White and Black
The N-word was not spoken on Thatford Avenue; not in anger nor in jest. I didn’t hear it at home or school, or in the dreary little shops we and the other poor frequented or on the gritty streets where we played hopscotch. I’m not saying Brooklyn was a citadel for forward thinkers, but rather a holding cell for those who might produce a future president or those who would end up homeless. The Euro-poor of my childhood knew how tenuousness their financial safety was in golden America. It made us overly polite and humble to the point of timidity.
Using coarse language would reveal our poverty. Euro-Americans, no matter the slum we called home, believed with hard work and humility, we’d own a house with a rolling green lawn just like the ones on TV. Aiming to speak like the family on Father Knows Best* would help us fit in.
If my friends and I walked to the corner and turned right on Hegeman Avenue and another right onto Rockaway Avenue, we’d be on a street like ours with girls our age jumping rope while boys, like the boys on our street, built scooters out of discarded crates and old skates. Every brick on every building was twinned to our street except all the people were black.
Of course, we were forbidden to use black to describe them. Whenever Mrs. Johnson, who gave piano lessons for a dollar, was called colored by my grandmother, my mother and aunts would correct her, “Ma, it’s not refined to call Mrs. Johnson colored. She’s Negro.”
Grandma would shrug off her daughters with, “I’m just saying, she’s such a cultured lady. It’s a shame she has to knock on doors offering lessons like a day-worker house cleaner. If we had a piano…” The conversation always ended there. We couldn’t even spare a weekly dollar. Owning a piano was as ludicrous a goal as buying a diamond tiara.
But as poor as we were, our house was palatial when compared with GG’s flat. Great Grandma, deaf and mute since a toddler**, lived within walking distance in a ground floor bed-sit. I hated going with Grandma to visit GG. Her room looked like a dungeon cell in a fairy tale. And as if the setting wasn’t depressing enough, we were there to give GG her insulin injection.
I’d enter shyly, steeling myself for GG’s welcome-in kiss. Grandma also plucked GG’s chin and upper lip hairs at our visits-making the goodbye kiss slightly more pleasant. I took my butterscotch candy from GG’s hand and left to wait at the door of her building until her injection procedure was over. I was three.
A group of boys only a few years older, came towards me. The smallest, probably a first grader, held a garbage can lid by its handle like a knight’s shield. He scowled as they approached. That’s all I remember of that day. When Grandma and I returned home, I’m told my father was called to close the store and take me to the doctor’s. Later I learned I was beaten and bleeding when Grandma heard the commotion outside and rescued me.
Not once had my family ever referred to my assailants by race. Grandma’s re-telling was, “Remember when those boys beat-up Adrienne…” It would set the whole family to clucking like hens about the violence in the world, but they never condemned black people.
White and Yellow
A dozen years later, a junior high school student from Chinatown in Manhattan gathered up his books and violin case and steeled himself for the gauntlet he faced at the end of every school day. Paul Choo*** described himself as a perfect victim for the school drop-outs that taunted him at the border of Little Italy and his home on Mott Street.
“I was an easy target; a skinny near-sighted Chinese kid with a violin. The Italian kids broke my glasses so many times, I’d just go straight to the optical shop right from school.” This successful entrepreneur told his grown-up daughter last year.
She was stunned by the new information her Dad had kept secret for over a half century. “Why didn’t you tell us about this?” She asked, trying to imagine her business giant father as a victim.
“Because then you would hate Italians or maybe fear all white people. I don’t. I didn’t want you to either.” Paul dropped the conversation as quickly as it began, as if he hadn’t said the most profound words on racism ever spoken.
Neither Paul Choo nor my family stopped hatred in the world by quietly moving on, but when I see social media’s fiery rhetoric stoking up mob bigotry over every slight or insult, I don’t see this new way as better.
*Father Knows Best: a popular 1950’s sit-com that portrayed America’s middle class in an idyllic suburban setting.
**GG’s story is told in my blog, Tanta not Tonto… and Uncle Jack (Part 2)
*** Paul Choo is a real person-for his family’s privacy, I’ve chosen a pseudonym.