Coming to see a parent's racism
|Although I was 5 1/2 years old, I remember even now as clearly as if it were last night laying on the floor that Thursday night in April 1968 watching TV (when TVs were mostly "floor models") while my father sat on the sofa behind me. "Bewitched" was in its original run then and Samantha Stevens had just twitched her nose and conjured up an "ABC News Bulletin:" Dr. Martin Luther King, according to the newsman, had been shot in Memphis, Tenn. Confirmation of Dr. King's death would come in another subsequent news bulletin minutes later but, on hearing the news that Dr. King had been shot, my dad said, presumably to no one in particular, "I hope the goddamn ni**er's dead." And as clear as my father's comment remains with me today, also as clear was my thought: I didn't understand what Dad was saying because Dr. King, after all, had won some kind of award for peace. I understood in later years that the award, of course, was the Pulitzer Peace Prize. I do not remember, however, if my father said anything when the second news bulletin confirmed that Dr. King had died.
I was in kindergarten at the time, and the day after King's death went to school as usual. The teacher explained to us why it was important for us to understand the meaning of Dr. King's murder the night before and invited us kids to walk the block around the school as a silent tribute to Dr. King. I didn't hesitate participating because this man who had been gunned down, after all, had gotten an award for peace. I went home after school as usual and my parents were there. My father, I had already come to know, was on his way out for his ritualistic Friday night drunk. Even at 5 1/2 years old, I pretty much knew my father when it came to his drinking - when he was headed out for a binge, when he was hung over and not to be messed with and what to and what not to say when certain people were at the house, like that night not too long before when my father and a bunch of other men talked about things like crosses, gas cans and "suits."
But that early Friday evening the night after Dr. King's assassination, and before my dad set out for the bar or wherever he went to get drunk, I announced proudly, maybe as if to tell my parents that I had done something right for once, that I had walked around the block at school in Dr. King's memory. But what happened on my announcement is a blur other than my being off the floor and "flying" and the sound of the huge picture window in the living room shattering. My father, when I proudly announced my role in respecting Dr. King, jerked his head violently, his face even redder than I had seen before and which warned me that he was angry beyond reason, his mouth clenched so tight that the white around it clashed with the red of his face. I remember hearing only, "You fuckin' ..." as my dad grabbed me, lifted me off the floor and sent me flying, literally, through the living room window. I think I heard my mother scream, "No!," but she may not have; by then, she, I think in hindsight, knew when not to put herself in the line of fire because of her own beatings by my father.
I don't remember much after landing outside or the ride in the ambulance to the hospital. I don't even recall even feeling the hurt from the cuts and shards of glass in my body. But I do I remember hearing my mom telling me at the hospital that I "couldn't" tell anyone "what happened," that I tripped while I was running in the house and went through the window "on accident." Which is what I said to the doctor and nurses at the hospital, and I don't remember ever being questioned later by anyone else. My father apparently didn't go to the hospital with my mother and me but, when I got home, I remember his first comment to me was something to the effect that "no kid of mine marches with niggers." I still didn't understand what I'd done wrong but today, in hindsight, I believe that the incident - if nothing else had happened, and there was a lot of other stuff that DID happen - impressed on me that something terrible had happened, that something between my father and me had broken and would never be fixed.
In the days ahead, as a 5 1/2-year-old kid, I wondered what I had done "wrong" to deserve being thrown out a window. But I never got an answer. As the years rolled by, when I remembered that night in '68 and based on my dad's comments about the civil rights movement and, as I got older, his slurs against just about any black person, I understood that my father was an avowed racist and that my walking in Dr. King's memory was, to him, a disgraceful act on my part.
In 1988, a little more than 20 years after Dr. King's murder, I left my hometown to return to college in a bigger city two-thirds of a state away. Maybe because people have a tendency to say good-bye to their hometowns as they leave it, part of my good-bye was remembering with my only older sister the times we had growing up and, later, as adults. Our mother had died more than six years earlier and our father, all but one of his 11 kids grown into adulthood, had voluntarily estranged himself from all but one of his children. Reminiscing with my sister, the incident of my being thrown through a picture window more than 20 years earlier came up. I nodded as my sister resurrected the incident and dismissed it as something that our father didn't approve of, for whatever reason. "You don't know?" my sister, Vicki, asked. "Know what?" I answered, to which Vicki responded something to the effect, "I just assumed you knew." And what I didn't know but probably should have figured out on my own if I had put certain pieces together was that my father, when Martin Luther King was gunned down, was and continued to be for years after a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan. When my sister gave me that piece of news, I remember shaking my head and saying something like, "O, no way ..." before being stopped silent by memories of other incidents that seemed to corroborate Vicki's disclosure. I first remembered my mother's funeral little more than six years earlier and my father, at the mortuary, muttering something about his having to explain a man named George to his relatives in Arkansas. George was an African-American neighbor of my mother's and whom she personally requested to be one of her pallbearers. I didn't know at first what my father meant when he said explaining George to his relatives, but it hit me soon enough. "You mean because he's (George) black?" I asked my father. "Yeah," Dad muttered. I shot back that no one cared what his relatives in Arkansas thought since of them had come up to pay respects to my mother.
But it was another memory that even now, by itself, substantiates my sister's disclosure of Dad's membership in the KKK. A few months after the King assassination, the town newspaper made a big deal of a march in the city by the KKK. I had no idea what the KKK was when my dad dragged me downtown for the "march." Literally thousands of people lined the streets in support or protest of the people wearing "bedsheets." I remember standing there with my father next to me and wondering what the "big deal" was about people wearing sheets. Than I saw marchers carrying wooden crosses that were on fire and signs with messages that, while I didn't understand what they meant, had words like "nigger" and "coon" in them. Then, one sign that evoked what still is for me my earliest acquaintance with the feeling of disgust: "Martin Luther Coon: Burn in Hell." I was going to tell my father I wanted to go home, that I would walk myself when I looked up and saw a look on his face I'd never seen before. That look, I knew even then, was respect, and I knew I didn't want to ask my father why he respected these hooded people. As the line of white sheets and hoods passed us, my father and others around me saluted the marchers. I didn't, nor did I want to. Then I saw one of the marchers, as he passed, remove his hood and wipe sweat from his face. I recognized him as one of many men at my house a few weeks earlier and with whom my father left carrying what I thought were bedsheets and something that looked like a hat with a "point" on it. I figured my dad and the guys were going camping overnight or something else. But when I saw and recognized the man who removed his hood, I decided then I would not salute him or his "comrades," nor did I want to. When I didn't salute with everyone else, my dad ordered me to do so. In perhaps one of my first overt acts of "defiance" of my father that I can remember, I refused to salute and told him, "No. I'm goin' home."
And, with my father's voice behind me warning, "Don't you walk away from me!" I walked home. All the way, I expected the "whipping" that my dad would give me when he got home from the march. But this time, bracing for this particular beating, I vowed not to give my father the satisfaction of making me cry. And I didn't as he battered me yet another time. That I didn't cry and scream with pain seemed to make the beating worse but, even then, I decided that this was one time that my father would not "win" by telling me that I was wrong. And I won whatever victory there was: I didn't cry, and my father gave up hitting me when I, for once, didn't beg him to stop.
From that day on, whatever broke between my father and me at the KKK march was never mended. Perhaps to my discredit, I'm not sure I ever wanted to fix it.