JC is the first black person I remember. I have the impression, I don’t know why, that his father was a doctor, and that he had a cactus in his A-frame home, so impossibly tall that I wondered what would happen to it when it touched the ceiling. He was at my house one summer morning when my Labrador scratched at the door, we opened it, and saw he had a round wound in his face and blood dripping from his mouth. The dog was somehow taken to the veterinarian and Jason recommended we go to the church behind my house to pray. Even at that age I was unconvinced by religion but I held, and continue to hold, my principles in far lower esteem than the people that I love –– and I freely make use here of Sztybel’s term animal persons while not agreeing with every element of his philosophy. The notion that an ideology, a so-called position, can ever carry a moral weight superior to love is inconceivable to me.
Once a group of boys picked JC up and tried to put him in the long urinal in the boy’s bathroom in the side of the school reserved for the first through third grades. I do not know that racism lay at the origin of this torment; many people fought in that bathroom; I myself once punched a boy until he ran into the stall and shut the door, and I leapt up to look down on him, taunting him to come out; but I do remember one of the boys who took hold of him that day telling me and another friend that he had gone to a public pool and that “there were so many niggers, you could see the grease floating on the surface of the water,” and undoubtedly several of the other boys held prejudices of this type.
I was fortunate to be allowed a great deal of freedom from a young age, and the proscription on uttering the word “nigger” in the house was one of the few rules I remember hearing expressly put forth. I do not know if this seems gratuitous now but it was not in Tennessee at that time. I assume that my mother’s feelings about black people came from her father, who had set down a similar prohibition; even now, when my mother is telling a story that involves the use of that term –– normally involving the racist rantings of a coworker or some imbecile she is somehow connected to on Facebook –– she will pause modestly and say, “I just can’t bring myself to say that word. I guess it’s because my daddy would have whipped my ass eight ways to Sunday if he ever heard me say it.” I have no memory of my grandfather whatsoever but I know that he was a career soldier who fought in the Second World War and the Korean War and who drank a great deal and refused to talk about his years of active duty, and I imagine, though I will never know, that living alongside black men, listening to their jokes and worries, watching them die, seeing them sent home without eyes or legs, and then observing how these men were systematically excluded from the benefits offered to white veterans by the 1944 G.I. Bill, may have impressed the notion of their humanity on him in an ineluctable way.
When I was in third or fourth grade I met CW, who was my best friend for several years. His father was named CW Sr., his brother J, and his mother DH. He had a guinea pig that lived in a bed of wood shavings. When I first met CW my mother did not want me to go to his house, because it was on Bailey Avenue, in what was called downtown although even now, nearly thirty years later, Chattanooga does not have what can properly be called a downtown, and she considered it dangerous. It was difficult to argue with my mother because she was a nurse and could invoke what always sounded like outlandish numbers of motorcycle crash victims, drug overdoses, or murder victims, depending on what activity she was hoping to dissuade me from, but I did spend a fair bit of time at their home nonetheless. They must have been very poor. At that time the government still provided processed cheese to poor people and I can remember the long blocks of it in their plastic foil wrappers and cardboard boxes. Once CW’s’s mother put a can of soup on to boil for us. I remarked to CW that I could eat en entire can by myself. CW repeated this to his mother and she said, well, he can eat the whole can then. I have thought about this moment a good deal since.
Beside the guinea pig in a cage with wood shavings and shredded newspaper was a bookshelf that also held an already obsolete computer that was plugged into a television along with its cassette drive. CW told me that when his parents were together they had been very rich and had lived in a three-story house with a staircase, or perhaps I imagined the staircase, since my only real understanding of the domiciles of the wealthy was that they consisted of more than one story. Something had happened, he didn’t know what, he said, and they had lost everything. I do not know if this story was true. His grandmother and uncle lived either in or near a housing project called Maurice Poss Homes that has since been demolished, and they drove a decrepit, long, white car –– an Oldsmobile Cutlass, perhaps. The leather or vinyl panels beside the windows had chipped off and had been covered over with matte red paint, the color of barns. His grandmother’s doctor must have enjoined her once to get more physical activity, because Charles told me a story about her doing pushups on her bed, and we could not stop laughing about it.
In my high school, besides CW, I only remember three other black people: one was a football player named FA, one the son of a tennis player named KK, and one a girl named JH. Fran was much older than I and in any case, he was an athlete and there was profound enmity between my friends and the athletes, so I know nothing of him. KK was not well liked, at least at first, people called him “useless” because it rhymed with “Eustace,” his middle name, and were politely, embarrassedly perplexed when he won a poetry recital competition with a poem about Jesus’ being black. About JH I remember almost nothing. Now I would like to know something about these people, but at that time I was more concerned with other things: with reading, taking drugs, theater, spelunking, girlfriends.
Between sixteen and eighteen I worked in restaurant kitchens and dishrooms. Many of my coworkers were black and the talks over cigarettes by the back door, the constant chatter as we pressed through one mind-numbing food-preparation task after another, the odd beer after work, led me to say often, more than a decade later, when I began to travel outside the country with some frequency, that citizens of other countries, particularly Europeans, exaggerated the extent of American racism in order to minimize their own racial prejudices, which were far from negligible. But this is not true. Now, as I walk through Girona, I see Catalan couples with African children, African people going to or from work or having a coffee, undoubtedly they have seen some sort of prejudice here, and indeed, when I was looking for an apartment, I was shocked that several realtors said openly, “this is a good neighborhood, there are no foreigners here,” but at the same time, no one is calling anyone an animal here and being shot dead in the street is the furthest thing from anyone’s mind.
There were so many of these people in restaurants, each of them, like each moment of our lives, deserves so much more attention that we can give: Avery, whom my old roommate and I would trade insults with while we breaded chicken and triangles of mozzarella, cooked vats of sauces, prepared desserts –– this back-and-forth being an inheritance of “the dozens,” which H. Rap Brown describes so evocatively in the book Die, Nigger, Die –– I remember once she said to him, “yo dick so small, I’d probably let you fuck me in the ass”; Wilner and the other two Haitians whose names I have forgotten, who used to sing Kool and the Gang, played improvised football once with a square of ravioli that had clung to a plate pulled from the dishwasher, and recounted to me the fables of La Fontaine they’d read in high school; Jerry, the dishwasher, who’d fought in the Korean War, and who, when he watched a slightly odd but very attractively built waitress walk by, remarked about her ass, “you could sit on it and swing your feet!”; Joe, who had a tattoo of a Grim Reaper holding two Uzis and the words “Trigga Happy Nigga” –– one night we were talking and I helped him take out the trash, and when I mentioned that I had been seeing a girl we worked with, he said, “ooh, I bet she a wild one, she be in the bed like, ‘oh Nathan, oh Nathan, god damn your soul!’” Jamaal “Maal the Pimp” Hicks, who went to MTSU to study music production and has managed to make a living as a rapper in Chattanooga; Tasha, who became one of my closest friends, probably the most generous friend I have ever had, and who I know, although we talk only rarely now, I could always ask anything of. When I write these things down they seem banal and vulgar, but the truth is they mean far more to me than many of my more superficially dignified recollections.
I have said nothing about musicians, although rap music is the lone theme that runs uninterrupted from my childhood to the present day: Kool G Rap, UGK, Mobb Deep, Scarface, KRS-One, Big Noyd, Big L, Rakim, Ice T, Slick Rick, Too Much Trouble… Their emphasis on assonance and alliteration, on middle rhymes and slant rhymes, their use of real words and not the dead, dead, effete language of literary pretenders, taught me far more about poetic language than anything I learned in school. And then there were the books: Cecil Brown, Darius James, Julius Lester, James Baldwin, Donald Goines, Iceberg Slim, Chester Himes, J.L. Dillard.
I have written the foregoing as a kind of reminder to myself to pursue something longer, but it is already approaching a length that most blog readers would find burdensome. It had been on my mind a long time, but the events surrounding the Michael Brown shooting left me with the desire to put something up, however short, expressing my thanks to the many black people I have known, who have left a significant imprint on my life. The pitiful state of race relations in the United States cannot but inspire fury in any person who has not been seduced by the rhetoric of racism, but I am also not so deluded as to think that a snapshot of myself holding a piece of paper that says #handsup or anything similar will have the least effect. I am a pessimist; I think it will probably never get better; but if there is any belief or creed that has a chance, it would be something like the Christian Anarchism advocated by Dorothy Day, which is really just Simone Weil in a more downhome guise; a belief that stresses the absolute, irreducible primacy of love before all else. At a time when many white people are calling black men and women “animals” and then tergiversating about the patently racist implications of such a term, particularly when viewed against the United States’ shameful history in regards to its black citizens, I wanted to recall, if only for myself, the specific humanity of the black people I’ve known.