Delusions of Innocence
“[A] civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary to be wicked but only that they be spineless.” -James Baldwin
The eighth grade was a rough year. The rural elementary school I had gone to for seven years joined a consolidated school district, obliging me to attend a junior high in which I didn’t know over half of my classmates. School staff assigned us to one of three groups. Though no one tagged it as such, I knew my group (Class C) had more bottom-of-the-barrel students in terms of scholastics and popularity than the other two groups. When one kid, who came from the same little school I did, complained to his friends in Class B about being stuck in C, I piped up, encouraging him to look at the bright side, “Gary, I’m in Class C too.” He glanced at me with the look of someone trying to avoid a dirty vagrant, conveying without words, “See what I’m talking about.” My grades were mediocre to atrocious—an F in math one quarter. Full of self-pity, I sought to restore my spirits by ingratiating myself with a faction of kids favored by coaches, teachers, and other fawning students. Still, I remained on the periphery.
While unenthusiastic about my academic courses, I found them all more captivating than woodshop. Lacking natural ability—planes, chisels, and sandpaper baffled me—I had no interest in being a carpenter. On occasion, we had a bit of downtime as we waited to use the power equipment to carve out a rifle rack, corner shelf, or other small furniture items. Thankful for the respite, I was open to any diversion. During one of these intervals, several of the kids created a racist screed about Blacks. Even though the number of Black students in the school was small—maybe three in my grade and half a dozen altogether—plenty of white kids were drawn to expressing malicious attitudes toward African Americans. It was 1963.
The popular boy who took the lead preparing the opprobrious content was not a great speller, authoring a first draft about “nigers.” Five or six of us contributed to it. I was an unimaginative and inept writer, and instead of offering edits, I offered encouragement. It was an illicit activity, so we were discreet. When I made a covert handoff of the document to one of my confederates, some of my gloom lifted. I felt giddy as I passed the folded pages to another boy when no one was looking, my lightheadedness brought on by the secretive nature of the venture and the hint of danger.
I knew maligning Blacks was wrong, but I considered it a minor offense like shoplifting squirt guns from the five-and-dime store. As part of a conspiracy, I enjoyed a contented boost that overshadowed my disquiet. Due to my embryonic internal compass, I didn’t view my behavior as objectionable other than it showed a lack of manners. My self-respect was one dimensional: conforming overrode any semblance of virtue.
A week after circulating the initial version, the ringleader grew nervous that it would come to the attention of a teacher and destroyed it. By doing so, he dissolved the ad hoc clique, ending my spell of minor bliss.
On August 28, 1963, civil rights, union, and religious group members and leaders marched on Washington in support of equal rights for Black Americans. About 250,000 participated. Of the many orations, the best known is Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The media’s coverage of the event included televised updates. My dad and I were working for the day, along with two uncles, at my grandfather’s farm, helping him put up hay. When we heard broadcasts about the march as we were eating dinner at midday, my uncles exploded. They spit out epithets and invective, claiming the entire Black population was a threat and useless. Each fed off and attempted to outdo the other, their rancor spiraling into strident denunciation.
“They want everything given to them, the lazy shits,” Bill said. Vernie added, “They ought to shoot every goddamn one of them.” After about twenty minutes of back-and-forth, Bill’s round face turned red as he stopped for a moment to phrase an insight. His cheek swollen with chicken and his rapid speech becoming high-pitched, he bellowed: “Do you know who they should have shot?” He stopped for dramatic effect, “It’s the sons-of-bitches that brought them here.”
Although he didn’t join in the violent rants, my grandfather mumbled a supportive comment from time to time. My grandmother talked about how “cute the little n–r girls are walking to school in their pigtails.” Her remark, though crass, softened for a moment the tone of the conversation.
Bill and Vernie were wild teenagers. They partied and ran new cars into the ground for the hell of it. One night, they drove to Colorado—traversing the state of Kansas—for an early breakfast and returned to their western Missouri home right after daybreak. They both married and had kids. Bill’s were good students and went to college although they couldn’t cross certain bounds; when his oldest wanted to major in art at the local junior college, Bill nixed it. His second son studied agriculture and took over the family farm, which became the largest in the county. His daughter, whom it was clear to me he was the proudest of, became a lawyer.
Vernie, the youngest of four brothers, was a standout high school football player, getting scholarship offers he turned down to join the Marines. His demeanor at that August noon meal was the norm for family gatherings, during which he would sometimes swear in a loud voice about whatever was on his mind. (Bill swore now and then, though without the same fervor.) “He’s just showing off,” my mom would say as we drove home.
Vernie had good jobs, a healthy family, and appeared to prosper, becoming a small business owner (thanks to a loan from my grandparents). Yet he married three times, and his self-centered behavior irritated some of his siblings, including my dad. He could act like an immature schoolchild. I recall him, in his thirties, harassing one of my older cousins about her weight, snorting and hailing her with hog calls. In hindsight, I see he was not only restless but troubled. I suspect he passed his discontent on to his sons; two of the three died in middle age, one from a drug overdose and the other from suicide. Vernie contracted testicular cancer in his sixties. Doctors told him they could remove his testicles, or he would die—it was his choice. Vain and boastful of his masculinity, he chose death.
I knew about my uncles’ racist beliefs, but the way they reacted to the march, with their belligerent language and demeanor, bewildered me; and their angry mood unsettled me. They acted as if they were being attacked or belittled. Their ranting evoked an image of my mother admonishing my siblings and me to be kind to Blacks, not to call them names—they are “colored” or “Negro.” I kept quiet at the dinner table, maintaining a neutral mien, and thus condoning what I heard without contravening my mother’s stricture.
When I was sixteen, Dad quit farming, and the following year we moved to a neighborhood on the outskirts of Kansas City. I was entering my senior year of high school, looking forward to transferring from the small, tiresome school I had attended to a large, suburban institution. But I didn’t anticipate the loneliness relocation would bring. I failed to win friends, and without close companions influencing my thinking, I changed.
A teacher introduced me to The Other America, Michael Harrington’s classic on poverty. I became engrossed in the lives of people who seemed distant though some were neighbors—migrant workers, Native Americans on reservations, urban slum dwellers, Appalachian communities, small farmers. Harrington’s matter-of-fact prose stirred enthusiasm I had seldom experienced. He described, in accounts combining fact with emotion, the pain of impoverishment, and the societal traps that disabled its victims. Entranced, I wanted to help. I became absorbed in various books dealing with injustice. I embraced a set of values antithetical to those held by many of my former buddies. On the issue of race, I began to see the hatred underlying the attitudes held by relatives and friends, and the timid probity in what my mother taught me. I turned a corner as I worked on shaping a more compassionate perspective.
In April 1968, there had been a race riot in Kansas City, provoked by skittish police officers who fired tear gas on student marchers requesting the city honor Martin Luther King, Jr. by closing the schools on the day of his funeral. The turbulence lasted five days, with over a hundred people arrested, and six Black, unarmed persons killed. I had stayed in touch with a couple of my former classmates, and a few weeks after the deadly event in the city, it came up in an exchange with one of them. He realized I was becoming sympathetic to the “other side.” When he asked me what I thought of the disturbance, I don’t remember my exact response, but it was along the lines of ‘I can see the justification for Black anger.’ He asked what I would do if rioters threatened me. I said, in a hesitant voice, I would not go on the attack. When I turned the question back to him, he said he would fight if, for example, his sister was in danger. I let it drop.
I spent twelve years working for a Georgia state public health agency, writing plans, reviewing programs, and monitoring services. The director—a former medical missionary devoted to social justice—wanted to address racism head-on and invested his time and the agency’s discretionary resources in raising the racial sensitivity of staff and hiring more minority employees. One evening at an offsite event, several of us became engaged in an after-dinner confab. Two of my associates began telling racist jokes, depicting Blacks as stupid and lazy. One of the jesters, a white physician from a small Georgia town, was an old friend and supporter of the liberal division director. The other was a seasoned public health professional from the coastal area and a favorite of the director. Their shameless bigotry shocked me. While I would not have been surprised if either of them held condescending beliefs about African Americans, I didn’t think they would stoop to this type of denigration.
They were two country boys entertaining each other, unconcerned about the malice in their words. But they were also insiders in an organization I regarded as broad-minded with a mission I cherished. They broke a spell I, in my naivete, had held. Abashed by my silence, I rationalized there was no harm since no person of color was within earshot during their odious banter. The jokesters were the sinners; I was a bystander without guilt. And I said to myself, I can’t do anything about their behavior; if I protest, they won’t become nonracist, but they will become indignant, and I will lose friends. Did I want them as friends? Yes.
Some of us bleeding hearts fixate on doing good for personal rather than altruistic reasons. A Black friend of mine, Sherry, drove home this point. A white acquaintance invited her on a family vacation. The beachfront setting tempted Sherry, but she was not sure how relaxing it would be spending time with strangers, so she turned down the offer. She later found out some of the family members were white supremacists, raising the suspicion her close acquaintance—an outspoken progressive—was using her to “get in their [the supremacist relatives] face.” In another case, a different white confidant has carped at her more than once for not attending events at a historic movie theater in Sherry’s hometown. It’s a place where, when she was eight years old, a white man berated Sherry with racist epithets for leaving the balcony. Her white friend said, “You need to get over it.” Instances such as these “irritated and sometimes infuriated” Sherry. She surmises the source of her friends’ insensitivity comes from arrogance, they may or may not recognize, in which they take for granted they “are more knowledgeable” than she about racial matters. In these instances, she feels she’s being “treated like a child.”
Sherry surprised and flattered me by saying our conversations have been cathartic for her. For me, they’ve been illuminating. Hearing her accounts, I discovered something of the anguish she lives through every day, but each revelation elicited regret as I glimpsed in myself latent sentiments. I have been earnest yet oblivious, no different than her callous friends. My take is my surroundings—kin, community, nation—continue to influence me. Perhaps it’s irresponsible to blame family and society, but these settings, in which at times delusion supersedes fact, have molded me. I draw a blank when speculating on how I can break the mold; it seems I’m fighting overpowering instinct instead of learned attitudes.
When Sherry told me the stories about her friends, I assumed their behavior had puzzled her because I viewed them as people with good intentions, thus attributing their statements and conduct to thoughtlessness. She set me straight. “[T]heir day-to-day actions betray their ideals because they are … focused on themselves and what makes them feel good,” she observed. We who are white can plead ignorance, but it’s willful ignorance, as we avert our attention from discomforting reality. We can claim we’re unbiased, but our disinterest is a disguise for spinelessness. We forge delusions that supersede fact.
Tom Wade is a retired state government employee. He has been a volunteer ombudsman (advocate) for residents of long-term care facilities for seven years. His essays have been published in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Communion, Jenny, and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, and Wilderness House Literary Review, Squawk Back, Canyon Voices, and Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review.