(Editor's Note: Untimely Reviews is a project I started on the old blog. It happens irregularly, has a dumb name, and is typically about something nobody cares about anymore, but "I like it!")
Nineteen eighty-nine was an odd year. Baseball still mattered. Exxon Valdez dumped oil into the Pacific Ocean. Sega Genesis came out. George Bush took office. Ted Bundy was executed. Blake Griffin was born. Donald Barthelme died. North America hit up the Internet via a dial-up connection. The Simpsons debuted. The Calgary Flames won their lone Stanley Cup, and the Denver Broncos took a year off from getting the life stomped out of them in the Super Bowl. Now, I’m not gonna say it was an odder year than any other, but it was still a trip. For me, anyway. That was freshman year, and I’ll never forget walking into that building on the first day of school, and freezing, for a moment, in fear. I didn’t know where my locker was, where any classrooms were, and fuck me if there weren’t a gazillion people in the hallway.
I don’t remember, but somebody, a few days prior, tried to ease my anxiety with some gem like, “Don’t worry. You’ll figure it out.” Whoever that was should be commemorated with a prize of the advice-not-to-give variety. I was late to first hour because I had no freaking idea where I was going, and I was terrified that I wasn’t going to have any friends, even though I’d come from middle school with plenty, and from grade school before that with a few. There was something about the fact that it was high school, though. It was the big stage. The knee knock. The spot. The crossroads. The four-year stint in which you must try to master the art of getting smashed, lose your virginity, and sculpt yourself into college-ready mode.
There are things lying around my house that could jog my memory about the classes I had, but for the purpose of this piece, I’m interested in reflecting back on English. Freshman English. With Marin Oldridge. This class was far out in more ways that I can recall, but here are a few:
1) I don’t remember the sequence, but I’m pretty sure we started the year in a classroom in the basement. Like, down the hall from Auto Tech. Why there was a classroom there is beyond me, but there was also a big long stretch of freshman lockers down there, in the remotest corner of the building. Where, literally, nothing but a quarter-mile of hallway existed, and at the other end was the boy’s locker room. My locker was down there, which was totally jacked. Zero chance of going to it between classes or even at lunch. It was a one-stop shop; I went to it in the morning before first hour (eliminating any opportunity to socialize) and never again for the rest of the day. Anyway, we -- maybe at semester or some other random time in the year -- moved. To the library.
It was some random corner of the library wherein they fashioned a room for us, and we were subject to a little bit of traffic and distraction, but it got us out of the basement, which was just fine. The basement had been kinda neat, though. We’d gelled as a group down there, and sort of subconsciously identified as a band of castaways. So when we broke into our new digs, it was as though we had to learn movie-sequel roles we’d just played in the debut film. It was a neat group, though. Many of us -- Miss Oldridge included -- got to first-hand learn how not to act as a freshman courtesy of Billy Chambers, who wasted huge chunks of classroom time every day trying to show the rest of us how cool he was and how weak his efforts to hit on our teacher were. Miss Oldridge was pretty new to the teaching gig at that point. She was probably 23 years old and pretty hot as far as teachers go. She was also like the cheerleader liaison or something like that, so she was down with all the cool girls, like Karin Korff. Thanks to the alphabet, she was always seated near me. And thanks to my complete lack of game, she was always sweet enough to let me know without saying so that there was zero chance I was ever going to bang her. But I was gonna try, damn it. For the longest time, she called me Clay, because…well, I don’t really remember. It was kinda cute and kind of obnoxious, but it was some strange equivalent to a hand in the pants. Or so I thought. Anyway.
2) Miss Oldridge was a badass teacher. It probably was super easy to learn from her because she was young and hip and good looking, and perhaps above all, didn’t seem old and jaded and lifeless regarding education. Don’t get me wrong. She was strict and made us work and all of that other good stuff. She was fresh, though. And energetic. I should take a moment to share a generality about my high school and a specific thing about Miss Oldridge. My class got in and out of that institution at the perfect time. We got in there as the ways-of-the-past door was closing behind us, and every year stricter rules and policies were born. Sometimes they were mid-year. We always seemed to get grandfathered in, though.
Take lunch, for example. We entered Shawnee Mission East as freshman. Juniors and seniors could leave campus for lunch, and I think sophomores could, too, if they had a signed form on file or something. But there wasn’t really a rule for freshman, because, well…they were probably too overwhelmed by being freshmen to think about going out to lunch, and they weren’t old enough to drive, so it probably had never been an issue. Some of us did go out to lunch, though, and I don’t think faculty and staff were supposed to police it, but it wasn’t a secret that Shawn Tillery and I would go out with his brother and friends. And Karin would go out with some upperclassmen that probably also wanted to bang her. And Miss Oldridge knew we did, but didn’t say anything about it. She had this sort of silent give-you-an-inch don’t-even-think-about-a-mile policy about her, which I admire(d).
The open-lunch policy changed that summer, and by fall, freshmen were no longer allowed to leave campus for the midday meal. After our sophomore year, only juniors and seniors could go. And then only seniors. That’s how I remember it, at least. There were other changes, too. They mainly had to do with dress code, but I recall feeling like we -- via graduation -- escaped from the prison before they locked the cells, so to speak.
3) Anyway, Miss Oldridge. I remember strange things about her freshman English class, and it’s possible that memory -- as a concept -- is just strange, and that it has little to do with her or that class. But I remember her making phenomenal use of the board. I think it was a grease board, too, which probably made it more profound, but she used it a ton. I feel like we were constantly getting inundated with vocabulary words. I also (vaguely) remember charts. Like, she would just chart stuff as a means for teaching something. I feel like she actually charted us as students, too. Maybe she organized us that way, had us learn particular elements of an idea, then report back to the rest of the class, rounding out the circle, as it were.
I also remember her hair. She usually wore it straight and I’m pretty sure it had highlights in it, which was a foreign idea to me. I don’t know if she was graying early, or if she just didn’t like her natural hair color, but it wasn’t blond or brown or red, which stuck out in my mind. And perhaps because of the casual nature of this particular outfit, I remember her wearing a somewhat-oversized gray sweatshirt with blue jeans and Keds. Maybe it was only on home-game Fridays or something, but you’d never catch another teacher dressed like that. I say that as a good thing. It made her relatable. It made it easy to learn from her.
4) Above all, I remember book reports. Or specifically, one book report. It’s possible she did this for every assigned book, but only one sticks out. Instead of reading a book and typing up a traditional report about it and handing it in, instead of a line-by-line reading of said typed-up report to the class, Miss Oldridge had another idea. We gave our reports individually and orally. That is, we had a one-on-one discussion about our books.
Full disclosure: Junior and senior year I smoked enough pot and drank enough Milwaukee’s Best Light to kill a small army battalion, so my memory isn’t perfect, but I’m pretty sure, that for this hot-seat conversation of a book report we had to sign up for non-school-hour times. And I think mine was on a Saturday. I could be wrong. It could’ve happened during English class while the rest of the students read or worked on something else, but I remember this feeling of, Is she allowed to make us come in on a flippin’ Saturday? But, because it was Miss Oldridge, I was cool with it. Or, rather, I didn’t voice my complaint.
I also don’t remember how this particular round of books was chosen. Like, maybe this was my first exposure to Black History Month or something, or maybe the collection of books was curriculum-mandated, or maybe Miss Oldridge was going through a dark (Editor’s Note: Figuratively, people. Figuratively.) period, or maybe she was motivated to get us white Johnson Countians some culture. Either way, I chose or was assigned Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin.
Full disclosure: I was a pretty good student -- like, honor roll and shit -- freshman and sophomore year. Related or not, I didn’t really party too much then, and I didn’t work but 15 or so hours a week, so I typically got my homework done. I’ve never been good at advanced math or science or standardized tests, but reading books and writing papers and learning history and geography and all that was never too terrible of a challenge. There was something about this book, though, that was preventing me from diving into it.
I remember starting it and almost instantly being put off by it, or obsessed with the idea that this book was non-fiction. (Note: This has also tended to be a hurdle for me. If it’s not fiction, I’m probably bored by it.) We haven’t gotten into the book itself yet, so spoiler alert: White dude turns himself black for the sake of seeing just how deep-seated racism was in southern, 1960s America.
It didn’t happen instantly, but I got stuck. I couldn’t get my head around the idea of medical treatment that would actually alter pigment. Perhaps more importantly was that I couldn’t get my head around why such a book would/should interest me. Why would I, nestled in my white-washed world, want to read about an undercover white guy rolling around in the 1960s south? I think the answer was probably fear. Fear that within the pages would be some bitter-pill American truth anchored in ignorance, hatred, and the fear of being wrong about something culturally ingrained. And maybe it was all tied to a sense of despair about the aftermath of such a reality being present in my own city.
Either way, Miss Oldridge let me off easy.
“Promise me this,” she said. “Read it again in 20 years and get back to me.”
Whether I meant it or was relieved, I only had one word for her: “Okay.”
Before I get into the book, I have to apologize to the Kansas City Public Library system and any of its members that may have been unsuccessfully trying to get their hands on a copy of this book. I’m not going to own up to all of the dates, but I requested this book a long time ago. I renewed it once or twice then was too ashamed to do it further. So I just kept it. Every once in a while, I’d pick it back up and read a few pages, but I could never get into fifth gear with it. Many months later, I was trying to check out some books for our daughter and they told me about a hold on my account because of the book. I assured them I still had it, and they freed things up. That was in May. Please, then, accept my apology, and know that the book will be returned -- to the book drop, of course -- upon completion of this post.
So if you want to get technical about it, it took me more than half of my life to get my head into this book. I never researched it or the author until I finished reading it a couple of days ago. It was one of those weird feelings, though, where you know you’ve got your hands on something important. You know it’d be of great value to read it but the idea of taking pills and lying under a heat lamp just didn’t feel like a true possibility for a premise. It was like I was being lied to or tricked. I mean, I wasn’t insulted, but I just couldn’t tap into the necessary source of motivation for reading it.
I don’t know what I found, but I found something that allowed me to presume that the thing was real and it was then that I realized my set of misconceptions about the civil-rights era in this country. It’s caused me to reflect upon what we’re taught in school: On the one hand we’re pumped full of a lot of information between kindergarten and 12th grade, so some of that stuff’s just going to fall out, not be retained; on the other hand, I think it’s really hard to teach history. Or, rather, it’s really hard to learn it.
What I mean is that there are names and dates and places and facts that you can hear about in a lesson, read about in a textbook, and try to memorize in the evening as you prepare for a test. But what’s the motivation? Sure. You want a good grade because that’s the expectation and you’re aware of the value that such a mark might have in your next life phase. But why be genuinely interested?
I remember taking Western Civilization freshman year of college, and it was so hard. Like, it literally numbed my mind to be in that classroom and studying for it in my dorm. I knew it was important. I knew that I needed to know more about the history of the world outside of the United States. It would behoove me to. I knew that it was important to learn about the conquests of Napoleon and understand how what his regime did had a lasting effect on much of the world. I knew I needed to learn more about the British than that of their involvements in America. But there was too much crammed in to too little time. Either that or I just wasn’t in the right spot in life to learn about it. I think I barely got a ‘C’ in that class.
But what do we learn about black history in this country? Or what did we learn? The basics, I think. Lincoln freed the slaves. Rosa Parks and her bus seat. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech. You got bits of Frederick Douglass and George Washington Carver and Harriet Tubman. You gleaned from Mark Twain who wrote about race, and maybe even more from others who did not. Like the other subjects, there were laws and dates and events to stuff into your head, but if you’re not experiencing it, or its effects, or worse -- you don’t realize it -- it’s hard, I think, to recognize the significance of what has gone down. And more importantly, how recently it did.
I remember another assignment from another freshman-year class, and that was to interview family members about important events in their lives. We then had to find key world events that were happening at the same time as those memories. Both of my parents -- as I’m sure many would -- cited John F. Kennedy’s assassination. When you’re 15 years old in 1989, the early 1960s seem like a long-ass time ago. John Howard Griffin’s experience was happening right around the time Kennedy was running for office. Black Like Me was published in the first year of his presidency.
When I was interviewing my mom, she referred to Kennedy’s assassination -- and has done so several times since -- as a turning point for the country. At least for her life in it. She called it a better time. A safer time, when people left their front doors unlocked and didn’t really worry about crime. While that transition was taking place, John Howard Griffin was learning how to deny himself the desire to drink water and coffee as a black man in Alabama and Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi. It wasn’t just that he had to teach himself restraint, though. A lot of it had to do with the fact that he simply could not obtain beverages in many locations. In the ones in which he could, he knew that in most circumstances, the nearest toilet available to non-whites was blocks and blocks away.
The consumption and release of liquid was but a gnat on the windshield of spectrum, though. Bigger splats involved selecting when to go outdoors for fear of being hate-stared, for being despised for traveling or seeking employment. There were huge gut smears no washer fluid could cleanse. They came in the form of hitchhiking, the primary means of carrying out his experiment, and more often than not resulted in being lectured about why the black population should not be given equal rights. They exposed a huge sense of vulnerability wherein Griffin places trust in the white drivers of automobiles only to have to listen -- with stifled tongue -- to bizarre tales of rancor and fantastic beliefs of a sexual nature.
A few excerpts:
“The foreman of one plant in Mobile, a large brute, allowed me to tell him what I could do. Then he looked me in the face and spoke to me in these words:
‘No, you couldn’t get anything like that here.’
His voice was not unkind. It was the dead voice one often hears. Determined to see if I could break in somehow, I said: ‘But if I could do you a better job, and you paid me less than a white man…’
‘I’ll tell you…we don’t want you people. Don’t you understand that?’
‘I know,’ I said with real sadness. ‘You can’t blame a man for trying at least.’
‘No use trying down here,’ he said. ‘We’re gradually getting you people weeded out from the better jobs at this plant. We’re taking it slow, but we’re doing it. Pretty soon we’ll have it so the only jobs you can get here are the ones no white man would have.’
‘How can we live?’ I asked hopelessly, careful not to give the impression I was arguing.
‘That’s the whole point,’ he said, looking me square in the eyes, but with some faint sympathy, as though he regretted the need to say what followed: ‘We’re going to do our damndest to drive every one of you out of the state.’
Despite his frankness and the harshness of his intentions, I nevertheless had the impression he was telling me: ‘I’m sorry. I’ve got nothing against you personally, but you’re colored, and with all this noise about equality, we just don’t want you people around. The only way we can keep you out of our schools and cafes is to make life so hard for you that you’ll get the hell out before equality comes.’” (p. 100)
Without having dialect cast upon me as a reader, I can’t really say how often I hear a voice when I read dialogue. I think it almost never happens. But I can hear the foreman’s voice in that passage. I can’t hear his inflection or an accent or any signs of vernacular. What I can hear is conviction. There’s a certainty in his speech that says -- whether he agrees with it or not -- this is the way it is and I am at the very least going to give the illusion that I support it. I come across this -- “the dead voice one often hears” -- in people all the time. They have a way they do things and there’s no relearning it. A significant portion of human beings in this country remain staked to a pertinacity that is beholden to a greater danger than any demonstration of bigotry or prejudice could conjure.
“He spoke in a tone that sickened me, casual, merciless. I looked at him. His decent blue eyes turned yellow. I knew that nothing could touch him to have mercy once he decided a Negro should be ‘taught a lesson.’ The immensity of it terrified me. But it caught him up like a lust now. He entertained it, his voice unctuous with pleasure and cruelty. The highway stretched deserted through the swamp forests. He nodded toward the solid wall of brush flying past our windows.
‘You can kill a nigger and toss him into that swamp and no one’ll ever know what happened to him’
I forced myself to silence, forced myself to picture this man in his other roles. I saw him as he played with his grandchildren, as he stood up in church with open hymnal in hand, as he drank a cup of coffee in the morning before dressing and then shaved and talked with his wife pleasantly about nothing, as he visited with friends on the front porch Sunday afternoons. That was the man I had seen when I first got into the truck. The amiable, decent American was in all his features. This was the dark tangent in every man’s belly, the sickness, the coldness, the mercilessness, the lust to cause pain or fear through self-power. Surely not even his wife or closest friends had ever seen him like this. It was a side he would show no one but his victims, or those who connived with him. The rest -- what he really must be as a husband, devoted father and respected member of the community -- I had to supply with my imagination. He showed me the lowest and I had to surmise the highest.
His face was set hard in an attempt to regain his equilibrium, when he pulled off the main highway and stopped on a dirt road that led into the jungle. We had engaged in a subtle battle of which I think he had only then become aware. He needed to salvage from it something. ‘This is where I turn off. I guess you want to stick to the highway.’
I thanked him for the ride and opened the door. Before I could get out, he spoke again. ‘I’ll tell you how it is here. We’ll do business with you people. We’ll sure as hell screw your women. Other than that, you’re just completely off the record as far as we’re concerned. And the quicker you people get that through your heads, the better off you’ll be.’” (pp. 104-105)
It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, humanity has an ugly side to it that we can only hope the next form of beings, the sociologists of the future, will never uncover. We may have gotten out of the food chain, but an easily tapped recklessness exists in our core that chains us to a level of baseness not unlike all the other animals of this lifetime.
“We picked our way carefully through fear of snakes down a faint footpath to the edge of the trees to urinate. The moon-speckled landscape exhaled its night rustlings, its truffle-odor of swamps. Distantly the baby cried. I listened to the muffled rattle of our waters against damp leaf loam. A fragment of memory returned -- recollection of myself as a youngster reading Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit, her description of the Negro boy stopping along a lonely path to urinate. Now, years later, I was there in a role foreign to my youth’s wildest imaginings. I felt more profoundly than ever before the totality of my Negro-ness, the immensity of its isolating effects. The transition was complete from the white boy reading a book about Negroes in the safety of his white living room to an old Negro man in the Alabama swamps, his existence nullified by men but reaffirmed by nature, in his functions, in his affection.” (p. 109)
Exposure rules the modern social-media roost, and our tendency -- mine included -- to chuckle at, to share the mishaps of others is, unfortunately, almost never a reminder or an indicator of what it’s like to be on the other side of the coin. John Howard Griffin’s experiment and publication should have a piece of verbiage in our lexicon to indicate such a phenomenon.
“I learned within a very few hours that no one was judging me by my qualities as a human individual and everyone was judging me by my pigment. As soon as white men or women saw me, they automatically assumed I possessed a whole set of false characteristics (false not only to me but to all black men). They could not see me or any other black man as a human individual because they buried us under the garbage of their stereotyped view of us. They saw us as ‘different’ from themselves in fundamental ways: we were irresponsible; we were different in our sexual morals; we were intellectually limited; we had a God-given sense of rhythm; we were lazy and happy-go-lucky; we loved watermelon and fried chicken. How could white men ever really know black men if on every contact the white man’s stereotyped view of the black man got in the way? I never knew a black man who felt this stereotyped view to fit him. Always, in every encounter with ‘good whites,’ we had the feeling that the white person was not talking with us but with his image of us.
‘But,’ white men would protest, ‘they really are like that. I’ve known hundreds of them and they’re always the same.’ White men would claim black men were really happy; they liked it that way.
And in a sense, such white men had good evidence for these claims, because if black men did not, in those days, play the stereotyped role of the ‘good Negro,’ if he did not do his yessing and grinning and act out the stereotyped image, then he was immediately considered a ‘bad Negro,’ called ‘uppity, smart-alecky, arrogant,’ and he could lose his job, be attacked, driven away.
White society had everything sewed up. If you didn’t grin and yes, you were in deep trouble. If you did, then you allowed white America to go right on believing in the stereotype.” (p. 162)
I lacked the shrewdness to tab it, but there’s a passage in this book that has some form of the phrase “keeping the man down” in it. That and everything associated with the above excerpt -- especially the chicken-and-watermelon bit -- strike me with astonishment that stereotypes and ideas continue to take residence in the foreground of America while the premise remains a blurry speck on the rear-view-mirror horizon. I don’t mean to put the phrase and the bit in the same camp. Rather, language selections lead a decades-long race while actions in the vein of progress continue to trail.
“We were advised by a black man in the government to take precautions. We should keep our travels schedules secret. We should avoid using public restrooms unless some reliable person accompanied us, to serve as a witness in the event some plant might accuse us of some immoral act or gesture. We were advised never to get maneuvered into a situation where we were alone with any lady we did not know. In the bad days we were advised to find some pretext of changing our hotel rooms as soon as we registered…One minister, shortly after arriving…was beaten unconscious by two men wielding baseball bats. In my own case, if I stayed more than three days in any large city, I usually tried to change hotels or else move in with some black family. In one city in Louisiana where I lectured, I could not even stay in the city because all the lodging places had been threatened with bombings if they accepted me as a guest.
This kind of thing continued throughout the early and mid-sixties. We led strange, hidden lives. We were advocating only one thing: that this country rid itself of the racism that prevented some citizens from living as fully functioning men and as a result dehumanized all men. We were advocating only that this country live up to its promises to all citizens. But since racism always hides under a respectable guise -- usually the guise of patriotism and religion -- a great many people loathed us for knocking holes in these respectable guises. It was clear that we would have to live always under threat…One thing was clear: we had to accept the fact that these principles were worth dying for, and that there were plenty of people who were willing to see us disappear…This is possible occasionally, but it is almost impossible to keep up. The human nervous system will not stand it. (pp.166-167)
I wish I had the time and the money to do a year’s worth of research regarding the nature of incidental segregation in Kansas City, but I don’t. I can, however, say that, in my lifetime, I have seen more integration as it pertains to who lives where and on what side of the state line. I can also say that -- at least in my family and at my church -- the idea of a city trying to overcome division is discussed and acted upon. This was not true for my parents’ generation as I have heard stories of rioting and borderline vigilantism. I hope that my children never have to hear of people poised on their porches with loaded shotguns “just in case.”
None of this is even remotely comedic, but when you consume as much stand-up as I do, it’s hard not to think of bits being done by some of the best in the business. I’m sure I’ve said it before, but Louis C.K. is the best in the business, bar none, and it would be an insult to the point of this post and this book to not share this clip and I share it as a reminder that -- although I might have thought otherwise in 1989, or not have thought about it at all -- the obtainment of civil rights was not that long ago at all, and it has been far from “parades and presents” since the abolishment of slavery.
Perhaps the biggest personal lesson I take from this book is something that only rings true now that I am a parent and have a bigger scope on the breadth of a generation. John Howard Griffin was doing his thing while my parents were nearing high-school age. His manuscript was probably in the publication process around the time they were freshmen. They lived in a very diverse metropolitan area but there were undeniably massive borders that created internal areas within it. The black community was not geographically far from them but my guess is that traversing neighborhoods was as distant an idea as one could imagine.
I presume that to be a microcosm for the country at the time. Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia aren’t that far from Kansas and Missouri, but if you have no idea what’s happening on the other side of town (or in quasi-neighboring states) then it’s impossible to know how people are functioning (or failing to) in the world.
I don’t share any of this to hide under an umbrella of ignorance, but I must admit that this documentation of displayed hatred shook me. I think that I always thought that the most malevolent folks in the south at that time were closer to some semblance of a non-majority of white people. I figured some abhorred blacks, but most went with the quote/unquote norm of maybe casual dislike, perhaps afraid to differ or speak their mind. I imagined some of the nastiness was learned, but to see evidence of detestation in numerous one-on-one situations in various states hurts my sense of national pride. Consider my sensitivity adjusted.
So, there you go, Mrs. McCrossen (Note: Google tells me there may have been some nuptials celebrated since 1989. Congratulations.). I’m late getting back to you by four or five years, but what you said stuck with me. I kept my word, sought this book, and am glad I did. May you continue to shine as an educator and may your years at Blue Valley Southwest be even brighter than they were at S.M.E. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to talk my way out of some overdue fines. Again.