Human relations was the term used to describe a desired state of harmony between different ethnic groups in America during the heyday of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. It was in use in 1968, when I was twelve and my father was forty-four, when he was working at the New York City Board of Education’s Human Relations Unit. Human relations and intergroup relations meant black students would be allowed to go to the same schools as white students, and that all reasonable steps would be taken to ensure that ancient and present anger and grudges did not interfere in the relations between these young humans or with their education. The animating idea was that all children have potential and that it is a crime to waste that human potential.
Not to be an asshole about it, but the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that had finally done away with the hateful “separate but equal” doctrine in public education was already older than I was in 1968. The Court had called for desegregation of public schools “with all deliberate speed” and, like many things the law solemnly proclaims, it amounted to a kind of mockery.
The weasel words “with all deliberate speed”, well-meant, no doubt, but… as they say, you cannot legislate morality, and if local whites sincerely hated local blacks it would do more harm than good, perhaps, to send in troops with bayonets and defend the little Negroes from the wrath of the children of their fellow poor people who hated them. How, in fact, could we police every playground, bathroom, elementary school cafeteria, even if we wanted to?
A better approach, it seemed at the time, was to create groups to study the problem, issue reports, and form Human Relations programs. New York City had a program, so did several other large cities including Los Angeles and St. Louis. My father joined the Human Relations Unit as an experienced high school teacher with a proven talent for interacting with students, as he had for years as faculty liaison of the G.O. at Martin Van Buren High School. The G.O. (“general organization”) was the student organization at Van Buren and my father was its faculty adviser. He worked closely with student leaders, at least one of whom, Mike Levine, by name, called him at home regularly during dinner hours.
Thinking about this now, my father’s move to the Board of Ed headquarters on Livingston Street in Brooklyn from the nearby high school in Queens, was his chance to make a difference in something he believed in. He received the same teacher’s pay and benefits and commuted two or three times the distance to and from work every day, but was finally able to use his talents to do more than inspire the occasional high school social studies student. He was returning to the front lines of tikkun olam, repairing the world, doing God’s work, fulfilling his potential to help bend the arc of history toward justice and fairness.
They did some good work in the world in those years. Angry Italian kids, their high school turf forcibly invaded by unwanted Negro kids and Puerto Ricans, on top of the insult of the dark brown kids, literally rioted. Cops were called to the school, the place was put on lockdown. My father, his black hair spilling over his collar in the back, his thick sideburns showing a certain counter-cultural panache, strode into the school with a young, blonde WASP on one side, an Italian guy on the other side, a black man, a hispanic woman. Into the vestibule of the Brooklyn shit-hole they went, getting dirty looks from the kids as they entered.
“Dass some shit,” one of the passersby would hear the black haired Jewish intellectual type say, and the tiny door would begin to come open.
“You are free to express yourself freely here,” the big Jew would tell them. “I’m not squeamish about language, but I am about dishonesty — I have no use for a fucking liar. Use the words you need to express yourself, but please, out of respect for the rest of us, don’t try to feed us any bullshit, all right? Our bullshit detectors all work very well. We have a problem at your school that can be fixed, mostly by learning that we have a lot more in common than we are led to think we do. We are all going to fix a bunch of the problem together this weekend. It’s going to be fine, but first we have to talk.”
And they would talk, in sensitivity training sessions, in role playing sessions.
“You want to know why the word ‘nigger’ is offensive, motherfucker?” the black kid would say to the leader of the Italian kids. And my father and his trainers knew to hang back at that moment, I suspect. This is a great moment between the leaders of the two gangs. My father would make a note in his head, and at the proper time he’d begin.
“‘Motherfucker’ is one of the most fascinating and powerful words in our language. Tony, you said it’s a fighting word, the last, irresistible, provocation before fists fly, which it certainly is. Lamar gave us two or three other meanings for ‘motherfucker’. The word is like holding lightning in your hand, if you think about it,” and they would talk about who the real motherfuckers were, and who just thought they was real motherfuckers, and soon every motherfucker in the room would be nodding their heads, some of them laughing.
“Do you make the feeling behind a word more or less powerful when you forbid its use?” I could hear my father asking. “Lamar, would you prefer Tony call you a nigger or an ‘n-word’? Any preference at all between those two?”
“Fuck no,” says Lamar, “let the nigger call me what he wants, but let him say it with love.” And Tony bursts out laughing, he never realized what a funny motherfucker Lamar was. The two had been implacable enemies, the most charismatic of their respective warring tribes, and now they were each seeing the other as a highly intelligent, witty young individual. Like the Jew said, they actually did find out they had more in common than they thought.
“You know, as far as my people were concerned, and I mean the White Anglo Saxon Protestants who actually run this country,” said the blond folk singer, “Italians were niggers too. I mean, no offense, Tony, but Italians were one tiny step above niggers, in the same category as garlic-eating Jews like Irv over here. American history has not been pretty, in fact, in many ways it’s been very, very ugly, but going forward the future belongs to us.”
As they broke for lunch students who had never talked to each other began to chat. The food was way better than school food, the setting, in a country campus somewhere, was a bit magical for these city kids, made them feel special. Breaking bread, talking frankly, having adults who were not trying to micromanage and control everything, who let them talk the way they talked… these things were all good. Friendships emerged. The fighting at their school would stop. For a year or two. The friends would graduate and their little brothers and sisters would start attacking each other.
“Well, you’ve captured some of this, Elie, but you know who you really need to speak to if you want a primary source, don’t you? You have to find and contact my man Phil Trombino. Phil was there, he’d be sitting next to Tony as Evelyn was telling him Italians were actually niggers. Tony would look at Phil and Phil would raise his eyebrows and nod. ‘Ain’t dat some shit?’ Phil’s familiar expression would tell the Italian kid. The Unit really was a great idea, until Nixon and that ventriloquist’s dummy Reagan and all the rest of them repackaged the narrative and made guys like us the problem, and, if you think about it, when have we not been the real problem? Nixon had plenty of guys like us on his enemies list, the paranoid, drunken fuck. Call Trombino, Elie, seriously. This is a story that should be told, and who better to tell it than you?”