I'm jumping a little ahead of myself here but I think this subject should be covered before I go any further.
What subject am I referring to?
I'm in the second grade now and the teachers at my elementary school held this contest every year where the students would write their own books. We would bind them ourselves, paste together a cover, and the winner would be chosen by mystery judges who would award gift certificates at Borders Books in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Well both years that I was able to participate I did, and both years the subject of my book, which I illustrated myself, was about some black kid going to law school after being run out of town by the KKK and then coming back and putting them all in prison. Read The Book
The first year I didn’t win first prize. I came in second. So I concluded that I didn’t have enough violence in it, so the second year when I wrote the sequel I had even more burning torches, rifles and hooded horsemen running for their lives.
I still won second place.
Although personally, I felt I was robbed, it wasn’t until I got a little older that I understood that it might have been politically a little insensitive to have awarded first prize to the 8-year-old version of Mississippi Burning with twice the violence and a quarter of the plot.
I remember both of my parents being a little embarrassed by my choice of subject matter. I remember my mother even asking me if there was anything else I would rather write about.
Well sure, I would rather be writing about Spider-man but this wasn’t about what I wanted to write about and what I was interested in. This was about making you proud of me, putting the Klan on notice and showing you just how militant I could be at eight years old.
This is about the cause. This is bigger than me. Momma didn’t raise no punk.
My dealings with white people were even made more confusing in that I had white people in my family.
Well, they looked white to me.
Now this I know was just in my head but it seemed like this was one of those deep dark secrets that families have that you just don’t talk about. When people go on Oprah and talk about things that went on behind closed doors that you just didn’t share with the outside world I could always relate because that is what the white people in my family seemed like to me.
How could someone talk so much shit about being black and militant and the struggle and then go down South and jump into the arms of an old white man and call him “Grand daddy”?
My great-grandfather name was James Henry and all of his brothers and sisters were white people to anyone that had seen a white person before.
Now I am not talking about someone black who is light-skinned.
That I can handle. My family was full of those as well.
These were white people. There wasn’t a Negroid feature on this man or his brothers and sisters. Some black people have a complexion of French Vanilla and a face like Mike Tyson.
Like I said, that I can handle.
This was not the case.
We are talking people that look like George Bush, skin cancer and all.
In fact, some of his brothers actually came up to Michigan to get jobs in the automobile industry as white men and sent their earnings back down south to South Carolina to feed their families.
Some came up to Michigan to live as white men and never came back.
Now for those of you that don’t understand the ungraspable logic that is behind the racism in America, you might be asking yourself, "how they could be that white and still be considered black?"
Well that’s because in South Carolina, historically speaking throughout the entire south, you are considered legally black if you have 1/16th black blood in your veins.
That was to insure that the mulatto children of slave masters and their slaves that continued to intermarry with other mulatto children of slave masters from other plantations would not be able to easily blend in with the rest of white society.
There is only so many times that mulatto kids can mix with one another exclusively before they will start producing some pretty white looking children.
Well Eugenics faithful can’t have that now can they? Anyone with two-eyes could be tricked into breeding with one of these racially inferior white looking Negroids and go and mess up the whole white purity thing they had going on.
So the rule was that if your great-great grandmother or grandfather was black or any part black and everyone else in your family was as white as the driven snow, you still had to be considered black and subject to all of the denigration, humiliation and segregation Jim Crow had to offer.
But up north, they had a different set of rules. You were whatever you looked like. With the only exception being that you could be black as asphalt tar but if you speak fluent Spanish you are Hispanic.
If you could pass as a white man, then why not? I guess that was the reasoning. Why catch hell if you don’t have to?
If you are black the best job you can get it doing janitorial work in the plant. If you are white you can make twice as much on the line.
It’s a no brainer.
Many times my grandfather would be doing business with someone white for years who would by chance come across one of his kids and once he put two and two together would immediately cease doing business with my great-grandfather.
His kids didn’t look white because my great-grandmother, his wife Josephine was black and Native American. So his kids didn’t look half as white as he did.
Let me tell you from experience. There is something profoundly disturbing about hearing all of this stuff about how bad white people are then going to down to South Carolina, and being embraced, picked up, kissed and hugged and held by a white man who you are told is your great-grandfather.
What this did though as a child was romanticize race relations to great extent to me.
My great-grandfather was white. How bad could they really be?
For as far back as I can remember I always thought it was cool whenever people who traditionally found themselves on opposite sides of a particular issue could find common ground.
My great grandfather was black by technicality. The technicality was that whole 1/16 black blood in you thing that they had instituted in the South to keep the white race pure.
That was the technicality that he fell under.
Sure he identified himself as a black man. He was the deacon to an all black church on meeting house road, named “meeting house” after the Ku Klux Klan meeting house that was at the end of a dirt road in Hopkins, South Carolina that is still standing and marked as a historic land mark till this day.
Since they considered him black they married other black people that could pass as white if it wasn't for the 1/16th rule and so you had an entire community of white people, who live as black people, who identify with black people, who eventually marry black people and that is how I end up sitting on some terribly confused white man’s lap eating a peach and being woefully confused myself about the whole thing.
And I should be confused. None of it made sense.
My great grandmother was named Josephine. This was JD’s mother. Everyone called her mother. She and I had a very interesting relationship. For whatever reason, we connected. She was like 70 something years old and we always connected together from as long as I can remember.
I still have her on 8mm tape that was recorded back in the late 50s early 60s of her running away from the camera every time she was on it. She hated to be filmed. She didn’t like the way she looked.
She was one of the most beautiful people that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.
It’s hard to articulate how I feel about her because I was still so young when she died.
So from how I remember her our relationship was entirely emotional. I can only tell you of a few instances that I remember us sharing together and they don’t seem to warrant how deeply I loved her. It’s almost as if I have grown to love her more over the years after she had passed. Almost as if the significance of what she meant to me has grown as I have gotten old enough to appreciate her.
When my grandfather JD passed after a long bout with Parkinson’s Disease that forced him to spend the last eight years of his life in bed, in the fetal position, trembling uncontrollably, I dreamt that she came to me in a dream and told me that JD was about to die.
I hadn’t seen her in years. I hadn’t dreamt of her in years. It was nice to see her.
She looked like herself but just a younger, healthier version of how I remembered her.
About a week later my grandfather JD did in fact die.
My mother called me and asked me to have a seat and told me. It wasn’t a shock to me and we both expressed relief in his passing.
What he had of a life in the end wasn’t really living at all.
What I do remember of her were all nice things.
I remember how she used to invite me over in the morning and she would cook me breakfast. She would take me upstairs to her attic and show me all of the dolls that she had up there. And most importantly I remember how we would just sit and just talk. Our favorite conversation was about prayer and why we needed to say prayer. I would always contend that you would mix it up a little and say something new. Her position was that you should always say the Lord’s Prayer verbatim every time, the same way.
I remember sitting there in the heat, on the porch, and just talking to her about God and prayer and how she would just laugh and make me feel so comfortable talking about this kinda stuff with her. I remember my grandmother telling me to be quiet and not to argue with her and my great-grandmother Josephine saying, “No, it’s all right. He isn’t doing anything wrong. Let the boy talk.”
Now in retrospect, considering how deeply religious my great-grandparents were I can’t believe that we even had that conversation the way we did. I would think that even questioning the Bible would’ve been seen as disrespectful. But my grandma Josephine will always be a very special person to me because even though I was just a child she really genuinely made me feel like what I thought was important.
Now make no mistake about it, when it was all said and done in the end she didn’t allow us to part with one of those, “well, we will just agree to disagree” notes but she seemed to enjoy just the fact that I had thought it out. I had a reasoning that she enjoyed to see me using.
Maybe that is why JD wasn’t religious?
I have always wondered how JD was able to get out of that house and not be a Jesus freak like his father.
My great-grandfather James was known for his stubbornness, his temper, his controlling and manipulative personality. Although I never saw any of it. All I saw was a very nice, gentle kind, white man with an extremely high pitched voice that wore suspenders, spit tobacco and wore his pants practically up to his nipples.
But I know that the man that I knew wasn’t the same one that his kids knew or anyone that happened to spend a lot of time around him. Evidently he was a difficult man to be around for all of the reasons above.
He loved to talk about the bible. It was his favorite topic. He was the classic Jesus freak in that Jesus was the answer to everything. Every problem that you could ever come across had been addressed in some obscure scripture and the answer to your dilemma was in there as well, although only the trained eye could put it out. But don’t worry. He had read the Bible cover to cover which made him more than qualified to pull it out for you.
He would sit there under the fan in his black leather chair on the enclosed front porch in the house that he built with his own two old, sun blotched, trembling hands and talk to my grandparents for what seemed like hours at a time about topics that couldn’t be further from what I could consider least bit interesting.
I was too young to leave at home alone so I went with them and after a few weeks just bugged the hell out of my grandparents until they brought me home.
JD spent an awful lot of time with “dad”. That is what he called him. It seemed like they had a lot in common but I am told that they used to argue about religion every single day. My great-grandfather was just as controlling and stubborn, vindictive and hurtful with JD as everyone else but for whatever reason JD could just let it slide off his back better than most.
next part: Jimmy the Terrible