“My father is not a racist.”
How could I account for my father’s worldview, that of a generation of black man born and grown into manhood in America’s Apartheid South of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s? – Gina Greenlee
In 1971 on the wall opposite the door to my bedroom hung a green acrylic peace symbol. Surrounding it were posters of singers David Cassidy, Bobby Sherman and Michael Jackson, and actor Michael Cole from the television show, The Mod Squad.
Shelly and Lorraine, the lone Asian girl in our group of friends, sat crossed legged on my high rise bed in socked feet, leaning against bolsters that rested against the wall.
My door was closed. My father knocked once then came in to say hello, ask the girls about their families and how we were getting on that afternoon. He was about to leave and close the door behind him when he pointed above the heads of my guests. “Geener, why don’t you have more pictures of blacks on your wall?”
All the air left the room.
I was sitting on a chair at my writing desk opposite Shelly and Lorraine. Their faces, directly in my line of sight, added an awkward tilt to the tableau of posters on the wall behind them; in their eyes, part shock. And, had I detected a curl on Shelly’s lips that ensured my father’s query, and her interpretation of it, would be headline news by lunch tomorrow?
Michael Jackson was not the only black celebrity of his day. He was the only one cool enough to be on my wall.
The next day at school another in our group approached me. “Gina, I didn’t know your father was a racist.”
“My father is not a racist.” I gnawed the pink inside of my cheeks already scarred with white, fleshy lines.
I unhinged my jaw; nothing came but a resigned whimper. How could I account for my father’s worldview, that of a generation of black man born and grown into manhood in America’s Apartheid South of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s? He was among millions of blacks who migrated from the South to northern and western cities in search of a better life for themselves and their children, an exodus occurring from 1915 to 1970.
Hallway crossings between class periods felt too narrow a causeway to travel the distance of my father’s move from South Carolina to upstate New York in the late 1940s. He came to take advantage of opportunities his friend Orville, who had moved there earlier, said awaited.
More statement than question, “I didn’t know your father was a racist” implied judgment. Sentence already rendered, why bother to parse what it meant for him, his wife and daughter to move from a single rented room of a Harlem townhouse? And from there to more genial standards – a two-bedroom apartment in the projects on Madison Street, and now the Co-ops?
My father was the patriarch of one of a handful of black families who had integrated that East River development. He wrote letters, sought written referrals and character references to upgrade our family’s housing application. After three years, his efforts paid off. The Greenlees moved into a way of life not available to my father at my age when his family required him to leave school in seventh grade to shine shoes during the Depression. My father wanted to expose his only child to values he held dear. It so happened those values were more the norm in East River Cooperatives than in Vladeck City Housing.
Yet my father labored to ensure I never confused values with cultural identity. For him, there was a singular set of values devoid of color: values that abided the law; that honored and sought the best education; crisp thinking, articulate speech; books on every wall, in every crevice.
Dad insisted I embrace being black after moving me to an all-white neighborhood.
My father told me during those years, despite not seeing myself represented in the media as readily or favorably as mainstream culture, I was lovely, intelligent and could do anything I wanted with my life. My “hang-ups” as he called them, about my hair concerned him. He wanted to know why I wore my T-shirt on my head around our house, and he feuded with my mother over her purchase for me of long, silky brunette wigs I also sported at home and, once or twice, around the neighborhood. With dogged fidelity my father exposed me to what he called “black role models” in word and deed, modern day and generations passed. His daily vigil upheld and bolstered my esteem.
Blacks were not my sole role models. Alongside George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King, Jr., W.E.B. Dubois and Shirley Chisholm, I read Helen Keller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Max Ehrmann, Ogden Nash, Robert Frost and William Cullen Bryant. My father also pointed to certain of our neighbors as models to watch and potentially emulate, not because of their white skin but because of the integrity with which they conducted their lives.
Michael Jackson was not the only black celebrity of his day. He was the only one cool enough to be on my wall. When in 1969 The Jackson Five first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, it was Michael who became an instant teen heartthrob.
After Shelly and Lorraine left I told Dad he did me no favor with his comment. His response: “Why don’t you have more blacks on your wall?”
On a merry-go-round of universes was I: daily threats from project kids on planet public school; the embrace of Co-op kids with the right hand, veiled hoodoo with the left; Mom AWOL and Dad revving the vertigo by insisting I embrace being black after moving me to a largely white neighborhood.
With dogged fidelity my father exposed me to what he called “black role models” in word and deed, modern day and generations passed. His daily vigil upheld and bolstered my esteem.
Yeoman’s work. That was Dad’s charge. When my mother wasn’t resenting me for a marriage eroded before my birth, she was at her day job or with her primary intimate, singing. My father, who worked two jobs, was on his own to help me flower into the person he knew I could be. So he enlisted the village. Co-op Village on Manhattan’s Lower East Side where he believed I stood the best chance of realizing whatever dreams I imagined.
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Growing Up Not Quite Jewish on The Lower East Side