Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Racism, family style

This picture from the Herald Palladium in Benton Harbor was kind of a big thing in my family when it came out back in 1981...
Was it because of my vintage knock-off Mike Phipps #15 Chicago Bears jersey? Was it because of my sweet Pete Rose-esque bowl cut? Was it because the drama department at Benton Harbor High School was bringing the "BUBBLING, RIB-TICKLING COMEDY" (New York Times) of Neil Simon to Michigan's Twin Cities (Benton Harbor and St. Joseph) under the direction of Mr. Robert Curran (RIP)?
And nope.
It was the utterly scandalous depiction of me helping A BLACK GIRL (Angela Hawkins, the actress playing my love interest in the show) WITH HER COAT! It's only by virtue of a miracle that she didn't get pregnant, the miracle of "that is not how babies are made".

Let me be clear: it was a big thing to one person in my family, my grandfather. My grandfather, a gentle, meek and mild man who called me "pal", bought me nature books for Christmas and renewed my Ranger Rick subscription for my birthday present every year, flipped his ever-lovin' shit over this picture. It couldn't have helped that the paper botched the captions, mixing up the names of who was in which photo, meaning millions thousands hundreds some people might have thought (and possibly cared) that Clark Brooks was a black kid. That would be bad. But far, far worse is the actual picture of me, regardless of caption, his grandson, portrayed in the paper as He Who Lies With The Negress. Just look at that picture! In my grandfather's Greatest Generation-framed mindset, I'm clearly rounding second base at full speed, with no intention whatsoever of heeding the third base coach's signal to hold up! Not only would he be unable to proudly show the photo off to friends and family, now he had to worry about scads of caramel-skinned toddlers issuing forth from this unholy union, and, I don't know, running around downtown and ruining things for everyone or whatever pandemonium a bunch of unsupervised mixed-race rug rats would create, I guess.
Happily, the whole controversy died a quick-and-painful death when grandpa's first and best idea was to call my dad, demanding that he call the paper and have them issue a retraction and a formal apology on behalf of the Brooks Klan clan. This was a huge tactical miscalculation on his part. My dad was a grown-ass man and rebellious son in his own right, who, while not perfect, held a relatively dim view of racism. As such, he wasn't exactly inclined to respond favorably to demands from anybody, especially of that type, especially from his own father. As such, dad immediately filed grandpa's complaint under "I'll do no such thing" and "Go pound sand". Grandpa should have known better but he forged ahead anyway and paid dearly for it, in the form of dad handing grandpa his ass, dusting him off and sending him on his way.

The whole thing floored me. Of course, I was happy that dad had my back, even if it was because it was at least 50% motivated by an opportunity to jam up his pops. But how could such a sweet and sensitive man like my grandfather (he was the first man I ever saw cry, when my grandma passed away about eight years prior to this) pull such a dick move? Oh grandpa.

I seem to remember that he did actually attend one of the performances, which was probably not an enjoyable experience for him, as not only did I as Victor Velasco help the shit out of Angela as Ethel Banks put her coat on, but I did so while firing off some of Neil Simon's sauciest 1963 innuendo. But he butched up, swallowed what he needed to swallow, overcame his prejudice and came out to support his grandson. So maybe he learned a valuable lesson from the whole thing.
Probably not, but maybe.

Anywho, this is another part of my upbringing and part of the reason I see things a little differently than some people in my specific demographic.

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