. The American Baptist Convention was founded at the new church, so it made sense for my father to enroll us there. Even with that background, even that church had gone through some painfully racist moments in the decades before we arrived.
One of my father’s duties as President of the American Baptist Men was to visit churches that had just formed men’s associations and present them with charters. My father was called upon, upon such occasions, to deliver himself of something resembling a sermonette. He did his best, rather in the tone of the reports he made to Congress. Some of these churches were African American congregations, and I can remember the first time that my father was the recipient of an enthusiastic “Amen” from an older lady, which was followed quickly by more Amens. My father had grown up with Ameners; our new church even had an Amen corner of pews off to one side of the pulpit, though nobody ever Amened from that quarter any more. But my father had never before been on the receiving end of such spirited welcome, and he looked genuinely surprised. The white gloved ladies who ushered everybody took a particular liking to me, welcoming me as kin, but I was no doubt considerably more likeable at thirteen than later.
Yet I really don’t recall overt discussions of race at the dinner table. Call it an early, odd form of White privilege – the privilege to go about your business not having to think much about race most of the time, especially at dinner time. But I’m sure we did discuss race, and I’m pretty sure it would have been at my instigation, because our move was causing me to think about race all the time.
I had, along with my radio and T.V. addictions, always been an avid reader of newspapers. We always took one of the local ones, and for years the newspapers from our previous towns followed in our wake. That’s how, reading the Grand Island Independent. I learned that a couple of my bonehead neighbors from third grade were arrested for vandalizing another neighbor’s home. I guess those abandoned shacks outside town had gotten boring to them. My parents still subscribed to the paper from their tiny home town, though there wasn’t much of race in that village sheet. As a reader of the news, though, I saw the stories about the unfolding Civil Rights Movement, which was often written about as if it were taking place in some foreign land, as if there were no Black people in Denver.
The one memory of such a discussion at home I thought I had has, in retrospect, to be a false memory. I thought I had a memory of my parents sitting in the living room, looking at a map of a Southern state, and talking over a possible job transfer that had been proposed to my father. And I thought I remembered my mother expressing severe doubts about moving her children to a place where crazy White folk segregated and attacked people; most of those attacked and segregated, like Dr. King, appeared to be Baptists. That conversation could not have happened, though. My father’s work with the Bureau of Reclamation was restricted to projects West of the Mississippi River. There was no way the Bureau would have offered to move him to, say Georgia. So just what things from the Fifties were getting conflated in my memory, and why?
It was the move East that crystallized things for me. Back in Grand Island, I’d grown up looking at that painting of Jesus with “all the little children of the world.” Reading the part of the Bible that picture had sprung from, I knew that all the children gathered around him would have been Palestinian. (The painting was inspired by Matthew 19:14, which, in my King James version, read “ But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” The incipient poet in me wondered about that “suffer.” Why would you “suffer” the children to go to Jesus? The church grownups were no help on this point in semantics.) That painting, though, presented an ideal I had no reason to question. “They’re all precious in his sight.” I grew up with that assumption and nobody had told me there were any amendments or sub-clauses. Our family from time to time hosted visits by people from Africa, and American Indians, all Baptists passing through town to talk international Baptist efforts. (And I remember visiting the home of an older couple who had glass cases in their house filled with artifacts from Africa, where they had worked for many years.) If my mother and father ever had any stereotypical ideas about races, they never expressed them in my presence. (Grandparents were another matter. My mother’s father, for reasons lost on me, compensated for his inability to remember people’s names, a problem I inherited from him, by calling everyone by the same multipurpose nickname, “Irish.”)
I’d always been a Civil War buff; read up on all the battles. I’d also spent an evening listening to a Denver radio special about the history of the KKK in Colorado, a Klan that had been pretty well busted by an expose in the Denver Post back in the day. So the move to Northern Virginia and D.C., just as the Civil War centennials were underway, meant I would see the real places I had read about. (Children tend to have a tenuous grasp of history and geography. My new neighbors in Arlington were impressed with my cowboy boots and envied my knowing how to ride horses, but thought I was lying about driving around in cars out West. I, in my turn, proved woefully ignorant of the racial geography of my country, and nobody was in any hurry to enlighten me.)
We arrived just in time to witness the March on Washington on our T.V. set that had just come off the moving truck. It was the year before the biggest of the Civil Rights Acts. I never saw segregation up close in Arlington. (I saw its legacy everywhere, as I’m about to explain.) But one day I stumbled into it in the Virginia countryside. I’d gone on a trip, to what the locals thought were mountains, with a car full of scouts. On the way back we’d stopped out in rural Virginia for gasoline. I needed to use the rest room, so walked around the corner of the gas station only to find myself blinking at a sign that read: “We reserve the right to refuse service to anybody.” I had no idea what it meant, but worried it meant I couldn’t pee. The adult driving the car saw me frozen, saw the sign, grabbed me and pushed me into the car. We drove on a few hundred yards and bought our gas and peed at a station that didn’t have such a sign. There was no explanation offered during the nearly silent ride back to Arlington.
Arlington’s Wakefield High School had finally been integrated, or at least desegregated, a couple years before I entered its tenth grade, and so I was assigned to Algebra class with Mr. Haygood. Mr. Haygood was “really” a chemistry teacher, but he was covering Algebra too that year, while also coaching J.V. football. He was part of the small, first contingent of black teachers who had come over from Hoffman-Boston, which had until then been the Black high school for the county. By the time I was there, Wakefield’s school population included hundreds of African American students, and nobody told me there had not always been hundreds of African American students there. (The Wakefield alumni association has recently published a book of interviews with students and faculty who were involved in the integration – .) It didn’t take at all long for me to recognize what was going on in the county, though. By far the preponderance of Black students were at Wakefield; Washington-Lee, in the middle of the row of three high schools, had a fair number; Yorktown, at the opposite end of the county from Wakefield, seemed to have only two at the time. This lined up with the housing legacy of segregation days. Green Valley was just down the hill from our school. Johnson Hill was farther over, and so some of the students from that neighborhood went to W&L. Johnson Hill was home to the Black Baptist church; Green Valley was where you found Arlington’s A.M.E. Zion congregation
I was never one to seek “role models,” and had no intention of becoming an Algebra teacher, but Mr. Haygood was my idea of a model for us youth. He didn’t take any disrespect from anybody, and he was possessed of the proverbial sharp-edged wit. He caught wind of the fact that I was getting a band started, and that I was making sorry attempts at playing harmonica, so he began to bring in tapes from his massive collection and play people like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee for me. I didn’t do all that well in Algebra that year, but I was soon immersed in that music. One of my proudest moments in high school came the next year when our band was playing “Born in Chicago” and I caught sight of Mr. Haygood, who was one of the chaperones that night, smiling, nodding and tapping his foot. One night after graduation, I was to run into Mr. Haygood in Georgetown at the Cellar Door. Muddy Waters sat at our table while waiting to go on stage. Mr. Haygood introduced us to Muddy. Seems they were old friends. Mr. Haygood even offered to arrange for us to stay for the second show and hang out back stage, but my date had a curfew.
The little bit I learned about what had happened as the schools desegregated I learned from my Black class mates. None of the White students seemed to know or want to know anything. The Black kids in my classes told me about an infamous assembly that had been held at Hoffman-Boston, during which the principal and faculty members advised the students on how they should act around the White kids they would soon be sharing classrooms with. I wasn’t able to find any White students who reported similar assemblies in their schools. The band we were getting started in tenth grade was a gathering of people I’d known in Junior High and two more met at Wakefield. It was a remarkable group. Come graduation time, three of us were National Merit semi-finalists. Two of us later earned PhD’s. One of the band members went on to be Miss Black America. We were, by the time we were in our final lineup, one of about three racially integrated bands that played around the county routinely. That led to some tough experiences, like the night some guy outside a 7/11 scratched the “N word” in the side of my father’s car while the band was inside the store getting sodas. On the more positive side of interracial relations, the Chinese kids in D.C.’s Chinatown latched onto us. They were, I believe, the last generation of Chinese kids to grow up there, when the neighborhood was still significantly residential. We played gigs at the Chinese Cultural Center in downtown D.C., and a Chinese wedding party out in Arlington. Nobody told us we were being multicultural.
But it was when our lead singer and I started dating that I ran full face into the buzz saw of American racism. She had written me an anonymous note and stuck it in my books during lunch period, but I figured out who the note was from. (I had seen her handwriting before, after all. She had to write out the lyrics to the songs she was learning, and I’d pencil the chords in, which our lead guitarist had figured out using his tape recorder.) She was easily the most beautiful girl in the school, sang like Aretha, was sharp as a tack and, to my amazement, liked me. Why wouldn’t I date her?
Well, apparently there were a lot of people I had never met who had strong answers to that question. It’s hard for me to believe there had never been an interracial couple at the school before, but I can’t remember another one during our time there. A Patch of Blue had already screened at the movies, but Sammy Davis had not yet kissed Nancy Sinatra on the cheek; Captain Kirk and Uhura had not yet exchanged their interstellar kiss. The mere prospect of the two of us seemed to unhinge some people. Most of the teachers and staff knew better than to say anything about it, though there was a homeroom teacher who mysteriously said something about an article in the New York Times he wanted to show me. Hell, maybe it was just a poetry book review; he never did show it to me. A guy who lived up the street from me threw me against the lockers and was about to break my arm off before a teacher came along, all because he didn’t like my witty response to his racist comment. This kind of thing started to happen regularly. I was trying to be some sort of pacifist conscientious objector as my draft age approached, but this was making it hard to hold to that plan. One day as we were walking along Four Mile Run Drive, a guy who had just driven past us ran up over the curb, spun around screeching his tires, did a second U turn and pulled alongside us. He kept reaching under the driver’s seat while shouting abuse at us, threatening to do us in with whatever he had under there. Not sure what he thought was going to happen. After a dance in Fairfax, Virginia, a couple cops made me open the trunk of the car and they spent about twenty minutes searching its empty interior while making veiled suggestions about what they might do to us if they found anything. In contrast, the Arlington cops, some of whom made extra money by working at school and church dances where we played, would sort of look out for us, like guardian angels who hovered just a tad too close.
One reason I don’t recall discussions about race around the dinner table is that I never told my parents about any of these episodes.. (I did, obviously, tell them how the “N word” came to be scratched in the car. I have since wished I could have listened in as my father spoke to his insurance agent about that claim.) They knew the young lady I was dating, and knew that she was a Baptist. Maybe that was the key. At any rate, in those years I was unlikely to talk to my parents about much of anything I was thinking about, that’s what my friends were for, and my books and magazines. My friends in the band, and those neo-hippies I hung around with at school, were engaged in one continuous conversation about that political world we were to inherit. Our small, interracial tribe were, we were certain, hip, maybe unbearably so, and we knew the others were war mongering racists who would soon be washed away in the tides of history. (Fooled us, again.) The band prospered, meanwhile, as we played Soul and Rock both. (I had not yet heard my own singing voice on tape, but since I was the one singing the Dylan songs, it didn’t matter so much. Soon enough, I’d leave the mic and our bass player would sing like Otis Redding or our organ player would sing like Marianne Faithful or our lead vocalist would sing Fontella Bass.)
I had found Ramparts magazine in the library, and had my own subscription to Esquire, which in that time published cutting edge fiction and major essays on people like LeRoi Jones. Negro Digest had not yet become Black World, but it was in many of the homes I hung out in. (Usually sitting under the ubiquitous ceremonial plate bearing an otherworldly portrait of President Kennedy, and often enough right next to a portrait of Jesus.) Radio station WOL, which I listened to religiously (it became an all talk format, sad to say, as the years passed), hosted several weekend discussion programs where I would hear local political figures and ministers opine on the evolving liberation struggles. The voices of the prophets: Petey Greene, Sunny Jim Kelsey (DO NOT be misled about this fine D.J. by the caricature of him in the Petey Greene movie), and my own long time favorite, Bob “Nighthawk” Terry. On that blonde T.V. set that had come with us from the wild west, now housed in the basement (the living room was hereafter strictly for living), I saw the breaking news of riots in Detroit and Watts.
Then Dr. King was shot.
I was sitting in my girlfriend’s house when her little brother came running in the room with the news.
The next morning as I walked from my first class through the halls, there was a small group of students holding a sit-in in the lobby outside the main gym. I sat. More people sat. Our group grew bigger than the lobby and we wound up spending most of the day occupying the school’s central courtyard. Some parents came and got their kids out of school. Some heard on the radio that we were rioting, came, saw us making speeches (have to admit I was among the speechifiers) and singing songs (I was on surer ground playing a guitar that had appeared) and wheeled on one heel, leaving the school and their kids behind.
That Sunday, despite continued warnings from the T.V. and radio, we did what we did every Sunday, piled in the car and drove to 8th and H for church. We drove past machine gun nests. When we got to the church, there was a National Guard encampment in the parking lot across the street. Two of my friends (one of them the previously mentioned organ player in our band, who I still know and have known since age 12) joined me in what we did every Sunday instead of going to Sunday School, exploring the streets and museums of D.C. That Sunday, 7th Street was eerily silent. We were only a block away from the National Guard, but they didn’t know where they were and they might as well have been on another planet. 7th Street was glistening with broken glass. A guy came walking down the street past us casually swinging a golf club. Wonder if he was walking to Haines Point to practice his putting.
At the end of the school year, when we had our traditional assembly, the principal presented an award to my friend Annie Mae, one of the two organizers of the sit-in, because, in the words of the principal, it was largely due to their efforts that there “was no trouble” at Wakefield that day. I was troubled by that, but I learned an important lesson about the ability of what we called the power structure to absorb blows and assimilate movements.