Summer 2012 | Volume 62, Issue 2
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.
You wouldn’t know Piedmont anymore—my Piedmont, I mean—the town in West Virginia where I learned to be a colored boy.
The 1950s in Piedmont was a sepia time, or at least that’s the color my memory has given it. People were always proud to be from Piedmont—nestled against a wall of mountains, smack-dab on the banks of the mighty Potomac. We knew God gave America no more beautiful location. I never knew colored people anywhere who were crazier about mountains and water, flowers and trees, fishing and hunting. For as long as anyone could remember, we could outhunt, outshoot, and outswim the white boys in the valley. We didn’t flaunt our rifles and shotguns, though, because that might make the white people too nervous.
The social topography of Piedmont was something we knew like the back of our hands. It was an immigrant town; white Piedmont was Italian and Irish, with a handful of wealthy WASPs on East Hampshire Street, and “ethnic” neighborhoods of working-class people everywhere else, colored and white.
For as long as anyone can remember, Piedmont’s character has been completely bound up with the Westvaco paper mill: its prosperous past and doubtful future. At first glance, the town is a typical dying mill center, with a crumbling infrastructure and the resignation of its people to its gentle decline. Many once beautiful buildings stand empty and unkempt and testify to a bygone time of spirit and pride. The big houses on East Hampshire Street are no longer proud, as they were when I was a kid.
Like the Italians and the Irish, most of the colored people migrated to Piedmont at the turn of the 20th century to work at the paper mill, which opened in 1888. All the colored men at the paper mill worked on “the platform”—loading paper into trucks until the craft unions were finally integrated in 1968. Loading is what Daddy did every working day of his life. That’s what almost every colored grown-up I knew did.
Colored people lived in three neighborhoods that were clearly demarcated, as if by ropes or turnstiles. Welcome to the Colored Zone, a large stretched banner could have said. And it felt good in there, like walking around your house in bare feet and underwear, or snoring right out loud on the couch in front of the TV—swaddled by the comforts of home, the warmth of those you love.
Of course, the colored world was not so much a neighborhood as a condition of existence. And though our own world was seemingly self-contained, it impinged upon the white world of Piedmont in almost every direction. Certainly, the borders of our world seemed to be encroached upon when some white man or woman showed up where he or she did not belong, such as at the black Legion Hall. Our space was violated when one of them showed up at a dance or a party. The rhythms would be off. The music would sound not quite right: attempts to pat the beat off just so. Everybody would leave early.
Before 1955, most white people were just shadowy presences in our world, vague figures of power like remote bosses at the mill or tellers at the bank. There were exceptions, of course, the white people who would come into our world in ritualized, everyday ways we all understood. Mr. Mail Man, Mr. Insurance Man, Mr. White-and-Chocolate Milk Man, Mr. Landlord Man, Mr. Po-lice Man: we called white people by their trade, like allegorical characters in a mystery play. Mr. Insurance Man would come by every other week to collect premiums on college or death policies, sometimes 50 cents or less.
I guess some chafed more than others against the mundane impediments of the color line. “It’s no disgrace to be colored,” the black entertainer Bert Williams famously observed early in the century, “but it is awfully inconvenient.” For most of my childhood, we couldn’t eat in restaurants or sleep in hotels, we couldn’t use certain bathrooms or try on clothes in stores. Mama insisted that we dress up when we went to shop. She was a fashion plate when she went to clothing stores, and wore white pads called shields under her arms so her dress or blouse would show no sweat. “We’d like to try this on,” she’d say carefully, articulating her words precisely and properly. “We don’t buy clothes we can’t try on,” she’d say when they declined, and we’d walk out in Mama’s dignified manner. She preferred to shop where we had an account and where everyone knew who she was.
At the Cut-Rate Drug Store, no one colored was allowed to sit down at the counter or tables, with one exception: my father. I don’t know for certain why Carl Dadisman, the proprietor, wouldn’t stop Daddy from sitting down. But I believe it was in part because Daddy was so light-complected, and in part because, during his shift at the phone company, he picked up orders for food and coffee for the operators. Colored people were supposed to stand at the counter, get their food to go, and leave. Even when Young Doc Bess would set up the basketball team with free Cokes after one of many victories, the colored players had to stand around and drink out of paper cups while the white players and cheerleaders sat down in the red Naugahyde booths and drank out of glasses.
I couldn’t have been much older than five or six as I sat with my father at the Cut-Rate one afternoon, enjoying two scoops of caramel ice cream. Mr. Wilson, a stony-faced, brooding Irishman, walked by. “Hello, Mr. Wilson,”
my father said.
I stopped licking my ice cream, genuinely puzzled. Mr. Wilson must have confused my father with somebody else, but who? There weren’t any Georges among the colored people in Piedmont. “Why don’t you tell him your name, Daddy?” I asked loudly. “Your name isn’t George.”
“He knows my name, boy,” my father said after a long pause. “He calls all colored people George.”
I knew we wouldn’t talk about it again; even at that age, I was given to understand that there were some subjects it didn’t do to worry to death. Now that I have children, I realize that what chagrined my father wasn’t so much the Mr. Wilsons of the world as the painful obligation to explain the racial facts of life to someone who hadn’t quite learned them yet. Maybe Mr. Wilson couldn’t hurt my father by calling him George; but I hurt him by asking to know why.
In 1957, Mama was elected the first colored secretary of the PTA, and I thought no more beautiful woman existed than Mama. I was secure in her knowledge of how to be in the world and command respect. Mama didn’t care to live in white neighborhoods or be around white people. White people, she said, were dirty: They tasted right out of pots on the stove. Only some kind of animal would ever taste out of a pot on the stove. Anybody with manners knew that; even colored people without manners knew that. It was white people who didn’t know that. Tasting right out of a pot was almost as bad as drinking after somebody on the same side of the cup, or right after them on a Coca-Cola bottle without wiping their lips off real good. “I’d rather go thirsty myself,” Uncle Raymond would say.
I first got to know white people as “people” through their flickering images on television shows. It was the television set that brought us together at night, and the television set that brought in the world outside the valley. When I was in first grade, we’d watch Superman, Lassie, Jack Benny, Danny Thomas, Circus Boy, and Loretta Young. My favorite shows were The Life of Riley, in part because he worked in a factory like my Daddy did, and Ozzie and Harriet, in part because Ozzie never seemed to work at all. With a show like Topper, I felt as if I were getting a glimpse, at last, of the life the rich white people must be leading in their big mansions on East Hampshire Street. Smoking jackets and cravats, spats and canes, elegant garden parties and martinis. People who wore suits to dinner! This was a world so elegantly distant from ours, it was like a voyage to another galaxy, light-years away.
A year later, however, a new show swept most of the others away. Leave It to Beaver was a world much closer, but nonetheless just out of reach.
Beaver’s street was where we wanted to live, Beaver’s house where we wanted to eat and sleep, Beaver’s father’s firm where we’d have liked Daddy to work. These shows for us were about property, the property that white people could own and that we couldn’t. About a level of comfort and ease at which we could only wonder. It was the world that the integrated school was going to prepare us too enter and that, for Mama, would be the prize.
Lord knows, we weren’t going to learn how to be colored by watching television. Seeing somebody colored on TV was an event.
“Colored, colored, on Channel Two,” you’d hear someone shout. Somebody else would run to the phone, while yet another hit the front porch, telling all the neighbors where to see it. And everybody loved Amos ’n Andy—I don’t care what people say today. What was special to us was that their world was all colored, just like ours. Of course, they had their colored judges and lawyers and doctors and nurses, which we could only dream about having, or becoming—and we did dream about those things. Kingfish ate his soft-boiled eggs delicately, out of an egg cup. He even owned an acre of land in Westchester County, which he sold to Andy, using the facade of a movie set to fake the mansion. As far as we were concerned, the foibles of Kingfish or Calhoun the lawyer were the foibles of individuals who happened to be funny. Nobody was likely to confuse them with the colored people we knew, no more than we’d confuse ourselves with the entertainers and athletes we saw on TV or in Ebony or Jet, the magazines we devoured to keep up with what was happening with the race. And people took special relish in Kingfish’s malapropisms: “I denies the allegation, Your Honor, and I resents the alligator.”
Civil rights took us all by surprise. Every night we’d wait until the news to see what “Dr. King and dem” were doing. It was like watching the Olympics or the World Series when somebody colored was on. In 1957, when I was in second grade, black children integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. We watched it on TV. All of us watched it. I don’t mean Mama and Daddy and Rocky. I mean all the colored people in America watched it, together, with one set of eyes. We’d watch it in the morning, on the Today Show on NBC, before we’d go to school; we’d watch it in the evening, on the news, with Edward R. Murrow on CBS. We’d watch the Special Bulletins at night, interrupting our TV shows.
The children were all well scrubbed and greased down, as we’d say. Starched shirts, white, and creased pants, shoes shining like a buck private’s spit shine. Those Negroes were clean. The children would get off their school bus surrounded by soldiers from the National Guard and by a field of state police. They would stop at the steps of the bus and seem to take a very deep breath. Then the phalanx of children would start to move slowly along this gully of sidewalk and rednecks that connected the steps of the school bus with the white wooden doubled doors of the school. All kinds of crackers would be lining that gully, separated from the children by rows of state police, who formed a barrier arm in arm. Cheerleaders from the all-white high school that was desperately trying to stay that way were dressed in those funny little pleated skirts, with a big red C for “Central” on their chests, and they’d wave their pompoms and start to cheer: “Two, four, six, eight—we don’t want to integrate!” And all those crackers and all those rednecks would join in that chant as if their lives depended on it. Deafening, it was: even on our 12-inch black-and-white TV.
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.