Chapter 3. First Encounters of Another Kind

Chapter 3.

First Encounters of Another Kind.

The stereotype acts both as a justificatory device for categorical acceptance or rejection of a group, and as a screening or selective device to maintain simplicity in perception and in thinking. Once again, we point to the complicating issue of true group characteristics. A stereotype need not be altogether false….We can distinguish between a valid generalization and a stereotype only if we have solid data concerning the existence of…true group differences. Allport, 192.

The initial fact, therefore, is that human groups tend to stay apart. We need not ascribe this tendency to a gregarious instinct, to a “consciousness of kind,” or to prejudice. The fact is adequately explained by the principles of ease, least effort, congeniality, and pride in one’s own culture. Allport, 19.

Along with valuable emerging scholarship on “propertyless” whiteness, Harris’s point that poor whites do possess the property of whiteness helps to recast debate on the tragedy of why those who derive so little material benefit from white supremacy often firmly cling to white identity, the only property they hold…All of the best critical studies of whiteness old and new implicitly warn us against claims that any significant drama in US. History is “really about race” or that any single dynamic is isolated from the social processes within which it unfolds. Roediger, 24.

A moral position is not a slogan, or wishful thinking. It doesn’t come from outside or above. It begins inside the heart of a character and grows from there. Tell the truth and write about freedom and fight for it, however you can, and you will be richly rewarded. As Molly Ivins put it, freedom fighters don’t always win, but they are always right. LaMott, 109.

I was born in New York City and spent my first four years in Spuyten Duyvil, a little green corner of the Bronx, just north of Manhattan Island. I am fond of telling people my first years were in da Bronx, and some of the happiest memories I have of times with my Dad are those times spent on the “terrace” behind our home listening to Mel Allen play-by-play of “da Bronx Bombers”. Dad was a Yankee fan. Allie Reynolds, Moose Skowren, Phil Rizzuto, the great Yogi, Mantel, Maris, Whitey Ford, those were all familiar names between us. But the truth be known, I don’t have any real memories about my birthplace. When I was four years old, Dad came home one day and announced to my Mom that the house was sold and we were moving to Hamilton, New York, home of his alma mater and his future place of employment as university physician. As far as I know, that was the first Mom knew about the change in our life circumstance.

Growing up, Hamilton was the best of small-town America, made somewhat less provincial by the presence of Colgate University, Dad’s alma mater on the hill. Everyone pretty much knew everyone else. The grocers, the police, the volunteer firemen, the telephone operators – yes, my first telephone number was Hamilton 129 – everyone spoke to everyone else as if we knew each other. It was a very safe place to be. And it was a very white place to be; so, perhaps I should say it was a very safe place for me to be and grow up. I started kindergarten and graduated from high school with pretty much the same group of people. Fifty-one graduates in the class of 1960 and I’d say forty-five of us were together at the start in the fall of 1947.

We basically sorted out into the Townies and the Aggies. The Aggies were the farm kids and the Townies were the kids who lived in Hamilton. There was economic variation within and across these two groups but generally speaking, we who considered ourselves the Townies also considered ourselves better off. I never knew if the Aggies saw themselves having any particular sub-groupings. Clearly, some of the farming families were more prosperous than others but that didn’t seem to affect their relationships, much. From our Townie perspective, they all seemed to hang together and school augmented this perception. We were tracked long before tracking became an issue of concern. Most of the Townies were college bound. We took the courses that would prepare us for college entrance. Most of the Aggies would graduate to work on the family farm. A few would go on to agriculturally oriented colleges and universities. The Townies had several subgroups: the jocks, the intellectuals, the artists, the musicians, and everyone else. Everyone else usually translated into the kids of little means who lived down by the basket factory. Even in Hamilton, NY, there was “the other side of the tracks” and we knew the families who lived down there had it rough. You could see it in the bruises, smell it in the clothes, and watch it play out in school as we separated ourselves into those for whom school was a struggle and those for whom school was not.

But we were small in number. So it wasn’t as if we were segregated from each other. I rode the bus with, sat and talked to, played soccer with – the whole gang. We were in school together. When choice time came, though, we self-segregated. In the lunchroom, we sat with our own. On the playground, we played with our friends. Even then, we sorted ourselves predictably on the economic scale that separated us by ease of living. So early encounters with difference were very natural to me. This is the way life was. Some people had means, others didn’t. Some people had opportunities, others had few. Sam was Italian, Billy was Irish, Roger was Armenian, but we were all white, we were all Americans. And that’s just the way it was here in small town America. I was born lucky. My family had means and even though I wasn’t geographically a Townie, for I lived a mile and a half from the village park, for all sociological purposes, I was. I walked like them, I talked like them, I was seen as one of them. I grew up White with all the unquestioned privilege and assumptions about who we were that came along with the synonymous existence of being white and American. They were one and the same.

So my first encounters with kids who looked different from me were more dramatic for the unquestioned mono-hued existence that I lived. They were also more dramatic for the actuality of it all.

Every summer they’d suddenly appear as if they’d crept in under cover of night. Black migrant laboring families arriving from someplace south of us, families who followed the crops, families who returned to the large truck farms year after year, families who stayed for maybe two to three months, families who it seemed to me were just like the slaves I’d seen woodcuts of in my schoolbooks. Large groups of chocolate dark, strange speaking people would suddenly arrive in Madison County, carried in on patched together rattletrap cars, rusted junker school buses, blue smoke spewing panel trucks. Their clothes were threadbare and tattered, faded and torn. Their odor was dusty and acridly palpable. They lived their migratory days with us in what my family called Labor Camps but what my friends called The Nigger Camps. Places not much better than chicken coops, minimally converted to house these farm laborers. Sometimes I’d see them downtown, I’d pass them on the sidewalk, and I remember feelings of fear, of being scared in their presence.

Why fear? Our home was bordered on two sides by a large field that was always planted in beans back then. Later it was cattle corn, but in my younger years, beans were it. A different kind of street noise signaled the arrival of the pickers. We’d look out and see, already too early in the morning, old cars and pickup trucks and stake trucks full of workers pulling up along side the road, unloading their human contents to bend to the task of the harvest. I used to watch them from the corner of our property. God, it must have been hard work. Hot summer sun, bent to the task, bushel after bushel being thrown up to the gathering truck that would make the rounds of the various fields where the pickers were employed. Often one or two either parched dry or in need of vertical exercise would walk to our house and ask for water. My Mom was scared of them and fearful for my safety as well. She’d tell me to get in the house if I saw them coming. I wanted to get some water and ice ready for them on the terrace picnic table but Mom just turned on the hose and went back inside, fast. I picked up her fear and anxiety and I think that’s why I felt caution and fear on the sidewalks of our little town when we’d pass by each other, rarely making eye contact, always looking away, wondering if they were embarrassed to be seen looking the way they looked.

Interesting, they were a “them” to me, not a “people.” Our community didn’t know what to do with these migratory collections of fellow human beings, so clearly in need. I don’t think any of our local church congregations or social organizations ever took it upon themselves to make the life circumstances of these laboring people any easier. At least I don’t remember any stories to that effect. What I do remember is that white Mennonite church people from other states would travel almost in parallel to these groups. They would settle in town and they would provide for their needs by making links to our churches. So it would be the Mennonites who made the connections, not us. They would bridge local resources to these laboring farm workers. They would make requests for clothes and food and medical services and education and our Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, and Episcopalian churches would respond through them. They were a buffer. You never saw one of these workers in church, ever. At least not in my church. The same was not true for school, however. School was the one place we could meet up and form a relationship.

A boy named Samuel returned to our class three years in a row. I look back now and wonder what it must have been like for him to have to go to our school, or the school in the town that he would next travel to. I wonder now who made the decision that he would attend and how did he get there. No school bus ever stopped at the Labor Camps. Some one, some adult, some parent who believed in the importance of school must have done whatever it took to get him there. There were others, too. More of them girls than boys. But not many. They’d show up. Maybe if they were lucky be introduced to the class. And sit with us day in and day out as we did our 3Rs.

This is just so much of a stereotype but Samuel became popular with us boys because he was big, and fast, and could play football pretty well. So during elementary school lunchtime and gym time, we’d get to choose up sides and have a game or two and every team wanted to choose Samuel. He was a pretty serious kid. Maybe a pretty scared kid. But we had fun with him and I think he with us. He’d sit with some of us for lunch, unlike his female counterparts. I remember he’d eat a lot of food. He could go through more tuna fish sandwiches on Friday than I and that was saying something ‘cause I loved those mayonnaise-laden sandwiches. Ma Yackel, the lunchroom Czarina would cut us off after three. I’d often trade him a sandwich for carrots. Something inside my brain or heart or both made me know he needed the food more than I. Samuel was hard to understand, he couldn’t read hardly at all, but we’d help him through if the teachers would let us. Samuel was the first person I knew who looked like the people in those pictures I saw in the red History Book. I distinctly remember wondering if he knew about any of that but of course, I didn’t ask. No one talked about lynching in school, then, or ever, for that matter. And then, just as he’d arrived, one day he’d be gone. The peas would be picked, the beans gone, his family would move on, and it would be over.

In my whole time growing up in Hamilton, there was one Black family that lived there and that was Charlie Wright and his wife. I never knew where Charlie worked. All I knew is that he was the most spectacular drum major the Fountain Fire Company #1 Drum and Bugle Corps ever had. Charlie Wright played out the best stereotype of the high hatted, smart stepping, happy talking, ever so compliant black man that I ever saw. He was in his last days as drum major, probably nearing sixty years of age, when I first started to play in that very fun group and I remember just beginning to gain a consciousness of a different side of him than I had seen when I was younger, just before he ended his run. I saw him alone one day, after we’d finished our parade. Alone, and serious, and in the midst of people, very by himself. Many people said hello to him and he always responded with his resplendent smile. But it seemed that was where it always ended. He seemed very by himself. Although he was known far and wide as the person who gave our group its own special pizzazz, I remember thinking this man appeared totally alone in the midst of all the music. And of course, I didn’t act on that observation. I just noticed.

Even with Charlie, I heard town folks use the N-word when they referred to him. Never my family. But people who should have known better. Thing was, that’s just the way it was. There was rampant prejudice against the migrants, particularly. And I bet Charlie Wright, if he’d been able to tell his story, he’d have a thing or two to mention as well. It bothered me. My Mom often talked about treating everyone with respect and even though these laboring farm workers scared her, I never heard the N-word in my house, even though Mom had been spat upon by a “big, black woman” while getting on a bus in NYC where Mom had gone to visit Minnie, her own Mom. But the society of the school bus was a different matter. Jimmy Cheesbro lived on Madison Hill in a very big white house and he, like I, rode Bus 5 every day. I don’t think his Dad was a farmer but they had a big barn, some horses and were involved in agriculture in some way. Jimmy was a big, tough kid with a quick temper, quicker fists, and a very foul mouth. Bully would be too kind a word to describe his relationship with lots of his peers. Jimmy would brag about how he and his friends, they’d polish off a bottle of rum and then get in one of their pick-ups with their twenty-twos and take off for one of the N-camps. One of his buddies would drive through the camp while Jimmy would hung over the tail-bed of the truck, shooting upside down at anything that moved. They’d do this in the early evening when people were out and about, some cooking over open fires. If this story was true, and I have no reason to believe it wasn’t, I never heard of anyone reporting the incident(s) or moving to stop it.

How was social justice played out? Over very long distances. Trick or Treat for UNICEF once a year. More regularly, Sunday morning offerings for poor people very far away. My high school church group worked hard to sell plates embossed with the image of the First Baptist Church. After a good deal of research and discussion which I remember did have the effect of opening our eyes and naming the poverty that was out there in the world, we sent the proceeds off to Albert Sweitzer’s African leper mission work. Sweitzer’s secretary wrote us back in real ink and said the Doctor was too busy to write but wanted to make sure we knew how much he appreciated our effort and how well the money would be used. To bad he didn’t ask us to look around our own community. We were all institutionally blind, so it seems, to the grinding poverty that was right in front of our noses.

The only good story I ever heard involving an act of kindness was double-edged. An act of kindness maybe, but still replete with the same racial epithets, inspired by the vision of quick profit. One afternoon that was late both in August and in the day itself, after the heat had begun to transform to the coolness of evening, a knock came at our front door. Not many people ever stopped by our house so a knock at the door was always something of a surprise. I answered it and it was Bruce, a fishing buddy of my Dad’s, though considerably younger. Bruce was a veteran of the Korean “Conflict” and was getting on his feet in Hamilton as a jack-of-all trades. Bruce was always enthusiastic but that afternoon he was bubbling out of himself. He said we had to come and see what he had in the back of his truck. When we walked down the little hill that was our driveway, he hauled a large garbage can off the back of his truck, took off the top, and there in the bottom of it was the ugliest turtle I’d ever seen. “Turtle soup tonight! Gonna take it out to the N-camps and sell it for dinner. They love turtle soup. I’ll get maybe $20 for this baby.” I heard later on he’d taken $10 for the turtle and that they were “real appreciative.”

I think about these stories now and just shake my head. All these events happened in a context of unquestioning acceptance. Only once do I ever remember a voice raised against an epithet; otherwise, no voice raised against an unkindness bragged about, no voice raised to question the treatment of the pickers, no voice raised to offer comfort or clothing, or anything to ease what must have been an awful existence. This was simply the way things were in Hamilton. We had our roles. We lived them out. The few experiences I had were solidly framed by racial stereotypes – Samuel the athlete, Charlie the dancing drum major, turtle soup for dinner, and the poor people in the world lived somewhere else. It wasn’t until after I’d left for college that dialogue and eventual confrontation began to challenge public attitude with regard to the racial attitudes and oppressive behaviors that were present right there in our little community. And I suspect that was only because Colgate had begun to admit a wider range of students without, of course, realizing that the world was changing and students of color were arriving with a different attitude about what constituted proper behavior between and among themselves and white folks. In the same year that Colgate established a Black Student Union, armed graduate students took over the administration building at Cornell University to demand academic rights and support services heretofore denied them.

Change was in the air. It was about time.

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Charles Rathbone

Retired. Emeritus. UDL consultant, FIrst UU Racial Justice Committee, photographer, married, four children, five grandchildren. Embracing life, all of it. "Today is tomorrow's past."

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