- Historic Sites
Growing Up Colored
The noted writer and educator tells of his boyhood in the West Virginia town of Piedmont, where African Americans were second-class citizens but family pride ran deep.
Summer 2012 | Volume 62, Issue 2
Whatever tumult our small screen revealed, though, the dawn of the civil rights era could be no more than a spectator sport in Piedmont. It was almost like a war being fought overseas. And all things considered, white and colored Piedmont got along pretty well in those years, the 50s and early 60s. At least as long as colored people didn’t try to sit down in the Cut-Rate or at the Rendezvous Bar, or eat pizza at Eddie’s, or buy property, or move into the white neighborhoods, or dance with, date, or dilate upon white people. Not to mention try to get a job in the craft unions at the paper mill. Or have a drink at the white VFW, or join the white American Legion, or get loans at the bank. Or just generally didn’t get out of line. Other than that, colored and white got on pretty well.
One summer recently, I sat at a sidewalk cafe in Italy, and three or four “black” Italians walked casually by, as well as a dozen or more blacker Africans. Each spoke to me; rather, each nodded his head slightly or acknowledged me by a glance, ever so subtly. When I was growing up, we always did this with each other, ships passing in a sea of white folk.
Yet there were certain Negroes who would avoid acknowledging you in this way in an integrated setting, especially if the two of you were the ones doing the integrating. “Don’t go over there with those white people if all you’re going to do is Jim Crow yourselves”—Daddy must have said to me a thousand times. And by that I think he meant we shouldn’t cling to each other out of habit or fear, or use protective coloration to evade the risks of living life like any other human being, or use clannishness as a cop-out for exploring ourselves and possibly making new selves, forged in the crucible of integration.
But there are other reasons that people distrust the reflex—the nod, the glance, the murmured greeting. One reason is a resentment at being lumped together with 30 million African Americans whom you don’t know and most of whom you will never know. Completely by the accident of racism, we have been born together with people with whom we may or may not have something in common, just because we are “black.” Thirty million Americans are black, and 30 million is a lot of people. One day you wonder: What do the misdeeds of Mike Tyson have to do with me? So why do I feel implicated? And how can I not feel racial recrimination when I can feel racial pride?
And yet there is that feeling, that gooseflesh sense of identity that I felt at watching Nelson Mandela walk out of prison, his princely straight back and unbowed head. It is part of what I mean by being colored. I want to be able to take special pride in a Jessye Norman aria, a Muhammad Ali shuffle, a Michael Jordan slam dunk, a Spike Lee movie, a Thurgood Marshall opinion, a Toni Morrison novel, or James Brown’s Camel Walk.
Above all, I enjoy the unself-conscious moments of a shared cultural intimacy, whatever form they take, when no one else is watching, when no white people are around. Like Joe Louis’s fights, which my father still talks about as part of the fixed repertoire of stories that texture our lives. His eyes shine as he describes how Louis hit Max Schmeling so many times and so hard, and how some reporter asked him, after the fight: “Joe, what would you have done if that last punch hadn’t knocked Schmeling out?” And how Joe responded, without missing a beat, “I’da run around behind him to see what was holdin’ him up.”
Even so, I rebel at the notion that I can’t be part of other groups, that I can’t construct identities through elective affinities, that race must be the most important thing about me. Is that what I want on my gravestone: Here lies an African American? So I’m divided. I want to be black, to know black, to luxuriate in whatever I might be calling blackness at any particular time—but to do so in order to come out the other side, to experience a humanity that is neither colorless nor reducible to color. Bach and James Brown. Sushi and fried catfish. Part of me admires those people who can say with a straight face that they have transcended any attachment to a particular community or group … but I always want to run around behind them to see what holds them up.
This is why I continue to speak to colored people I pass on the streets.