White Like Me

What follows is an excerpt from Richard Goldstein’s memoir, Another Little Piece of My Heart: My Life of Rock and Revolution in the ’60s.  This chapter of the book centers on his experience of the civil rights movement in the Bronx.

Race was at the core of nearly everything in the sixties. Even more than sitars and exotic beats, it shaped the structure of rock. Even more than the war in Vietnam, it dominated politics. Even more than LSD, it defined the consciousness of my generation. Look at any aging boomer and you’ll see someone who was formed in the crucible of civil rights. The man I am emerged when I joined a campaign against job discrimination at the age of nineteen. I came to see my neighborhood—and my father—in a new way, and I broke with them, decisively. In other words, I became me.

I was itching for something to believe in as passionately as I didn’t believe in myself. And there were all sorts of causes to choose from in 1963: nuclear disarmament, environmental destruction; the Cold War and its absurdities. (Having failed to topple Fidel Castro, the CIA was trying to kill him with exploding cigars.) But I was riveted by images of black students in the South braving fire hoses and police dogs. There was something personal about fighting racism; it had a payback that working for peace did not. Yes, I believed in social justice, but it was also about identity. Marching for civil rights meant connecting with a tradition that went much deeper than my roots in America. It was a way to become what my grandparents were not and what my parents wanted to be—a Yankee.

There were other reasons why I was drawn to the civil rights movement. It had something to do with sense of oppression as a fat kid and quite possibly with my incipient queerness. But I had also had a deep aversion to racism. It was absurd—rock ‘n’ roll had taught me that—and repugnant. This feeling was instilled in me, as it was for many people my age, when I saw pictures in the paper of a black teenager named Emmett Till. He’d been lynched in the South for whistling at a white girl. His body was swollen grotesquely, but his mother had insisted on an open coffin at the funeral. This was 1955; I was eleven. His mutilated face was the most horrible thing I’d ever seen.

If it had ended there, I might have lulled myself into believing that racism was a southern sin. After all, we had black next-door neighbors, and my brother and I had a few black friends. No one cared who came and went in the Bronx. But it was different in Manhattan. There were parts of that borough where black kids weren’t supposed to be.

As a teenager, I often went downtown with friends to see movies or rock ‘n’ roll shows, and this time my companion was a black kid I liked a lot (perhaps because he never taunted me for being fat). We were on our way to Times Square when a cop stopped us and ordered us to get off the street. That had never happened to me, and I knew right away why it was happening now, as did my friend. The look on his face, frozen with fear, caused a reaction that I still have when someone makes a racist remark. I was nauseated. The power of that cop, the utter certainty with which he reduced us to helplessness, made me feel like vomiting. I think it was the first moment in my life when I wanted to strike out against authority, a reflex that had so much to do with the way I acted in the sixties. And I was hardly alone—many young people who ran wild in the streets during those years were reacting to a string of events like the one I’ve described. So it wasn’t just a projection of my insecurities that led me to join the movement. It was the memory of standing passively by while the police menaced my friend and glared at me. By the time I turned nineteen, I was old enough to know that I wanted to do something about it.

A number of my college friends were Freedom Riders. I was tempted to join them, but my cowardice overcame my ideals, so I decided to stay close to home, and I set out to integrate my parents’ “beach club.” It was basically a strip of concrete and lawn on the Bronx side of the Long Island Sound. A large swimming pool was the only luxury, but for working-class Jews this was the closest thing to a golf course, and they wanted the perks that came with such a retreat, including racial segregation.

That summer everyone there was reading Exodus and sighing over the plight of Jewish refugees trying to make their way to Palestine. I wanted to teach them a lesson in hypocrisy by bringing a black friend to the club as my guest. We figured that she’d be turned away, and our plan was to document it with the tape recorder in her bag; then we’d take the evidence to the city’s Human Rights Commission and, voila, a blow for justice. But she made such a fuss that the attendant at the front gate let her in. We had the whole pool to ourselves, since everyone else got out of the water when we jumped in. I knew they weren’t actually horrified; they were imitating those who would have done the same thing to them. It was still common in the fancy suburbs—where we would drive just to ogle the elegant homes—to bar Jews from country clubs, and deeds had clauses that forbade selling property to Jews. But here in the Bronx, we were kings.

Word quickly spread around the club, and my parents were mortified when I came by to introduce my black friend to them. My father sat silently on his beach chair, hands gripping the sides, but my mother’s reaction surprised me. She scolded, half in jest. “Richard,” she said, referring to a pair of pet rodents I’d once sneaked into the house, “this is worse than the hamsters.”

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the civil rights movement signaled my arrival at the point where my mother wanted me to be. I had entered a world of noble ideals and, not incidentally, upward mobility. That was why she hadn’t really objected to my stunt. After all, the black friend I’d brought with me was middle-class, as were all the people I met in the struggle, blacks as well as whites. And I have to say, because it was obvious, that the whites weren’t exactly white—they were Jews.

My mother instructed me to call colored people Negroes, adding, “Remember, they’re human too.” This wasn’t exactly the Gettysburg Address, but it was a departure from the spirit of the project, where certain firecrackers were called “nigger chasers” and we chose up sides in ball games with a chant that went, “catch a nigger by the toe.” (I never realized, until I became an adult, that this had anything to do with race.) My mother bragged that she allowed my brother’s black friend to eat off our plates, but she also complained that we were too poor to afford a schvartzer, the Yiddish word for maid and also for black people. This contradiction wasn’t lost on me, and it became the seed of a conflict that would threaten my solidarity with the family, especially my father. He didn’t hate Negroes, only the idea that they could advance beyond him at the post office. “They got the world by the balls and they’re squeezing,” he would snarl. It was easier to explain their success as racial favoritism than to admit that they’d done better than he on civil-service exams. This is a typical story of the white working class—can you say Reagan Democrats?—but back then I had no perspective on his feelings, and even less sympathy. At nineteen, you don’t cut your father slack.

That summer I became a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which ran picket lines and sit-ins at places that discriminated by race, including lunch counters that wouldn’t serve blacks. Some of them were located in midtown Manhattan not far from where that cop had arrested my friend. But I volunteered for a campaign in the Bronx. I wanted everyone in the neighborhood to see what I was up to.

Our target was the White Castle chain, which at the time wouldn’t hire blacks to work at the counter. I loved their burgers—grease and onions with a square puck of meat—and I could scarf eight at a sitting, which I often did at the stand about ten blocks from the project. There were several White Castles in the Bronx, and we picketed all of them. I’d been trained by CORE in the techniques of nonviolent protest. I learned to fall, covering my head if someone took a swing at me; how to dress in layers so that scalding coffee wouldn’t burn if it got thrown; how to handle taunts with a hymn. Anyone who resorted to violence, no matter how justified, would be thrown off the line. These preparations were hardly a drill, since all of the above would happen during the campaign. The risks were real, and so was the bonding on the picket line. It was a major inducement to interracial friendships, also dating and I was wet-dreaming devotee of the Shirelles.

At some point I met a young black woman in CORE: I’ll call her B. She lived in a part of the neighborhood where black people with a little money had begun to buy homes. She was tall, slim, and classy. Whatever skin privileges I possessed paled before her aplomb. She taught me table manners my family didn’t know existed, such as how to take a small portion from a serving platter. (Chez moi, you got a heaping plate of food that you could never finish.) She also brought me to church, a Baptist service. The swaying and chanting, the call-and-response, seemed very Jewish to me. During his sermon the minister pointed to the two of us and proclaimed we were the future. I cried.

You don’t usually hear about miscegenation in the civil rights movement. The image that survives is one of blacks and whites marching hand in hand, and it’s accurate as far as it goes. But there was also a space for exploring sexual feelings, as I did with black women more beautiful than I had any right to expect. This is very complicated stuff, maybe too slippery to explain. I think it had to do with escaping from racial identity, which stuck to us like a tar baby. We were trying to free ourselves in the only way that seemed possible—through desire. As if we could do with our bodies what we couldn’t do in the rest of ‘our lives.

It would be another year before the Supreme Court struck down laws against miscegenation. Two of my friends, an interracial couple, had been arrested while checking in at a Washington, D.C., hotel, and I could still recall when Chuck Berry was busted in the Midwest on charges of “dating a white girl,” as the caption under the news photo read. I had other, even more disturbing memories. A white woman in the project, who insisted on having a baby with a black man rather than retreating to a “home,” caused so much stress in her family that her father collapsed on the street and died. (I saw chunks of his teeth on the sidewalk.) So it was a tremendous act of rebellion, the most primal one I could think of, to have interracial sex. No one tried to call me on it. As skeptical as the black organizers at CORE may have been about the motivations of white boys like me, they too believed in this potential. Until black power made it suspect, miscegenation was a potent force for people interested in creating change.

I remember walking home from the beach with B. It started to rain, and she told me to hide in the bushed while she stood at the edge of the road, presenting her long legs to the passing traffic. A carful of black guys stopped, eager for her company. I jumped out, and, despite their clear disappointment, they let me in. We drove through the rain, joking a bit uneasily. We knew that a cop might stop us and demand to know what we were doing together. But we were aware of something else as well—a certain intensity. We were new to one another, trying to relate in a way that our upbringing hadn’t prepared us for. We had to make it up as we went along, and for young people that’s always a giddy thing.

As touching as this recollection is, I can’t call it up without admitting that love wasn’t all I felt toward the people in that car. I also felt a distance that was essential to my identity. Part of me, the most shameful part, was relieved that blacks had replaced Jews as the Other. The Holocaust was an abstract horror to me; we had no relatives in Europethat we knew of. But I was haunted by an enduring sense of danger. When I was seven or so, my family took a trip through rural Pennsylvania. Back then I wore a Star of David around my neck. We stopped for gas, and a boy approached me. He asked me very politely if I would show him my horns. When I told my parents about it, they yanked me into the car and sped off. It was a reminder that, as normal as our lives were, it could all be ripped away.

For us, whiteness was a shelter from the storm, and I wasn’t ready to give it up entirely. I was willing to fight for blacks, but not to feel like one of them. When we marched together, holding hands, I had to suppress the impulse to recoil, as if something might rub off. I prayed that the stiffness of my body wouldn’t show. Over the course of the sixties, I came to understand that this wasn’t just a problem for Jews like me. Every white person had a racist back alley—we were all victims of our history. In one way or another, millions of Americans my age went through this process of self-examination, whether or not they ever marched for civil rights. The current etiquette of respect is one result. I’m afraid it’s the best my generation can offer, but, given the course of human history, it’s no small thing.

I did what I could in the movement; that’s what counts, I hope. And I received something priceless in return. All my ideas about justice sprang from what I saw and felt on the picket line. It gave me a way to fight the conviction that I was powerless to change reality. I understood that action, personal and collective, could alter even something as rooted as racial hierarchy. In the process I came to believe that taking action would shape my own destiny. I could be what I willed. It would be violent—it nearly always is. But I didn’t understand that in the summer of ’63. The blood took me by surprise.
I spent most that July picketing White Castles across the Bronx. Other demonstrators occupied the interiors—sitting in. At some point, the manager of one branch locked the doors and turned on the heat. It was a sweltering day, and within an hour, several people fainted and had to be hospitalized. This should have been a warning; instead, it stiffened our resolve. The bigots who harangued us on the line were crazed extremists—no one in the Bronx really had a problem with black people working where they pleased. So I thought, until I realized during the course of the month that my neighborhood was its own racial tinderbox.

One Friday evening, we took up positions at the White Castle near my house. It was the start of a summer weekend, and people who might have been hanging out on their stoops gathered at the intersection. Soon there were hundreds, and as the night wore on, the crowd grew drunker and angrier. I saw some of my neighbors, red-faced and cursing—boys I’d sung doo-wop with, girls who’d let me cop a feel, the guy whose son had been my major knock-hockey rival. “Get the fuck off the street,” he shrieked. A line of cops strained to push the mob back, but they couldn’t control the incoming. Bottles flew. Boards whizzed by. It shocked me to see such venom over what was just a demand for jobs. It wasn’t as if these furious people wanted to work at White Castle. What did they have to lose?

I couldn’t answer that question—it would have required more empathy than I had for my neighbors. All I could think of at the time I was getting away from them. But now I understand why they rioted that night. Like my parents, they had come to whiteness recently. The Italians were from Sicily, where other Italians had called their grandparents Africans. The Irish could still remember when they were portrayed in newspaper cartoons as monkeys. Only in cities like New York had these groups achieved a modicum of racial respectability. Anything that breached the boundary between them and black people was a threat to their newfound status, and the fact that this achievement was a bogus concept, a social figment, didn’t make it less real. They believed in solidarity—they would rise or fall together—but I had a more middle-class view of success, even though I wasn’t yet middle-class. I would make it as an individual, atomized from my origins and even my family. I was a class traitor by training and a race traitor by disposition. I fit into a future they couldn’t see.

Now that I’m ensconced in my Manhattan life, I miss those people—their warmth and loyalty, so different from the neighbors I currently have. But there was another side to them, a ready viciousness, and that night it vented itself on our picket line. I didn’t see it coming. I was lost in the high of protest, the rush of adrenaline mixed with righteousness. I didn’t notice anything except the pumping of my heart. But suddenly I saw something in the stream of cars that cruised by, with the windows rolled down so the passengers could curse at us. One of those cars had a Confederate flag sticking out. I saw a hand pointing a gun. Then I heard a shot. All the hair on my body stood up.

Someone ahead of me on the line fell to the ground. She grabbed her face, blood dripping through her fingers. I remember her crumpled body and the sound of her screaming. She wasn’t seriously injured; just shot by a BB gun. Such wounds can produce a lot of bleeding, but they don’t go very deep. Still, she was surrounded by police, and an ambulance soon arrived. The crowd whooped as she was carried off—my first experience of bloodlust, the real thing.

The cops formed a gauntlet around us, and they marched us between the two lines, down the street, and away from the crowd. I staggered home, numb but exhilarated. My father was furious. He threw a pamphlet at me and announced that he had joined the National Renaissance Party. A local fruit vendor was organizing, and he’d signed up. I knew something about this group. “Congratulations,” I said. “You’re a Nazi.” It was true—he’d joined a neo-Nazi group; my dad, the haimischer storm trooper. He looked at the pamphlet, mortified. It was my greatest triumph over him.

The next day I left the house, and for two weeks, I lived in a friend’s basement until my father agreed to leave me alone. He licked his wounds when I returned home. But he had one more indignity to suffer. Black people were smiling at him, he groaned. He was polluted, a man who had achieved whiteness only to have his son take it from him. On some level, I think he understood how fake it all was, but by then it had become a contest between us, and he was destined to lose, because I was on the side of the new reality. He’d raised me to be better than him, and his wish had been granted.

The riot was a one-off; the neighborhood calmed down, and, though I proudly wore my CORE button whenever I walked through the project, no one dared to touch me. No one even spoke to me, but by then it didn’t matter. I’d lost the last vestige of my desire to belong there. I had seen the promised land, and it wasn’t just Greenwich Village. It was America-to-be, and the first mass gathering of the new nation was about to take place. This was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and all my friends were going. On August 28, I left the house at four A.M., my mother standing forlornly at the door. “Don’t go near the front,” she said. I wasn’t sure whether she was worried about my safety or the possibility that my picture would appear in the paper. I could never tell which was worse for her: mortal danger or social shame.

I’ll never forget that march, though I dozed through Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech because I was exhausted from traveling without sleep. What I remember, vividly, is the sight that greeted us as the bus passed through the white suburbs of D.C. Every store was boarded up, every window shut tight, and the streets were deserted. But once we got to the black inner city, every stoop and porch was full, and people were waving American flags. It was a stunning image, since we lefties wouldn’t have done such a thing. For us, the flag was a symbol of Moloch, never to be displayed. But here was all this red, white, and blue proudly flying. It suddenly occurred to me that I was a foreigner, a spawn of the dregs of Europe who had left there because they couldn’t own land or practice most professions; because they were implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, in danger. I belonged to that old world at least as much as I did to the new one where I lived. No amount of assimilation would change that. I would always be an immigrant, ungrateful to my country for rescuing me. And these black folks, with their star-spangled banners and their rock ‘n’ roll, they were the real Americans.

 

Richard Goldstein invites readers to comment on this chapter (or any other section) of Another Little Pieece of My Heart at his websitewww.richardgoldsteinonline.com

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