XI: Black Genies, White Bottles

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Senator Obama can’t win sometimes. First he gets lambasted by seven Black revolutionaries calling him a sell-out for not advancing the Black liberational cause. Moving through the week, he goes from complicit Uncle Tom in Florida to stoker of the racial fires in rural Missouri. Why? He reminded folks that some don’t like him because he doesn’t resemble “all those presidents on dollar bills.”

Now there’s a racial zinger for you! Personally, I thought he was talking about all those fright wigs that pass for hair on those old guys, but McCain’s fiery reaction and ensuing press commentary about the racial genie being out of the bottle sent me to thinking again, back to my then almost lily-white hometown of Groton, Connecticut. As a kid, I never knew a genie and never saw that kind of bottle. And yet…

What made my reaction to meeting Johnny Blount, a sweet, friendly fifteen-year-old Black kid who played halfback on our high school football team and sat in front of me in homeroom, so different from when I met Charlie Haines around the same time? Charlie became one of my best friends. Johnnie was a nice enough kid, not afraid to cut up during morning attendance and good enough on the football field to get headlines in the town newspaper by his junior year. I liked him in the superficial sense of teen likes and dislikes for that huge group of people whom you indifferently passed in the halls every day and never hung out with once. It never crossed my mind that we could be real friends.

So why was I so easily drawn to Charlie and not to Johnny? Was it simply because Charlie and I were in the “college prep” sections and Johnny was tracked into general studies? That probably had a little to do with it, but not much. I’d been good buddies with Richie G. back in junior high, a white Navy kid who only cared about school so he could play on the basketball team. He visited my house almost as often as he did his own.

Was it because of racism picked up in our home? My dad was certainly an angry man, but all his rage was directed at Catholics, especially the Bishop of the Norwich diocese, a handsome Irish guy who, my father was convinced, had taken a personal interest in ruining his one chance at business, a dairy store that failed two years out. He was way too hostile towards my friends Danny McCarthy and Gary Griffin to have any energy left over for Black folks. As for my mom, her measure of people was how nice they were, not the color of their skin or the texture of their hair. She didn’t like snobs, refusing to join the Daughters of the American Revolution, and her own need to be liked trumped any lingering doubts she may have had about some new friend brought home. She dispensed peanut butter-and-marshmallow sandwiches and a cool glass of milk to any and all who walked through her front door. I never heard the “N” word at 130 Monument Street, never grew up with a sense of racial superiority. And yet…

My grammar school, Groton Heights Elementary, was a spit away up the block. A solid brick building built in the 1920’s, it had three stories, lima-beanish fluorescent lights, comfy, little wooden desks with metal swivel seats that got bigger as the grades got higher, a huge playground for all 300 kids to run around in at the same time, lots of chalk and blackboards, brand new texts every other year, caring, smart teachers (almost all of them women whose daughters would become lawyers and corporate executives), and only one book that had anything to do with Black people: Little Black Sambo. Thrilled to learn to read by first grade, I read it quickly, laughing at the silly pictures of some lion or tiger chasing a huge-lipped, dark little boy around some boiling pot of water. Except for The Little Engine That Could, for some reason it’s the only book I remember from back then. I know why I remember the little engine, because I identified with it so powerfully as I struggled to learn to ride a bike or hit a baseball. But I didn’t identify with Sambo at all. Was he my genie?

Given the tumult in my home, school was a haven for me, its cool, grey walls enveloping me with a sense of safety and security that I came to love. Except for polio shots dispensed from the principal’s office in first grade, I never once felt pain there. Its warm embrace extended to the kind of knowledge about the world I received back then, too: a basic orderly progression from the Dark Ages up to modern times, disrupted by occasional wars and plagues and such by heathens and the like; the goodness of America, begun by religious freedom seekers, consecrated by brave revolutionaries overthrowing the bad king; later on progress slowed momentarily by the tragedy of the Civil War, only to heroically overcome it; then the forward march of the 20th century, America’s finest.

And, of course, for me it was all white, white in its profoundest and, ironically, most technical meaning, for it was history—and civics and literature and science—infused with a complete absence of color. I no more thought about race than I did about quarks, for I didn’t know either existed. How could I, when the world constructed to make sense to a ten-year old white boy’s reality didn’t include it… even when it was deeply embedded in the town’s own history.

Growing up on Monument Street, I lived near a fort, Fort Griswold, on which was fought the Battle of Groton Heights in 1781, between the British and the towns people. It was actually a terrible defeat for the colonists, made famous because our leader Colonel Ledyard, “was killed by his own sword,” as he surrendered to the British commander. It turned out that the brave colonists had repulsed the first invaders, even killing the king’s original commander at the top of the Fort’s highest hill. Because the British were enraged at the loss of their own colonel, Ledyard was martyred at the ceremonial surrender, his sword turned against him and thrust into his stomach, causing him to bleed to death.

I knew all this because there was a stone plaque at the very spot where he died. There was a school named after him, too, and the town of Ledyard today is the site of the famous Foxwoods casino. And yet…who actually killed the British officer that fateful day?

Years later, maybe twenty, I was showing the fort to some friends and peered more carefully at the engraving further away from Colonel Ledyard’s martyrdom. It depicted the colonists’ thwarting of the first British advance, a long spear bring thrust into the side of the British officer. And who held that spear at the lead of the charge, courageously attacking the commander of the mighty British garrison? A short, open-shirted Black adolescent! Historic Fort Griswold, my connection to all of America’s might; brave Colonel Ledyard, the personification of me, maybe, if I could be so brave some day, had been joined that tragic morning by another hero, a young Black man, whom I never knew existed.

His name, according to the scroll at the front of the fort, was Primus. Maybe if his story, and all those other stories I have since learned that have always populated Our America, had been woven into my understanding of the world back at school alongside Colonel Ledyard’s, later on I might have been lucky enough to have had Johnny Blount as my friend.

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This page contains a single entry by Steve Burghardt published on August 25, 2008 9:00 AM.

“That Name” was the previous entry in this blog.

XII: Affirmative Reaction is the next entry in this blog.

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