Every man is a king so long as he has someone to look down on.
—Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here
Our bigotry was rich, a mulch compounded of ignorance, American media, a lack of education and money, and, because we were boys, by our fathers’ backgrounds. It was brutish and unrestricted and showed up everywhere, starting with the games we played.
“Chink” (or “Chinee Ball”) was a two-person game played by slamming a rubber ball against the concrete dividers that separated the steps of one row house from another. Nobody knew or asked why it was called that. We had never seen Asians except on TV, in the movies (Back to Bataan!), or on Korean War trading cards. Asians were still called “oriental.” They were “yellow” in color, with buck teeth and big goggles and described in the movies as inscrutable, meaning shifty or untrustworthy. Since the United States had incinerated them twice in less than a week, as payback for Pearl, why take them seriously? Though here we were again—our fathers whined—back at it in Korea! We had no real sense of world geography, so most of the time Asia was really only one country, and that was Japan, home of the kamikaze, Geishas, fanatics, and sneak attacks, as well as Chinese food. I remember thinking that Korea was an island off the Japanese coast.Our ignorance was endless and unquestioned. For instance, in our basement closet, buried under gift boxes and mothballed clothing, lay a long beautiful harikiri sword that my Uncle Flip, career Army who saw action only in the European Theater, had “taken off a dead Jap.” Nobody asked how this was possible. Years later my father wondered, “Maybe he traded?”
Asians, like all objects of fear, were menaces you confronted by beating them or mocking them. In this case the choice was option two: Korea was looking more and more like a standoff. Such offsetting psychic tensions explain, with little embarrassment or cultural soul-searching at the time, the obscene media fakes and caricatures—Warner Oland’s Charlie Chan, Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon, and the most grotesque, Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, to take only three examples.
The other option was to mythologize. A friend who was into flying saucer “lore”—we were preteens— showed me a book “proving” all Asians were extraterrestrials who came here from a hotter, brighter star, which explained the epicanthic fold. My friend’s father, Mr. B., who fought in the South Pacific and came home decorated, admitted it sounded ridiculous but, well, you never really knew, did you?Anyway, who could you ask? Mr. B didn’t trust his own government. He had fought “The Jap” in the South Pacific, and “knew some things about them.” “The Jap” was the way he always referred to the soldiers he had fought and killed in the Pacific. The term suggested that Japan had like Gatsby sprung from single ahistorical transcendent Form. Fought one, fought ‘em all.
Of course I loved Mr. B. We all did. He was USMC retired, so he had tons of street cred. When he claimed that The Jap was still hiding out in caves, armed to the teeth and still resisting surrender, we believed him. “Yellow trash,” he growled in his soft southern accent, “worse than the homegrown,” not that he had to say more. We knew just what he meant. I think now of him and so many of the other older men and their vast lexicon of racial slurs whenever I reread Blood Meridian, where the scalphunters’ term of art for any enemy of any color and for all Native Americans is the same embattled word that contemporary American culture— and our greatest living novelist— can possess but never, at least now, completely own.
In polite company, Asians were uniformly “Orientals.” In less polite company, “Chinks” or “Slants,” except for the Japanese, who were always “Japs.” Koreans, after 1950, graduated to “The Yellow Peril, ” a name that was memorably captioned on sets of bubble gum cards, part of a series titled “Fight the Yellow Peril!” The caption appeared underneath cartooned figures with big teeth and in Soviet military ushankas. There was always a MiG-15 in the background, one of our own P-51s in hot pursuit.
From age five through seven, I was called “Chink” on the block because I had pitch black hair, made good grades, had an overbite, and squinted. It was the squint and not the hair or my good marks that really mattered. It made me, age six, the youngest and smallest (but fastest) on the block, somehow inscrutable. I probably loved it.
Hispanics were unknown quantities, somewhat unclassifiable, not entirely white like me and my friends, but then again, not Black, Yellow, Red or any other primary color. There were no Hispanics—or to use the present code name, Latinx—in my neighborhood or for miles around. For most of us, the first Latin we encountered was that fox so cunning and free, Zorro, televised every Thursday night and starring the darkly handsome Guy Williams. The name was the stage name of Manhattan native Armando Joseph Catalano, a first generation Italian American whose “people” were Sicilian. The fact that he was “Sidgie both sides” was a point of pride for my parents—not because we were, heavens forefend, Sicilians! Sicilians were uniformly looked down on by other Italian Americans for “giving us a bad name.” Sidgie or not, Guy Williams had got away with playing the Spanish equivalent of Robin Hood on national TV. This was briefly a big deal in our house.
Other notable exceptions to our pathetic ignorance of people of Latin extraction:
Ricardo Montalbon, according to my mother the handsomest man she ever laid eyes on (except, she added quickly, “for your father”); Fernando Lamas, second handsomest; José Ferrer, because he spoke perfect English, played Cyrano in the movie, and was married to the unthinkably sublime Audrey Hepburn. Xavier Cugat, I recall,made the cut because his band backed Dinah Shore. (And at the time, who knew that Dinah herself was a Russian-Jew from Tennessee with mysterious infusions of, yes, Black blood deep in her past?)
These three exemplary males, by the way, were called “Spanish” or (less correctly, in fact absurdly) “Mexican.”
Alas, Ricky Ricardo got no such exemption. Despite his being married to Lucille Ball of the porcelain white complexion, red hair and pratfalls, Ricky was neither handsome nor sufficiently Americanized—i.e., white—to make the cut or graduate from the infantilizing “Ricky” to Enrique, his given name. He starred in a sit-com, after all. He was a bandleader who played noisy music, in the same class as that ethnic embarrassment, Louis Prima. My father’s specific complaint was that he couldn’t stand to hear that stuff, meaning mariachi. My father was tone deaf. The fact that some of the finest musicians in two countries were part of Ricky Ricardo’s band would have fallen on his tone deaf ears.
During the summer of my eleventh year, our neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Heinrich, travelled “all the way to New York City” to see West Side Story. They came back sorely disappointed. The report on the play was that it was about “a bunch of Spanish juvenile delinquents” who were made to look like major tragic heroes. Mr. H was especially miffed by some of the songs, especially “America,” because they weren’t even “real” immigrants like the Irish (Mrs. Heinrich was Irish on both sides) or the Germans (Mr. Heinrich was German on his father’s side, Irish on his mother’s). Mrs. H., on the other hand, was less acerbic. I remember her delivering her verdict to my mother—mother and Mrs. H. were warm friends—on our front step.
“They don’t have an actual country. Puerto Rico is, what’s the term for when you’re not a state yet?”
Nobody knew. My younger brother Dan said, “like Hawaii?”
“Right, Hawaiians. I’m not even sure they are actual Spanish people, the Puerto Ricans. They’re mongrels. Spain is a real country.”
Mr. H., she went on with a smile, had failed to pick up on the Romeo and Juliet connection, not that it made any difference to him or her. Mrs. Heinrich—“Gene” to my mother, who adored her—was unconvinced of the value of celebrating “teenage criminals armed with switchblade knives,” and that was that. Didn’t matter that the Jets were also armed with switchblades or that they actually instigate the trouble. And I wonder, now, how she would have reacted if she had known that Leonard Bernstein, a closeted gay man raised in triumphally hetero America, as well as a Jew raised among Gentiles, had first conceived of his Romeo as Jewish and his Juliet as a girl from a Catholic home?
The fluidity of human identity, especially in the United States, was still a concept the dads and moms failed to embrace. You had to be important to change your name, an honor reserved for two classes: Hollywood stars with clunky “normal” names (Norma Jean Baker, Archibald Leach, Sofia Costanza Scicolone) or gangsters like “Lucky” Luciano. These people were allowed to change their names routinely. For them a name was a prop, like a breakaway ball gown. It didn’t matter as long as they sounded American. So the spectacularly beautiful Rita Hayworth, born Margarita Carmen Cansino and of Spanish and Irish extraction, thought to be a natural redhead with “perfectly arched eyebrows,” through electrolysis, dancing lessons and a canny name change was transformed into an Aryan Love Goddess.
The polite term for Blacks—the ones you usually spotted only from the windows of the family car—was “Colored,” as in “colored people,” or just “The Coloreds.” Among Italian Americans, the less polite term for Blacks was melinzan’, horribly mangled by our parents as “moolinyam,” a word that was Southern Italian for the common eggplant. Them you rarely saw in your neighborhood except if they were there to clean somebody’s house, in which case they were uniformly women and were called “maids,” like our own family’s “maid,” Isabel. By default, your maid was not a melinzan’ but Colored. Especially if she cleaned your house. Which is to say, if she worked for you, or for somebody on the block. Which is to say, since she worked for you, in a sense she belonged to you. You could vouch for her.
This aura of ownership was no benign illusion. My Uncle Dan, who worked for the post office, once repeated something he heard on the job. “I love Blacks. Everybody should own one!” Uncle Dan was my favorite uncle because he was the youngest of them all and he was built like a god and always urging me to lift weights. He made this wisecrack when I was eighteen, right around the time of the urban riots in Philadelphia and Detroit, and from then on I never thought the same of him. His “defense” for saying such a thing was that he “worked beside actual Blacks” and thought they were lucky to have been gathered up and “liberated” from their homes in Africa.
Uncle Dan died ten years ago, at eighty, his mind gone, his wonderful muscular frame a sad rumor. I skipped his funeral and never wrote to his widow. My lasting memory of him had been poisoned by a single unfunny crack he made in an excitable mood fifty years earlier. Since then he had probably had a change of heart, disowned his bigotry. He wasn’t after all a bad man. He had worked in close proximity beside Blacks, had eaten lunch with them and shared the same commodes. He had grown up raised only by my grandmother, widowed when my mother was twelve and Dan was barely five, and had the barest of educations. Still, the Jesuits used to talk about “infused knowledge,” our innate sense of probity, fairness. What had happened to his in that moment? But what right did I have judging him?
Having a liberal conscience means you spend your life arguing with yourself.
Nobody talked about or wondered why so few, if any, Black men were seen wandering the neighborhood. The one exception in our experience was “Long Tall John,” a handsome, slow-walking, sweet-smelling, gentle six-foot-something giant who did your front windows for a dollar and your second storey bow windows for two dollars and the borrow of your extension ladder. Technically John was a melinzan’ because, as a day-worker and a Black man, he lacked what it took to be, say, your Colored maid, who actually entered your house.
But to me, John was Colored. I liked him—we all did—and waved when I saw him coming up the street, usually while we were in the middle of one of our street games with the ugly names. John had a beautiful smile, wore pressed work clothes and a nice fedora like my impossibly awful grandfather, and spoke in a low comforting voice if he spoke to us, which wasn’t often. It was “Hey, Little Man,” or “Good morning, sonny.”
But no matter what I thought of him, I do not remember ever calling him Colored. Nobody would have understood me. Racism is not only color-coded; it also has a lexicon, even a color scheme. If you called someone who was technically a melinzan’ a Colored Person, you risked being unintelligible.
Negro was a nearly a technical term, with specific applications. It was pronounced with lowered eyes, raised eyebrows, approbative facial italics, or with a dismissive shrug. In ten years it would be replaced by Afro-American, then African-American, until in my mid-thirties the hyphen was retired for reasons too confusing to me to explore, then or now.
I have thought a lot about that hyphen once it disappeared, because I think about such things and because I learned to type at age twelve and—along with having to make an exclamation point by typing a single quotation mark, then backspacing and typing a period beneath it—I learned early on the difference between an “n” and an “m” dash. The hyphen has inspired several pitched battles and back-alley brawls among grammarians; I won’t recount them here.1 But its removal struck me as monumental. It was as if a connecting bridge had been blown up and there was no longer a link communicating between these realms of meaning, these two identities, the African and the American, hammered out at so bloody a cost in the Sixties. That hyphen said, silently but powerfully, that Black Americans had roots like everybody else, those confirmed by Alex Haley’s 1976 novel. Black Americans were suddenly the equal of all those other White Americans with their fancy, high falutin’ hyphenated names that linked them directly to shared pasts, parenthoods, and if you looked closely, to geographical “homelands.” If you were Black, the hyphen bridged America’s chaotic misrepresentations of who you were. It united history and locality, time and place, identity and geography. Why remove it?
Yet, wasn’t its disappearance predicted by Dubois? “Two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings,” he wrote, the operative adjective being unreconciled. What “reconciliation,” after all, might there be between Black people and White America, with all its talk of equality? So blow it up, be done with the fraud, and move on.
On my block, in defiance of the culture’s shifting nomenclature, people still called Blacks “Negroes,” usually to be sarcastic or to make a condescending commentary on where the neighborhood “was going.” You would also hear white politicians using the word in tightly defined, rigorously policed rhetorical contexts on TV or in print: “The Negro Problem.” “A Negro Reacts to Goldwater.” “The Philadelphia Negro.” The degree of specificity suggested by the simple use of articles (the, a) is cringeworthy. (See “The Jap.”)
So “the Negro” was a Black who had achieved public visibility and respectability in one of two fields: sports or entertainment. Negro politicians were bitterly dismissed on my block, which was Irish on the odd-numbered side and Italian on the even, and denounced as “coons,” a word I first heard from my Irish playmates, the Callahans. It seemed to be the Irish cognate for melinzan’. None of the kids on the street had ever had intimate glimpses of Negroes, who existed only on TV, on The Ed Sullivan Show or What’s My Line.
As is usual with the ignorant, our ignorance was an accident of parentage and provinciality. An urban neighborhood is what a small rural town is to the county it’s part of, or what a hamlet is to a shire. Each neighborhood has a name (Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish) derived from the dominant ethnic group and is part of a larger subdivision (South Philadelphia, South Boston, Chicago’s South Side, San Francisco’s Mission District). These subdivisions are convenient political fictions, as real as the tricolor quadrants of the Land of Oz, for the simple reason that race always trumped ethnicity or geography.
For instance, if you were Italian, the subdivision you belonged to was still “white,” though never so designated on any city map. In my city, the most powerful political subdivisions were the white ones in South and West Philadelphia and that redneck sprawl, covered with tract houses, the so-called Great Northeast. These were areas some sixty blocks square, policed by beat cops from the closest precinct, often men (there were no women) who grew up in the neighborhood. Other policing was done by the street gangs that hung on corners, like our local thugs, the Big Counts, with their Band Stand pompadours, high boy shirts and Italian shoes. You could still be mugged (by the Irish kids in a rival gang) but only by other whites. Fights happened when Blacks from the local projects dared to use the basketball courts.
The ethnic differences vanished when it came to the distant menace of Blacks, who had their own subdivisions, homes and mortgages, but came without the magical elixir, ethnicity. They had no and belonged to no “tribe.” Therefore, until the hyphen appeared in the Sixties, they had no right to hyphenate their identities the proud way we did. Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, German-Irish cocktails—we rated! But Blacks were distinguished only by grossly calibrated social gradations measured by a position on a jury-rigged white class system. So the “Negro” was the WASP of that world.
Allow me to list some “Exemplary Negroes”—a term lifted from the long defunct National Lampoon—of my misspent youth.
Inevitably first: Sidney Poitier, that triple threat. Talented, handsome, and “well-spoken,” a euphemism for polite, or to invoke another generation’s vocabulary, “genteel.”
At number two, Harry Belafonte, who tied his shirt in front and sang in his foggy voice of banana boats and the happy laborers who unloaded them. He was a man of the people, who celebrated der volk and their poverty, in simple, uplifting song. Handsome Harry was after all that most genuine of cultural articles in the late Fifties, a Folk Singer, and he stood out against a background of mostly white entertainers (The Limelighters, The Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul, and the dazzling blonde Mary Travers). Like my childhood crush Sam Cooke, Belafonte was also light-skinned and Jamaican, meaning nobody was sure if he actually was Black, with that honey-colored skin and that cherubic face. “Jamaican” suggested he might even belong to an ethnic group.
At number three, the Hollywood actor Woody Strode. To my father, who grew up with and around melinzan’, Woody was a capital n Negro. He was a college decathlete who had played for the Rams long before he arrived in Hollywood, where he was cast as the gladiator-buddy who gave his life for Kirk Douglas in Spartacus, for which he earned a Golden Globe nomination. The clincher: like my father, he had served in the Army Air Corps.
“He’s a great actor, and a real black man,” my father said, with nearly a touch of sentiment, as though it was too bad other Blacks didn’t emulate Woody Strode, who had sacrificed his life for that symbol of democratic ardor, Spartacus (played by a first generation Russian Jew born Izzy Demsky.)
Mahalia Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat “King” Cole were too obviously Negroes.
Then there were problematic cases.
Sammy Davis Jr. became a Colored Man once he entered the Rat Pack. His rep took a hit when it was revealed that he was the only member of the Pack not invited to JFK’s inaugural. Not even his attachment to Frank and Dean did him any good. When he married the Nordic beauty May Brit, his rep nosedived, then totally cratered when he converted to Judaism, inadvertently producing a whole new set of composite racial-ethnic slurs too ugly to record here. Use your imagination.
Some ballplayers, notably Aaron, Mays, and Banks, were interchangeably Negro or Colored except when the home team, the Phils, faced the Braves, Giants or Cubs (and usually lost). With few exceptions, nobody on the homogenously white Philadelphia Phillies was much good. The reason was simple. The organization was third from last to integrate its farm system, followed by the Tigers and the Red Sox. Into the mid-Sixties it was still fielding a farm team in Birmingham, Alabama, home of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which was bombed by the KKK in 1963. The team lost steadily until 1964—it holds the historical record for most losses by a single franchise, over ten thousand—when the great Black outfielder Dick Allen, Rookie of the Year in 1963 and a player the newspapers and electronic media routinely infantilized as “Richie,” took us almost to the pennant. (Almost: they collapsed, lost eleven of their last twelve games and came in second to the Cardinals.) Two years later, around the time of the Detroit riots, Allen was traded to the White Sox. The papers said he was “disruptive,” a dugout lawyer.
“Basically an uppity you-know-what ***2,” the Dads said.
Once out of Philadelphia, he matured overnight into Dick Allen and eventually won two homerun titles with the White Sox and an MVP.
Which leads me to Philadelphia’s own “Jackie Robinson Problem.” When the great Number Forty-Two broke in with the Dodgers, the Phillies’ manager was Ray Chapman, a southerner and an mediocre strategist with a vicious tongue. During a game against the Dodgers in May, 1947, Chapman heckled Jackie Robinson so relentlessly that the Dodgers’ manager, Eddie Stankey, stormed out of the visitor’s dugout and got in Chapman’s face. They nearly came to blows, but it ended the heckling.
It took the Philadelphia Phillies sixty-nine years to “officially” apologize to the Robinson family.
A prominent Black was by default a Negro. Attorney Cecil B. Moore was such a figure, a trial lawyer who was not only “well-spoken”—there it was again—but had “a civil tongue,” or so said Mrs. Heinrich and, in due course, my mother. Counselor Moore remained a Negro until he was demoted to Colored for winning an acquittal, for first degree murder, of a clearly guilty Black client. Since I was there at the trial and saw how it happened, I will tell the story as it occurred.
It went like this: Moore agreed with the prosecution that his client, a Black man, had shot a white man. But he shrewdly reminded the jury that the dead man’s appendix had already burst, meaning the cause of death was as likely peritonitis as a gunshot. I was eleven-years old, one of fifteen white brats allowed to witness American justice in action, and actually sitting there in the courtroom—a school fieldtrip!— when the acquittal came down. A Black defense lawyer had outfoxed a white prosecutor even though the Black defendant was, according to Sister Catherine James of the Order of Notre Dame, “guilty as sin.”
Over dinner my father seemed reflective, nearly sage-like, as I told the story of what I had seen that day in court.
“But,” he said when I was finished, “that’s what a sharp lawyer does. Right or wrong doesn’t count. Winning counts.”
He never mentioned race, something I have never forgotten. Not once! He even pretended more interest in the new word I had learned—peritonitis—than the trial. But it was the first time I can remember that the man implied that Black men might be just as “sharp” as a white men. Moore did not invent the system that he learned to exploit.
Years and years later, after the city had named a boulevard after Moore, he was reelevated, posthumously and more or less by embarrassed consensus. But it was too late, the word Negro had been retired. Born a Black, he rose to Negro, was briefly demoted, and died an Afro-American. In the words of the grandfather of the narrator of Invisible Man, “You’s born Saul and you ends Paul.”
For the Black men in conk caps who drove low-riders with loud mufflers and puffy dice hanging from rear view mirrors, only one term applied. These were the menacing Blacks who blared James Brown from their noisy rides and drank beer out of quart bottles right out in the open, the bottle necks sticking out of brown paper bags. They tossed the empties out the window as they rode on, fox tails flown like pirate flags from their fins and antennas, laughing or singing as they scored your street with tire rubber. They snapped cigarette butts onto your tidy pavements and stunk up the neighborhood with their smoke. Some dared to eye up the women folk. They were mobile menaces and, to the Dads, bleak symbols of what was coming.
There was also this: they referred to each other using the same slur that many of us, by the early 60s, had stopped using, even “among friends” since it was no longer unthinkable that one of our friends was Black. But ever-twisting in etymological confusion, the Dads nevertheless used the word wantonly and with violent emphasis on their rights as citizens of a free country.
“Ok, so explain to me what’s wrong with us calling them what they call each other? You ever heard of free speech or don’t they teach that anymore?”
I remember trying to explain to my father why it was problematic.
“It’s the same when you call your Cousin Benito a ‘dago’ when you’re playing cards,”I whined. “It’s between kin!”
My father loved his cousin Benito like a younger brother, always ragging him for Benito’s surreal ability to hit the inside straight at the card table after big holiday meals.
“So what?” He was genuinely puzzled. “It’s not like I made the word up and have, like, copyright to it.”
“Who else,” I said pressing on, “what person who is not Italian, who is not kin, would have the balls to call him or you that?”
He waved me off.
“It’s different with us! We know what we mean. We know who our kin actually are.”
You got used to the slur, and after a while you gave up. “We” did not mean only other Italian Americans or members of our own tribe. It meant white people, our Super Tribe.
I am waiting at a bus stop around the time of the Baltimore Riots seven years ago. I overhear a young Latin man maybe in his twenties. He’s talking to an older man who is Black, also a municipal worker. Both are in green and yellow municipal pinnies—crossing guards, workers on road gangs, trash pickers, serfs in the employ of local officialdom. The Latin has a prominent gang tat reading “The Bounty Hunters.” They are from South Brunswick and he boasts of how his boys fight Brown Pride, a mestizo gang from Piscataway. The Latin says I’m down, totally, with that Baltimore shit. The Black man nods sagely. Them Baltimores be chasing the high forever, he says, with grave finality, so them niggers ain’t going nowhere, they nothing but high. The younger man scoffs. Nigger, give me an AK and I’m, like, side-by-side with them. Gotta kill all them soft white niggers. Shit, says the Black man, in Baltimore? Gotta start somewhere, dude, says the Latino. The Black man keeps repeating shit and walks away.
There is that word again, an all-purpose one-size-fits-all term—nearly a pronoun! —to express a range of feeling, from antipathy through fraternal warmth and admiration, to loathing and derision all at once, a range that comprehends everything from a typical put down to casting a spell. For these men, day workers who clean your streets and empty trash bins, just like the scalphunters in Blood Meridian, you can be Black whether or not you are actually Black.
Race is a social construct. But language turns social constructs into historical certainties. You can right history, but you can never rewrite it.
My mother avoided the word. It warred against her sense of gentility—something about how the double g lands bang on that terminal r distressed her. I can’t remember her ever using it. My father, who hated words in general, used it liberally except when “the kids” were around. Then he would self-censor and say, “the coloreds are now below Mifflin Street”when we were in the room. Sometimes he slipped and said “the coons are coming” or “the melizan’ are already below Tasker.” They were infiltrating. Property values nosediving. Soonthey would be on our block, living in our house.
The reason the word is so ugly, as Richard Pryor once said, is that it points not to a person but to a whole personality, or personhood. Pryor had just returned from a long visit to Africa and was reflecting, in the middle of one of his comedy specials, on how he felt as a Black American. It was a stroke of genius from a genius. What it meant was simple. Whites didn’t become Caucasians until Blacks became “Negroes.” Caucasian, the anthropologist’s term of art, designates a specific area on the planet Earth. If you’re Caucasian, your racial designation is has a topological guarantee.
It’s junk science, of course, but it took people with Ph.D’s and tenured positions decades to feel what it meant and get past the junk language supporting the junk science. The word Negro, on the other hand, is by weak analogy the equivalent of Caucasian, with the difference that it designates not a place (a mountain range in Turkey) but a color. Those drawing these bogus distinctions have, especially in America, managed to obliterate all signs of their own mongrel pasts, but the mongrel’s consolation is to mongrelize someone else. “Every man is a king so long as he has someone to look down on,” to invoke Sinclair Lewis again.
When I was eleven I was hospitalized for six weeks with mono. Once I got home I couldn’t wait to get back on the baseball field. That’s when I heard the story of how a notorious member of the Big Counts and amiable neighborhood menace, “Crazy” Harry, had burned a seven-foot cross—I remember the height because the initial report used the phrase “as tall as Wilt Chamberlain”— on the pitcher’s mound of the baseball diamond where I spent half my summer, pitching for the Police Athletic League. None of us had heard of the KKK at the time, but everybody knew who burned the Wilt-sized cross, including the cops, who did nothing about it and some of whom grew up with Crazy Harry.
The title of Poussin’s Et in Arcadia, Ego (1628), refers to the four words which appear on the face of a mausoleum where he posed three shepherds who stand and point at the inscription, in alarm or in awe. In Guercino’s painting of the same name (1622), the personage implied by the motto and the pronoun is more obviously Death. The tipoff is the human skull that sits lopsidedly on a pilaster with what looks like a bullet hole in its forehead. Here, only two shepherds, ignorant or naïve, regard it. In both paintings the setting is not only forested but pastoral, so the point is far clearer. Death is not only here but it has been here from the beginning.
Whence my title. What the Dads meant all along with their talk of “nibbling” and “infiltrating” was not the fear not that “They” were heading our way or that “They” are already here. It was the sense, nearly a revelation, that they have always been here—longer, in fact, than our own immigrant forebears.
To explain this, the Dads evolved, with the aid of what my teacher Sol Wank once named “purest American bullshit,” the great Immigration Narrative. According to this, American history is a chronicle of staggered but necessary scapegoating—so get used to it. First it was religious scapegoating, the Anglicans persecuting religious dissidents like the Pilgrims, the Pilgrims coming to American and persecuting non-Pilgrims when they were not hanging witches. With the Revolution came the Constitution and 1st Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion, so Americans swapped religious for ethnic intolerance. Nativists, some with Mayflower pedigrees, picked on the Irish. The Irish picked on the Italians. The Italians picked on the Poles and Slaves and Lithuanians. Everybody picked on the Jews. Once the tribes intermarried and everybody became on big white tribe, Americans swapped again, this time ethnicity for race, and now it was the Blacks turn to get pushed around and to learn for themselves the lessons of the Great Immigration Narrative. It was handed to you in the form of what Plato calls“a pattern laid up in heaven,” like his ideal Republic, as removed from mortal control as continental drift or my father’s pattern baldness.
“It’s just the way it is,” said the Dads. “It’s really healthy competition. Every new group has to struggle, so now it’s the Blacks’ turn.” And thus it shall be, et saecula saeculorum.
Who were we to argue? The dads had gone through a Depression, fought and won the century’s largest (we hoped) war and had stopped or blocked the loathed Red Chinese in Korea. Their generation had sent men into suborbital flights, invented the H-Bomb, radar, the polio vaccine and, by then, both birth control and the pocket calculator. So who were their sons to argue with such high deeds? Competition made for positive change! We were living or reliving, generation by generation, what Hart Crane named “an improved infancy,” the wacky dream of eternal rebirth that applied exclusively to White Americans. It was an illusion, not rebirth but afterbirth, but who knew? And until the Sixties and Viet Nam, who cared?
To be Italian-American was to feel neither comfortable in your skin nor completely safe on your own block. There was real bias, some of it a hangover from WWII, some generated by the Valachi hearings of 1963 and The Untouchables, and the rest because we looked different, meaning darker— or “swarthy,” a word with roots in the German schwartze. Something about us spelled larceny.
Whenever my mother sent me to the corner grocery, Bob’s Fruit Bowl, she insisted I come home with our purchase in a bag. Didn’t matter what, it had to be in a bag. One day I asked her why. When she was a teenager, she was stopped by a policeman as she left a grocery store because whatever she was carrying was unbagged.
“My olive complexion,” she said, “the poor cop must have thought, what’s this colored girl doing on my beat?”
The grocer, she said, was a Jewish man who knew or knew of my grandmother, then a recently widowed Italian mother of six children whose husband, the insurance agent, had died and left her and them completely uninsured. The Italian widow was a good woman who made all their clothes, even her own soap, and worked at a factory in the city making collars.
“Good Italian kid, all good kids,”the grocer said.
That’s why, mother said, you always have them put it in a bag. A bag was your receipt, proved you were legit, not a thief, one of them, White.
The Whitest Whites on the block and for blocks around were the Heinrichs.
They had procreated seven times, producing seven Irish-German idylls, Walter, my closest friend, and his transcendent sisters, each with a uniquely expressive Nordic-Catholic name. Regina of the Soaring Cheekbones, Andrea of the Slanting Smile, Mary Patricia with the Legs of a Milkmaid.
“Those legs of hers,” Richie DiTullio said, though never in the presence of Walt, “go from here to there and back again.”
When the Heinrich offspring queued up for Saturday confession and headed to church, I would watch from my porch, in wonder. What did they have to confess? When they entered the parish church, their entrance was Wagnerian—Walter as Parsifal leading the Rhine maidens into the Grail Castle. When they lined up for a picture on Easter against the wall of the family bakery, their beauty made you sick with desire. The Callahans were light but freckled, slightly pugnosed, ruddy, and good-looking in a pedestrian way. They Italians were exotic but swarthy, hairy, oily, and like me, too skinny, or like Richie, doughy. Compared to any of us, the Heinrichs’ were nauseatingly beautiful examples of the highest products of Whiteness. Their blondeness was like an element on the periodic table. They made you feel Black.
The children followed Big Walt Heinrich in always calling Mrs. Heinrich Mother. She wasnever mom, mommy or ma. And really, there was something uncanny about the woman, always seen in a print dress and flowered apron, like Mrs. Cleaver or Harriet Nelson. Some days, she invited us in and lunched her son’s street rat pals in the kitchen she ran adjacent to their corner store. A bonanza—ice cold white or chocolate milk, silverware swaddled in linen tubes, and sandwiches of American cheese on Virginia ham with a choice of both mustard and mayonnaise inside one of Mr. Heinrich’s Kaiser rolls. For dessert, Big Walt’s Danish, hot from the basement.
Mrs. Heinrich was Irish. This to me was disturbing knowledge. This meant she was of the same tribe as the pugnosed Callahans, who always insulted us. But she was thin, not fat like Mrs. Callahan, unfreckled, had a nose that I think of now as a la Grace Slick, and had a sense of humor that my mother, who was her best friend on the block, loved to talk about.
“Nobody can make me laugh like Gene,”Mother—I started calling her Mother—would say.
Every now when we were playing “Chink,” or the game called “Nigger Babies,” a car or bus might run over the ball, or the ball might roll into one of the two cattycorner sewers at the end of the street, or somebody with my arm or Walt’s threw it too high and accidentally roofed it. Unless you had another pimple ball, the game was over for that day, meaning you had to kill time and retire to a neutral porch to play pinochle or Knuckles until you were bored. Boredom meant rounds of personal and ethnic insults. They began with warm-up slurs on people’s mothers.
“Your mother’s Black ass.”
“Least I got a mother.”
“Oh yeah? I got yours.”
My favorite, for its sublime stupidity, was “your mother blows dead Japs on Bunker Hill.”
Then came the ethnic slurs.
“Hey, DiTullio, do they allow you”—meaning Italians—"in the ocean?”
“Hey, Callahan, do they allow you”—the Irish—"on the beach”
Then came the list-making contests. I don’t know where this came from. We may have invented it. We took turns listing our ethnic tribe’s contributions to world civilization in descending emphasis. The Callahan’s list always began with Mickey Mantle, ours with DiMaggio, and for some reason both the Irish and the Italians started with ballplayers from the New York Yankees.
“Berra,” DiTullio said.
“That’s all you got,” Callahan said.
“The pope!” I said, cunningly.
“A wop in dress and stupid hat,” Callahan said.
It was the first time I heard the word wop. I was ten. Richie DiTullio picked up a stickbat and chased Johnny Callahan until he apologized. Which he did. The alternative was having no partner to play half-ball (Richie owned all the bats) or to insult.
One day, making lists, Johnny Callahan claimed “Sam Cooke” for Ireland.
“He’s a colored,” I said, “you idiot.”
“Ever heard of a Black Irishman?”Johnny cackled.
I had not.
Later that day or that week, I learned what it meant from Isabel, our once-a-week housemaid.
“Black Irish is a black-headed Irishman, Joseph,” she said, always calling me by my full name. “The hair, baby, is what is meant, not the skin color. He was playing the fool with you. I can see how it might be that Sam Cooke would pass, however. Sam Cooke is very light-skinned for a Negro man. Check the .45.”
She meant the cover of the .45 RPM copy of “Cupid,” a song I had (still have) by heart.
“He could pass for white,”Isabel continued. This was the first time I heard the expression “to pass.”
“He is a fine-featured looking man, too. Got white somewhere in him.”
“If I didn’t know, just by his last name I’d think he is white.”
“My mother named me Isabel after bella, which means beautiful, and take one look at me. I’m anything but these days.”
Recently I checked the etymology of “Isabel.” It has several meanings, and many variants (Elizabeth, for one), but “beautiful” isn’t one of them.
“Anything but,” as Isabel said.
One of the games we played that year, the year the youngest Barbarese arrived and I learned the meanings of Black Irish, wop and “to pass,” was “Nigger Babies,” a name I place in scare quotes to follow the example of our greatest novelist, Mark Twain who, in Puddn’head Wilson, understood the fatal charge that some words always carry and how to neutralize that charge with a pair of tong-like quotation marks.
You needed at least three players to play the game. Usually we had five, often six. You needed only an open space and a pimple ball (a 3” in diameter rubber ball covered with raised rubber dots). You started by assigning numbers to the players. The numbers were randomly assigned, usually by Walt Heinrich because we all trusted him, in one of two choose-up rituals—nonsense rhymes of unknown provenance. The unlucky boy assigned Number One was “It.” He started the game by standing in the middle of the street and throwing the ball skyward through the overhead pantographs while yelling out the number of another player, “Nigger Baby Number ___.” “It” then waited for the ball to come down while the rest of us ran for cover. When he caught the ball he yelled Stop, looked for the target nearest in range, and “tagged” him by throwing the ball at him. If struck, the target then became “It,” went to the center of the circle and the whole thing repeated. We spent hours playing the game in the middle of the street, substituting one number after another, running from It and hiding behind or under cars, and never once hesitating to shout what we were shouting at the when the ball left our hands.
The name of the game is offensive but exemplifies what Barthes called the use of the “empty sign”—a conceptual emptiness that can contain anything prepared to surrender its earthly identity. You swapped your real name for membership in a class of numbered objects and entered as one of n-occupants the class N-Babies. A place-holder with a number, you were one of five or six tenants of the empty sign.It sounds simple enough.
But when it’s your turn to be “It,” you are both the target (isolated in the circle) and the one doing the targeting, hunted and hunter. I consider this a canny if accidental expression of how white boys growing up in the hood in the Fifties experienced Blackness in our uniformly white neighborhoods. Thus the Whitest of us, Walt Heinrich, our Galahad, could become Black for an hour or so, pointing to our ambiguous condition as children of white parents who were also street rats, a condition a lot of us never escaped.
Then too: you were not only Black but a Baby, like the Tar Baby in Uncle Remus, and so you were both a target (a thing to be tarred) and, as “It,” the sticky tar itself. Yet you were still “only” a baby! A Black baby is less dangerous than a Black boy, or one of those Black men rolling by in their long cars, smoke and wild music boiling out of their open windows.
That spring my youngest brother had been born, and Isabel had been hired to help out my mother with household chores—Ajaxing the tub, vacuuming (nobody actually “dusts”) the blinds and the rugs, washing the diapers, scrubbing our one toilet with Lysol, sweeping the porch front, and making the beds. Because Isabel liked to take her lunch breaks on our front porch, she might be there looking on while we played “Nigger Babies” right before her eyes and ears, in mid-street directly in front of from my house, which sat in the middle of the block.
Sometimes, my mother would join her, the two of them spectating, monitoring traffic, “taking the air,” rocking in the metal chairs my routinely out-of-work father pulled from somebody’s trash and repainted, and listening as we took turns and shouted “Nigger Baby” over and over. Did the woman even once turn to my mother, with her “genteel” sensitivities, and suggest, “Antoinette, let’s go inside today, can we?” Did she ever ask my mother to speak to her oldest son about this game, about its name, or that word? Suggest that these kids move the game down the block and out of earshot? Or did she think what every adult on the block thought and would have said in our defense—that “they’re just kids,” and it was “just a game”?
Around three, Isabel always walked to the corner and waited across the street from Heinrich’s Bakery for the Number 7 to take her home. We would be at it still, in the middle of the street, and as she headed to the corner I happened to be “It.” I remember tossing the ball in the air and waiting for it to come down and to nail my target, I hoped in the back of the head, because I wanted revenge. I was the smallest and youngest on the block except for those couple of glorious hours each day when I was that dangerous thing, a “Nigger Baby,” armed with a pimple ball and with his pick of targets. I was too amped, too young, fatuous and ignorant to yell Time Out! and halt the game and return Isabel’s blown kiss or to walk her to the corner as I sometimes did. She walked off alone, stuffing three one-dollar bills, a day’s salary, into her side pocket while I yelled a bleak name and a meaningless number at our local piece of the American sky and waited for a pimple ball to descend.