Growing up with racists: How should I remember them now?

From my football coach and the boy next door to my own father, racist comments were a staple in my white town

Published April 8, 2018 7:30PM (EDT)

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

None of us players spoke up or left the field in protest of the metaphorical lynching. Our high school varsity team was preparing to play a team with a black and very talented halfback, and our varsity coach had designated one of his runners to play the role of the enemy. From the opposite end of the field, where I was practicing with the junior varsity, I heard him—his nickname was Boomer—over the theatrical snarling of the varsity. “Get the n***er! Get the n***er!”

Boomer was a churchgoer. He was the only one of my high school teachers to contact me after my father died during my freshman year of college; he drove to my home, sat with my family at the kitchen table, and shared gently his sympathy. You can find his actual name on the wall of fame at my old high school.

It might be ungrateful of me to recall my old coach as I have, but when you’ve loved as many bigots as I have, knowing how to remember them can seem as hard as that dusty and cracked football field where he deafened us boys. Maybe I should let bygones be bygones. Some claim that Faulkner was mistaken and the past really is past, racism in contemporary America little more than a rusty whip handle unearthed at the site of a Mississippi plantation. I’ve heard that the election of our first African American president was irrefutable evidence that racism in the United States has been reduced to a group of feeble old men peering watery-eyed through holes in soiled and tattered white sheets. I’ve heard from white people that fear of racism is as irrational as fear of ghosts. It is hoped they learned otherwise when white supremacists, young and old, men and women, many openly armed, marched and rioted in Charlottesville in August 2017. I hope so, but I doubt it.

On my way home from work on election day in 2008, I stopped for a beer. The Irish bartender glanced at my Obama shirt and told a joke to the guy on the stool next to me. “Did you hear Obama is ahead?”

“No. Is he?”

“Don’t worry — that will change when the white people get off work and vote.”

I asked the same guy, loudly enough for the bartender to hear, “Do you know if they serve seven-course Irish dinners here?”

“A what?”

“You know — a six-pack and potato.”

My wife is mostly Irish and I’m partly, but my retort by slur was bigotry all the same. I had added to the stupid hate sputtering like old grease on the grill in that establishment where a patron could scribble whatever he desired on a dollar bill before the bartender tacked it to the wall above the bottles of whiskey. Where George Washington gushed, “I like Boobies!” What’s more, since that election day, I’ve bought beer at that business where I heard the racist joke, and it wouldn’t be impolite of you to ask why. In my neck of the woods, that bar is one of the few with Guinness on tap, and I am a weak man, but the answer is also that some of my fellow Americans drink elbow to elbow there and — for me — climbing up on one of those stools can be like going home again.

The first racist joke I heard as a child was told by a neighbor boy who heard it from his father. In my backyard, the boy asked, “What did God say when he made the second n***er?” I still hear the birdy, quavering voice of my neighbor, who walked to church with me on Sunday mornings, as he finishes the joke by assuming the Word of the Lord. In the punch line, God does not remind us that He created all people in His image, let alone demand an end to laughter at hatred. There on the green grass of my childhood, He says, “Oops, burnt another one.”

Although I’ve allowed myself to forget, surely I laughed: I was already fluent in the tongues of bigotry, though I never used the slur “dago” in the presence of my best friend, who was Italian.

After he led us in prayer, thanking Our Father for supper, my own father made occasional ethnic slurs while telling stories about his day at the power plant or commenting on some news he’d heard on the radio while driving home. Usually the slurs were uttered as if he were reporting the weather, but he was not so casual when race riots erupted in nearby Buffalo. He feared that the violence would spread to Pendleton, home to merely a few black families.

We once ventured 20 miles from home into Buffalo’s inner city to cheer the Buffalo Bills, the blue-collar defending champs of the upstart American Football League. My father parked the car on the small, yellowed yard of a house on mostly boarded-up Jefferson Avenue, paid the owner a two-dollar fee, and marched us to the game among an influx of pale humanity watched—predatorily, I imagined—by blacks sitting on front steps and porches, whole families bemused at the sight of so many whites staring straight ahead with silly terror in their eyes as they hurried up the avenue of false promises. Ticket scalpers and hot dog vendors hawked at busy intersections, and when we reached crumbling War Memorial Stadium, or the Old Rockpile, as it was called in western New York, my father said, for the second time that afternoon, “We’ll be lucky if our car isn’t stripped when we get back.”

Somehow my father and the rest of us whites worrying toward the stadium had come to the backward conclusion that blacks had a history of harming whites. He and I had given little thought to what it felt like for the two blacks who attended my school or the few who labored at the power plant, but now we feared being in the minority. Inside the decaying but thick walls of the stadium, things would be made right again: the coaches and quarterbacks and security guards would be white like most of the fans. Even a boy could sense that football was the way America worked: a hierarchy of owner and directors and coaches and stars right on down to the wounded, grunting, and anonymous offensive linemen on whose wide shoulder pads every touchdown rested. And yet even a boy could sense that our nation had two working classes: one inside and one outside the gates.

Until my grandfather took a new job in the power plant he had helped build, all of the Phillips men were disposable iron workers. In three separate accidents, my great-grandfather and two of his sons died on construction jobs. My grandfather broke two ribs and bruised a lung in another. My maternal grandfather broke a leg on a road construction job; two other kin survived crushing injuries on logging jobs; another lost two and one-half of his fingers in a machine shop. Nearly every iron worker in the family had a damaged back before he reached retirement age, and they were among the lucky ones. When their bodies were broken or lifeless, industry purchased new bodies. Helplessly, my father knew this. On a sidewalk in the small city of Lockport, several miles from our home in Pendleton we once passed a stranger in a grandiose suit and glittering watch and gleaming shoes. Dad spit on the concrete, and muttered, “You son of a bitch.”

My father, his killed grandfather, and two killed uncles did put food on the table while they lived. They could have been limited to starvation wages or sent to the endless unemployment line; and weren’t they forever reminded? Aren’t we all, we who have jobs? On some level they must have sensed that the well-to-do in America had twisted the word “black” into a definition of those who are perceived as inferior—and that their own skin pigment was no guarantee they would always be perceived as white. When my great-grandfather emigrated, he carried with him a Northern Irish and Protestant heirloom of anti-Catholic bigotry. Three generations of Phillipses lived in an Irish neighborhood of South Buffalo, and on their way home from public school my father and uncles and their Protestant pals fought Catholic boys who were on their way home from parochial school. The Protestant Irish thought of the Catholic Irish as black. Both thought of Italians as black. The Protestant and Catholic Irish, together with the Italians, thought of African Americans as black as black could be. My grandfather referred to Catholics as “cat-lickers,” though he married one who agreed to give up her faith. Before I met the woman I would marry, who has kept her faith, I had a vague suspicion that Catholics had tails and horns, a fear she has mostly dispelled.

In his book "How the Irish Became White," historian Noel Ignatiev could be referring to my kin when he notes of his depiction of oppressed eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Irish Americans, “I hope I have shown that they were as radical in spirit as anyone in their circumstances might be, but that their radical impulses were betrayed by their decision to sign aboard the hunt for the white whale,” which, he adds, “in the end did not fetch them much in our Nantucket market.”

During the hike to the Old Rockpile, Dad bought us lunch at a hamburger stand. On the sidewalk, he counted his change and realized that the black cashier had accidentally handed him a twenty-dollar bill rather than a five; he got back in line, corrected the mistake, and explained to me, “They would have taken it out of her pay.” It was a warm day in autumn, and as usual he was wearing a dark shirt that hid the coal dust, the blackness flushing from his pores as he perspired.

My mother never used the racial epithets that were second nature to other adults in my family and neighborhood. I like to think she was too intelligent to be bigoted — as if bigotry is caused by stupidity, an assumption of mine which probably goes to show that I’m not nearly as smart as I like to suppose. She had graduated first in her high school class but didn’t attend college, as she explained it to me when I was a teenager, “because back then college was just for rich girls who wanted to find richer husbands.” She grew up with Native Americans. Her father’s small, swampy farm edged within a half mile of the Tonawanda Indian Reservation, where, until he died in his eighties, one of her uncles lived with a Native American woman in a cabin with no indoor toilet. My mother’s younger sister married a man from the reservation, and although my grandparents loved their half-Indian grandchildren, their complaints about “lazy Indians” were sometimes slung at their gainfully employed son-in-law, and they felt certain that “them Indians must have took it” whenever a possession disappeared from the farm. Until my maternal grandfather landed a job on a state road crew when he was in his forties, they were poor, but my grandparents could always visit the reservation to witness destitute poverty, to be assured that though they couldn’t afford to buy more than a few pair of underwear for each of their daughters, they were white.

I was spending a weekend 18 miles east of my home, on my maternal grandparents’ farm near Akron, New York, when Charley Moses — the brother of Millie Moses, who was my grandmother’s closest friend — killed himself in his and Millie’s log cabin on the reservation. Millie telephoned my grandmother minutes after the rifle blast. Over the phone, my grandmother asked, “Was he drunk?” I begged them to take me along, but my grandparents ordered me to stay behind as they hurried out to their old American Motors sedan.

Early the next morning they returned to the reservation to clean Millie’s parlor, and I went fishing in the muddy creek that shaped the sinuous east and north boundaries of the farm. I returned to the yard hours later dragging a stringer of gasping and flopping bullheads and rock bass, tormented by a cloud of mosquitoes, and encountered my grandmother kneeling on the grass with her hands plunged in a pail of soapy, pink water. I asked what she was doing, and she replied, “Trying to get brains off these curtains.” She held up a curtain, and said, “Whoever would have thought Charlie Moses had so much brains?”

We danced to James Brown and Aretha Franklin and perhaps the sensual celebration shook us awake to the images and calls of truth arisen. By then it was 1970 and some of us paid attention when our American history teacher taught about slavery, the KKK, and racial segregation, and when he asked, “How come you don’t see anyone except white kids in this class?” Some of us were appalled by the old news footage of police assaulting peaceful civil rights protesters with truncheons, torrents of water, snarling dogs, and Southern law, and were stirred by the brave, truthful poetry of Reverend King, though by then he had been assassinated by a white supremacist. When the school board banned Eldridge Cleaver’s "Soul on Ice" from the library, a small group of us protested, not because we admired the author’s murderous, misogynistic rage but because, we argued, the school was supposed to be educating us, and Cleaver was of the American reality.

Of course, none of us walked off the football field in protest: other players might have been granted our positions.

Abe Lincoln and Stephen Douglas we weren’t, but my father and I entered into a series of debates involving racial issues. At first we disagreed about the banning of "Soul on Ice," but as in all serious discussions involving race in America, we soon found it necessary to abolish boundaries and time, to visit George Wallace as well as Eldridge Cleaver, South Boston as well as Birmingham, and Africa as well as Harlem. He never argued overtly that blacks were genetically inferior, but my father was opposed to court-ordered integration of schools and affirmative action and believed that African Americans had accumulated more rights and opportunities than had whites. My mother, who knew her socially defined and confined place, listened in silence to our debates, which began during supper and lasted for hours. He thought about our disagreements while at work and I at school, and each of us charged into the new evening armed with arguments we believed to be fresh and potent. Dad actually asked a black worker at the power plant for his opinion on the Black Panthers, and reported to me triumphantly, “He told me they’re all crazy.”

We debated for three or four evenings in a row and then, weary from arguments that seemed to be going nowhere but circular, gave it a rest. We mostly avoided each other until he came to me after two days of quiet and said, “You know, all the black and white stuff we talked about, some of it you were right. You still got a lot to learn in life, but some of it you were right.”

I nodded and looked away, embarrassed and proud like a son who has realized that for once his father has not let him win at basketball, that he has actually beaten his flawed hero. Which only goes to show that my father was right about one thing: even though he never again used a racial epithet in my presence, I still had a lot to learn about hate and love.

He was slowly dying. Men seldom develop cancer of the prostate until at least age 50, but some studies have reported that welders have an earlier and higher incidence. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer at age 40, and because it had already spread into his bones where it was inoperable, a surgeon had removed my father’s testicles to deprive the tumors of hormonal fuel. He continued to limp into the power plant to support his family. On the days when he was in too much pain to work despite the drugs, his fellow welders did his jobs and hid him in a storage room so the big bosses wouldn’t know to fire him. He eventually found it impossible to climb the stairs to the second-floor time clock, and took an early retirement, which lasted several months.

Even days before his death, he still was unable to wear a white shirt.

Excerpted with permission from "Love and Hate in the Heartland: Dispatches from Forgotten America" by Mark Phillips. Copyright 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound.

By Mark Phillips

Mark Phillips is author of the memoir "My Father's Cabin." His essays have been published in Commonweal, New York Times Magazine, Notre Dame Magazine, and previously in Salon.

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