Remembering honesty these days reminds me of the old bell that used sometimes to carry faintly down the wind from the hills, its faint, exquisite call never to be heard again, as our bustling bruit turns madhouse clamor.
Dad and Mom had the upward mobility virus to almost as wicked an extent as they were crippled by their redneck Christianity. Home from killing Hitler, Dad bravely thrust aside his natural inclination toward engineering in order to pursue a doctorate in Economics. Mom married that, bringing aspirations of Dean's wifery to the stew, her memories of a few happy years as a single schoolteacher packed carefully in tissue and lavender. But Dad could not cut the PhD, and the reek of sour dreams dogged them both to dotage.
It was my happy lot, after they fled their first two southern university towns, to find myself at ten years old in an undeveloped central Virginia forest near a desperately poor trackside black community. My dog and I were out exploring as the truck unpacked, and we returned to the explosive silence at home as seldom as allowed for the remainder of my minority.
Yes, the voices of my black playmates ring in memory. No, I never had a close friend among them. I loved the children I met there, in the way that we love meeting someone interesting in a world of blank stares. They mostly thought I was okay, with puzzled reservations, but the gap between their poverty and my white upbringing was too wide for real friendship.
I still remember their names; Frankie and Steve, David, Sandra, Carroll, Patrick, Jackie-- those were the kids my age. I walked up the tracks to their homes of tarpaper and scrap wood, rode my bicycle bump bump over the wooden bridge across the rails that defined where they might live, saw nothing, knew nothing, of all that.
The year before, in a hushed and solemn moment, my fourth-grade classroom in the shiny new school outside Athens, Georgia, had ushered in The Integrator, a tiny girl pitilessly starched and scrubbed, eyes as large as a cartoon kitten's, terrified and doing her bravest best. In fifth grade, I was the integration; most of my classmates were of African descent. I don't remember being much fazed by it. My clearest memory of school that year is watching Steve soften clay in his hands and make a living horse appear by magic. It did not make me suddenly understand that Africans were every bit as capable as whites. It made me jealous, and ashamed of my shoddy, shabby, crude-ass ashtray.
Those little shacks on the tracks were dens of shouting life, and dirty, trashy, poor as they were, I found them a relief from the sterile gloom of mom's compulsive housekeeping. If those children remember me, I suppose they still think they know why I never took them home. I would have moved in with any of them.
Don't get me wrong, I had it good. It would have been better for me to struggle more, in fact. Mom and Dad taught me to lash myself with guilt and shame, but they never tried to teach me even the necessity of self-discipline. Bummer combo.
It wasn't life that led me away from my grade school buds, it was middle school. Suddenly, again, there was not one African face in my classroom. Except for shop and Phys Ed, I saw my black friends only in the halls from seventh grade on. We were separated not just by our respective reading comprehension levels, which would have been racially discriminatory enough, but by the reading we had done, which was farcical. My buddy David's parents moved out of their rented three-room shack when the roof beams literally caved in. I never knew where they went, but how to pack all the gosh-darn books was not their biggest problem. Mr. Fisher, the man who owned the land and, ah, dwellings, where the poor folks lived, made a stink about David's family owing him their last month's rent. I remember that well because it was the only time I ever heard my dad say, "a**hole".
Did I notice when my friends went missing from my class? I cannot recall, but I doubt so. Even the turbulence of the 1960s did not much penetrate my small world, or cause a stutter in the smooth current of unquestioned, unconscious privilege on which I floated beyond their reach.
I was supposed to become an academic, but I rejected that life. I had seen too much of the way the university crowd treated each other and slighted my innocent, upright parents. Neoliberalism's hostile takeover of corporate America in the eighties wrecked my dream of a career in which merit mattered more than sycophancy, but I did get to spend my working years shoulder to shoulder with my brothers of African descent. I have searched online many times for the men and women my friends became, but neither whisper nor glimpse I've had.
To those early imbued with a purposive cluelessness and all its necessary blind spots, a life of reading and thinking is a long, cruel business, and I have made it worse with a thousand denials and heartless liberal assumptions. Now a humbled 61, I still struggle to waken from the white dream. I was born white in a white country with a white government, a white religion with a white savior, white courthouses full of white judges, white schools teaching white history, white expectations of our marginalized African neighbors, who have always paid so much for what I spent so thoughtlessly. If I could return and hold the boy I was, I would rise with him until he saw his daddy's house was just a bigger kennel, and make him watch his daddy drag around a chain only lighter and longer than the ones his black neighbors wore.
(Article changed on Jul 23, 2022 at 10:12 PM EDT)