Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Aimless Reading: The E's, Part 7 (Ralph Ellison)

The Invisible Man
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Ellison, Ralph
Invisible Man

I think I bought this in the mid-nineties at East Village Books, which, I was happy to see on my last trip to the city, still exists. I paid 2.75 for it. I started off thinking I was going to write about my imagination of Harlem, but I keep thinking about how the issue of race played out in my childhood in the DC suburbs.

My growing up has a strange lack of specificity about it. I was born in Detroit, to a mother from there and a father from Brooklyn; moved to Los Gatos, California when I was 2, then to Vienna, Virginia when I was 7. I was raised, for the most part, there, in "Northern" Virginia, which is a moniker whose existence is an attempt to distinguish it from the rest of Virginia, which is southern in all the worst ways.

Which isn't to say that northern Virginia wasn't southern, just that a lot of people who lived there didn't want the taint of the south's racial history to be associated with the place, so they modified the name. Nonetheless, I recall a lot of racial division growing up. I remember it was still acceptable to use racial slurs on the playground, in front of teachers, as long as you pretended you were only joking and as long as the person being slurred pretended they were in on the joke. They always did.

I remember there was a kid named, I think, Brian, who was one of two black kids in our entire elementary school. He was thin and tall and wore glasses and he always seemed pissed off. When we played dodge ball he would throw the ball as hard as he could and he would always aim for the head. Several times he hit me in the face and it hurt like hell. Kids were always calling him names and mocking him until one day he got so mad he decided to demonstrate his strength by kicking through the safety glass on one of the school doors. I remember his leg was all cut up and bleeding and I think he got suspended from school.

I remember my neighbor, Mr. C., encouraged me to take up wrestling, as he had a son who was a champion wrestler. I did, but I hated it, and took up basketball instead. When I told him, his response was to say, in a deep drawl, "Basketball, that's a nigger sport."

My elementary school, which was 95 percent white, was a stone's throw from another elementary school that was 95 percent black. That school was located in a neighborhood that was also mostly black. All of the white people referred to it derisively as "Little Africa." It was marked off in our imaginations in much the same way as Harlem (or nowadays Detroit or New Orleans) was marked off in the imaginations of most white people in America -- as a dark, foreboding, scary, desolate place filled with dark, foreboding, scary, desolate people. It was made clear that one should not go there. Ever. We were taught to look at it as being a kind of shameful blight on our fair little suburban village.

My father was an extraordinarily complex man when it came to race. I have been trying to figure him out my entire adult life. On the one hand, he was kind of a classic Brooklyn guy from an ethnic (Irish) part of town. Almost anyone who grew up in New York at that time (40s and 50s), of whatever ethnicity, had a similar suspicion of people not like him or herself. For my father, Irish Catholics were all okay unless they proved otherwise. Each gradation of difference away from his own demographic cast another level of suspicion upon a person he didn't know. Thus, many of his friends growing up were Italian -- they had the Catholic thing in common, so they were partly above suspicion.

His most persistent prejudice was probably against Jews, but mostly as an abstract concept. I am not sure he even knew anyone who was Jewish, but he used the term "Jew" derisively to denote anyone who he thought was trying to take his money. I don't think his prejudice went much deeper than that, but there it was.

On the other hand, he had an enormous soft spot for Native Americans. He donated money to various Native American charities and spent an increasing amount of time in his later years visiting the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He once used his auto industry connections to secure a van and a driver for the dialysis center on the reservation so that people could be driven there on the days they had treatment instead of having to sleep outdoors near the center because they had no mode of transport and lived a long ways away.

His relations with African Americans were and are equally baffling. Almost all of his employees (he owned a small rental car company in DC) were black, and some he was quite close to. But I don't think he ever invited any of them to our house, and I don't think he would have. When he died, suddenly, about 5 years after selling the business, my mother didn't have a single home phone number for his former employees.

Another complicating factor was the fact that my father was a recovering alcoholic. He worked tirelessly to help other alcoholics recover from their disease, took meetings into prisons and rehabs, sponsored seemingly hopeless men of all races. Almost all of the people who worked for him were in recovery and almost all of them started out working in the garage washing cars right after getting out of prison or rehab. As they remained sober and became more responsible, some of them moved out of washing cars into managing the parking booth (and the money). Eventually, the most responsible workers made it into the office to work as rental agents.

My father was the only one who would hire them, given their background, and they were appreciative of the chance he gave them. They were also afraid of him because he had a terrible temper and brooked no dissent. He paid them all minimum wage and was incredibly stingy with raises, even when people had worked their way into the office. I've never been able to sort out in my head the place where his samaritanism left off and the exploitation of his workers began.

In the summers, me and several of my college friends (mostly white, all middle and upper middle class) worked for my father. I remember one incident in which some of my father's full-time employees, all of whom worked in the office year round, saw the paycheck of one of my friends and discovered that they were making less per hour than he was.

People were pissed off, but they were also terrified of my father, so they let me know what they had discovered and hoped I would bring it to him. I did, and he immediately made excuses, saying that the pay scale for working at the airport was higher than working downtown, or some such. He didn't seem to see a problem in paying my friends more and he refused to see how someone might perceive that there was a racial (or class) dimension to this disparity.

I have tried to figure out a way to reconcile all of his contradictions over the years, but there really isn't any way to do it. He was a complex person, as are most people, and his prejudices were determined by different factors, some of them social, some of them economic, some of them personal.

I want to judge him, and in some areas it is easy to do, but I find it difficult to make any blanket generalizations about him regarding his racial attitudes. From the outside all of these contradictions are obvious and clear, but to him there were no contradictions at all. He didn't make excuses for his behavior or his attitudes to anyone, just said, "take it or leave it." And so I am left with it. I sometimes wish he were still around to discuss this stuff, as I'd like to think he'd be willing to in his old age, but he's not around, so I brood and blog.


tyrone said...

Sounds like your father would fit in perfectly in Invisible Man--which I'm teaching right now...My dad too used "Jew" as a common derisive term for people ripping him off (to "Jew' someone was to rip them off) though some of his close work associates were Jewish...Complicated? Yes--or as Lorenzo says in "Training Day," "This shit ain't checkers, it's chess..."

Michael Kelleher, Buffalo, NY said...

Or maybe it's Scrabble?

"Jew" is listed as a verb in the dictionary and because of that it is also a legal, high value word in the famous game.

-k said...

Teaching this one in the spring.