I grew up in the 1950s and 60s in a home where the “N-word” was used routinely. My father was afraid of the Civil Rights movement and he was very vocal about it. “I will not cut N___ hair” was his mantra. He also drank, going to a bar almost every night after the barbershop closed and not getting home until nine o’clock, usually drunk.
These were two of the things that I did not like about my father. But mostly it was the way he treated and maligned “colored people.” I knew somehow, through the haze of hate in our house, that he was wrong.
As a teenager, I began to rebel against that hate. It started slowly and then grew. Of course, when I expressed my opinion, it was called “back-talk.” And his answer was usually, “If I hadn’t spent so much money get those teeth straightened, I’d back hand you and knock them out of your mouth.” This was usually said after a few beers but that never dimensioned the threat.
I was a fairly bright student in high school and I would help other students with their work. One of them was a wonderfully funny young man who happened to be black. We became friends. He signed my yearbook, thanking me and ending it with “Love…” and his name. When my father saw that, he threw a hate-filled fit. I thought that it was back to the childhood beatings with his belt or razor strap. I was accused of everything. And then it was “How do you think I feel when I see that?” Yep, it was all about him.
My father must have had some good points, after all, he did land on Normandy Beach on D-Day. But he hated almost everything, like Christmas (“Merry Goddamn Christmas”), held grudges (“Earl’s owed me that $25 for years”), and seemed to hold sway over my mother. . Although Pop, supposedly raised Catholic by his Italian father, never really practiced a religion, his prejudice included the Jewish faith. Muslims were not on the radar back then.
I’d become a fan of President Kennedy after watching his inaugural. Even at thirteen, I knew many of the things he was saying were right. My father hated Kennedy (“Someone should shoot that little Napoleon”). Pop got his wish and I was devastated. But Kennedy’s death didn’t change the way I felt about the world. I knew Pop was wrong…wrong on almost every issue.
During the long years, I lived with my father, I worked hard not to be dragged down into the mire of hate and bigotry that seemed to be such a part of his life. For decades I’ve ignored the “Pop voice” that sometimes spirals out of my childhood.
Truth be told, he mellowed as he aged. “You know that colored guy across the street is a nice guy.” To which I answered, “What color is he, Pop? Green? Blue?” He laughed and didn’t threaten to knock the teeth out of my mouth. When one of his grandsons sported dreadlocks, I threatened to have him sleep on my patio if he called him “the N-word” as another grandparent had. By the time I was pushing fifty and he was pushing eighty, I had the upper hand.
But I never used that to hurt him. In fact, most days of my vacation were used to visit him after Mom died. I was with him when he died in a VA hospice, cared for by some of those “colored people.”
I was just glad that I’d had the strength to climb out of that well of hate.
And now it seems that my country is about to slip back into it. Or have we been in it all along and I’ve just been naïve in my belief in our goodness?
Whatever the answer is, I know that I no longer listen to that voice from my childhood and if I’m now in the minority of Americans, so be it.
I am very proud of that accomplishment.