Saturday, November 19, 2011

Joe Frazier - Part Deux

This really isn't about Joe Frazier.  It's about the world we lived in, and how little it resembled a cultural world that most of us probably still do not know or understand.

Primarily Norwegian Lutherans, we had little interaction in particular with the black world that Joe Frazier may have symbolized, sharecroppers trying to stay alive after the slavery of their ancestors.  What we saw was - entertainers like Nat King Cole, Fats Domino, Little Richard, and of course the sports figures like Frazier, although in the 50s, the southern athletic teams were white white white - with an occasional black, who was normally the fastest guy on the team and their running back.

When Martin Luther King became the voice of the oppressed who were seeking more opportunity, a common theme was that the blacks were "unappreciative" although we had little or no understanding of what they'd gone through.  And an uncle who came to visit opined that all the racial problems in Memphis were caused by Communists trying to create dissension.  Surely they must have been behind it.  J Edgar Hoover would have been leading that line of thinking.

I suspect that if any of us had brought home a black boyfriend or girlfriend, there would have been great apprehension and even hostility at home, though doing so probably had one in a trillion odds of happening  because of the church basement lifestyle instilled in us.  In Our Town we knew nothing of the culture.

When several classmates (Norwegian Lutherans, for sure) went to the Miami Luther League convention they routed through Washington, DC, staying in a hotel in a lesser section of town.  All were cautioned not to go out alone, or after dark, into the primarily black neighborhood.  Truth be told, whether it was actually dangerous or not, none of the conventioneers could have known.  But imagine you traveled away from the hotel, say to do your laundry, and you were the only white in the laundromat . . . might you feel uncomfortable?

Kathryn Stockett wrote The Help, later to become a popular movie, that underscores the plight of the black in America, especially in the south.  The low expectations, the "management" of a class of people, the limited mobility, are all something foreign to our own lives.  Hers is a story of blacks hired as "the help" in white homes on the other side of the tracks.  Talk back, you lose your job.  Do it twice and you're blackballed, and perhaps your family as well.  And no public complaining.  Unfathomable conditions for those of us from a small Iowa town.

The attitudes run deep, probably unnoticeable for a farmboy from Iowa.  But the discrimination is there, though subtle, and is sometimes felt even if not intended.  Attending grad school in Missouri, I experienced it when walking through the education building with two classmates, both black.  Having had one of them in several classes, I knew him quite well.  He was tall, smart, a handsome fellow, and charismatic.  He went by "Dude" and it was appropriate.

A professor of education, Dr. Bell, was approaching us, peeking into classrooms as he walked, as if he were looking for someone, and when he came up to us he greeted us with "How are you boys doing?"  The temperature dropped 50 degrees.  The Dude turned to his friend and said, "I don't see any boys, do you?"  And his friend said, "No, I don't see any boys."  Ouch.

At one point I worked for a company based in Atlanta, GA, and discovered that it, too, was lily-white, but these folks didn't know about "Uffda" or "Yah, sure, you betcha".  You had to listen twice to the deep southern accent of some of them in order to understand them, and while I enjoyed that, you could sense the quiet racial attitude.  The company finally hired a black rep in Chicago.  Carl once attended a regional meeting in St Louis with us, where our regional manager special-ordered a slice of watermelon to be placed on his plate.  Lonnie thought that was really funny, and several of us laughed, unfortunately.  Carl didn't make it in this career although this incident wasn't the cause.  Nor did he object to the watermelon, though I suspect The Dude would have, with little restraint.

Somehow you extract lessons by watching others, and though I have had black friends from time to time, my upbringing didn't do much to prepare or instruct me for the racism they experience, and the black friends were normally operating within my white world anyway.  I only know that in reading what folks like Joe Frazier grew away from - their home - my own home, while isolated, didn't create any baggage for me.  And the racism I have seen as a spectator, like those situations above, haven't broadened my scope very much.  It's still a life I can't really imagine.

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