Thursday, October 18, 2012

How Whites Encountered "Race" in 1950's Brooklyn

What I remember most, growing up in a Jewish/Italian working class neighborhood in Brooklyn, is not having a language to talk about race when profound changes in the racial order were transforming our lives. Growing up with the Jackie Robinson Dodgers and the rise of rock and roll, I was part of the first generation to have black athletic and musical heroes, but it was never something "we" talked about, not when we were in an all-white group, or when the few black kids in the neighborhood joined us. It was a huge change from our parents generation- who spoke Yiddish or Italian when talking about black people- but not something we knew how to comment on. Then as more blacks moved into our neighborhood, and more whites started moving out, an aura of fear began to envelop the older generation while "we" were confused. What's the big deal?. There were occasional fights in the schools, but for the most part, whites and blacks there were no latinos in our area) got along well enough, especially if we played on the same teams. All this was going on with the Southern civil rights movement as a backdrop on the nightly news, and it seemed a world away. Almost no one made a connection between the sit ins and marches in the South and the confusing, sometime painful integration of Brooklyn neighborhoods. But by the early 60's, it was clear that racial fears among our parents generation were becoming poisonously vivid. My parents began warning me against getting involved in civil rights demonstrations, talked dismissively about most blacks as having low moral standards, all the while extolling Martin Luther King Jr's virtues as a leader. What they said seemed totally out of touch with my realities. I had black teammates and classmates, loved rock and roll, and was intrigued by growing protests against racial discrimination taking place in Northern neighborhoods. But there was no real conversation with my parents. They were all gesture, all threat. The amount of emotion they were devoting to black people as a danger to their world seemed crazy to me.And it just kept building. By the mid 60's, when they moved from increasingly multiracial Brooklyn to an all white portion of Queens they weren't just concerned with race, they were obsessed with it. And when I fell in love with a black woman in my senior year in college they went completely crazy- talked about committing suicide, threatened to disown me. It was elemental. On some level, they thought that black people, by association, had the powerful to nullify their ascent into the middle class and render the sacrifices they had made to get there irrelevant. Which from my point of view was completely crazy. I had just won a four year fellowship to a top doctoral program in history. Was selected as the most valuable player on the Columbia tennis team. My life seemed set, and they thought I had thrown it away. It just showed how powerful the undercurrent of racial fear and animosity was underneath the Northern facade of tolerance. Scary shit! s

1 comment:

RC92 said...

What a beautifully worded story. Please write more about this...I couldn't stop reading it. You should watch mad-men, it seems to be talk about these things ( a tiny bit) too.