For a good part of my childhood, before society thought to set aside the shortest month of the year as Black History Month, every month in our home was Black History Month. Our father was what wittier racists might have referred to as a Race Man . He loved soul music, Sam Cooke in particular. He bought every one of Mr. Soul’s records at Sam Goody’s in downtown Brooklyn as soon as it came out. He’d listened to and loved Bill Kenney, Sam’s idol, when Sam and he were boys.
He actively worked for the cause of integration. He had several black friends who came by the house from time to time. This was unheard of in the 1960s, even in New York City. His friend Olvin, a jovial man who looked like a black Hoss Cartright on Bonzana, stepping out of the house and seeing the strained expression on the neighbors’s face, extended his hand to my father and said “it’s a beautiful house, Mr. W., and my family will love it. I’ll take it.”
“The color drained out of Sonny’s face, I thought he was going to keel over. You should have seen it,” my father reported with delight.
It was a rare thing in those days for a white family to spend the day in nearby St. Albans, at the home of a black family, as we did one Sunday afternoon in the early spring, the year “Cloud Nine” came out. I remember Donald, Rani’s little brother, and I kept spinning that 45 over and over, and how the girls danced. The Eversleys lived in a fine, upper middle class home, a mansion really, but nonetheless. It no doubt raised a few eyebrows when we integrated Pastrami King with the Burnetts after graduation from sixth grade.
I learned in pretty good detail the bones of the struggle for Civil Rights well before I was ten. I knew about slavery, about de jure and de facto segregation, about lynching and the freedom rides. I know this because when I heard the news of the murder of Malcolm X on the radio I knew immediately what a tragic catastrophe it was.
I was alone in my parents’ room when I heard the news of the killing. I recall how hard it hit me. My father had obviously made me appreciate Malcolm and what he stood for prior to February 21, 1965.
The identification with the oppressed was always very strong in the house. It’s clear to me now this was partly a psychic accommodation to having the roots of our family tree plucked out of the earth, the histories of our forebears extirpated, disappeared.
Tonight on the radio I heard the descendant of slaves describe the pain of being unable to trace her family back before slavery. I truly heard it. I imagine my father did too, whether he could acknowledge it or not.
1: My mother had chafed at being referred to, with less wit, as a “Nigger Lover” when she supported integration of the elementary school my sister and I attended.