American Paradox

7 12 2010

I admit to being a big fan of the United States or at least the ideals and realities upon which it is built. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have always fascinated me in their complex simplicity.  Today there are all sorts of talking heads, be they supporters of the broad interpretations promoting the expanded use of implied powers or purveyors of a philosophy defined by strict constructionism.  Except at the extreme limits of the political spectrum most students of American History will agree that any strength of national character comes from a rare blend of the philosophic plurality and cultural diversity of the people who call themselves Americans while at the same time being able to reach a consensus on the national vision; the vision of creating an environment in which each person has the opportunity to achieve his or her full potential. I know in this splintered and radical political/social current day climate that sounds rather naive; but that is my story and I am sticking to it.

The problem we as a nation have today is that we are engaged, both domestically and abroad, in what psychologists call The Drama Triangle.  Basically, the theory of The Drama Triangle is one that describes as dysfunctional a relationship that has only three roles to play–the Persecutor, the Victim and the Rescuer.  Depending on whose ox is getting gored and who is in control of the political will, the groups or countries involved will switch between the three roles in the triangle.  It is a cycle that never addresses problems and only focuses on the symptoms of the problems.

All of this pontification is as a preamble to what is really on my mind.  Growing up in Princeton, the idea that race was a big deal was not on my radar.  It was just something that never caused me to question how things were or should be.  My first recalled encounter with anyone not white was in the 1st grade.  There were two African-American or, back in the mid-1950s, Colored twin brothers, Sherman and Royce Greer.  Of course, I was aware of the physical differences but so what; everyone is different physically.  We went to school together, ate beside one another in the cafeteria, played ball together, were in Boy Scouts together–it was just no big deal.

The first time I was aware that some sort of racial segregation existed was sometime within the first two or three years of elementary school.  It did not involve the Greer brothers but rather Mrs. Tinsley, a lady who did ironing for our family.  Both my parents worked and at that time there was no perma-press.  Everything was hung on an outside line to dry.  I am only speculating but I guess that my parents had neither the time nor inclination to iron everything that needed pressing.

One day I rode along with my dad to pick up the ironing from Mrs. Tinsley’s house.  I remember sitting in the car and waiting for dad to bring the starched and pressed clothes out of the house and realizing that all the people I saw on the porches and all the kids playing in the street were African-American.  Once dad loaded everything in the car I asked him why there were no white people who lived in that neighborhood. I don’t remember the exact words or the demeanor of his delivery but basically he told me that colored people prefer to live with other colored people and not with whites. I really thought that strange since my only other experience with non-whites was at school and there seemed to be no such distinctions or self-determined separation.

In 1956 my parents bought their first new car right off the showroom floor.  It was a two-tone green Plymouth station wagon with push-button drive.  This was their first new car and, off course, when you have a new car you need to go on vacation to show it off; Daytona Beach, Florida was the place to go.  Besides eating great shrimp and getting a sunburn that I still have scars from even today there is only one other memory I have of that trip.  On the way back to Indiana we stopped in the Smoky Mountains at a rest stop which I am sure was probably a WPA project.  It was a beautiful place with buildings and facilities constructed of timber and native stone. After coming out of the restroom with my dad I decided that I wanted a drink of water.  On a stone wall were two white porcelain water fountains.  One had a sign over it reading, “White Only” and the other had a similar sign with the word, “Colored.”  I moved towards the water fountains and just as I was ready to quench my thirst, dad firmly grasped my shoulder and told me to use the other fountain.

I was not happy with that instruction and responded by saying, “Dad, we have white water back home. I want to see the colored water.”  Dad simply replied by saying, “Son, things are different here than at home.”  It wasn’t until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s that my lack of understanding the institutionalized discrimination and its brutality in that incident truly dawned on me.  I have often wished that I could view a video of that moment and see what was the reaction of the other people at the rest stop outside of me and my parents.

Another incident that raised my awareness that there were issues of race and discrimination took place back in 1961-62 as our 6th grade basketball team was returning to Princeton from a tourney in Evansville.  My mom volunteered to be one of the drivers for team.  By that time we had a newer two-tone green Plymouth station wagon and all eight of the 6th grade players could ride comfortably in that car.  Of course, in those days seat belts were not a big deal so as long as you could get in a car it was okay.

About halfway between Evansville and Princeton, both the 6th grade team and the 7th/8th grade team stopped to get something to eat.  We stopped at a restaurant that my family had dined at numerous times.  You know the type of place–booths and stools at the lunch counter along with remote juke box selectors at each booth. The restaurant served plate lunches and great hamburgers.  Once we were all seated in the booths, the waitress came up to my mom and whispered something to her.  My mom has never attempted or would she be any good at hiding her anger. She jumped up from her seat and started yelling at the waitress and demanding to see the owner of the restaurant; take about making a scene  Apparently, the waitress told her that they did not serve African-Americans, although I doubt that was the term she used.

Long story short, they did serve the Greer brothers along with the rest of the team, coaches and parents.  I didn’t realize it at that time but that was a powerful lesson for me.  Yet,–and here is where another paradox comes up–my mom refused to let either of the Greer brothers spend the night at our house when I would host a group sleepover/campout in the backyard.  I never have figured that one out.

Years later I was sitting in a college Composition class in Ballantine Hall being taught by a card-carrying Communist T.A.  Talk about getting inside the head of a sheltered, altar boy/Eagle Scout, naive idealist.  That instructor was the one who turned me onto writing.  He was the one from whom I learned that the easiest part of writing is the writing itself.  That was the only “A” I received my first year of college. I wouldn’t miss that class for anything; it was like a socio-political magic show.  I couldn’t wait to see the next performance.  Admittedly, the guy had an agenda to propagandize but, damn, he sure pushed my buttons and helped me to understand how important it is to constantly be questioning one’s own value system and belief system.

One day as I hobbled into class (I fell, in a totally sober state, down a flight of stairs on the first day of the 2nd semester and tore ligaments) with my cast wet from the snow that never falls in Bloomington, there was a guy talking the the instructor that I knew was not a member of the class.  Then it dawned on me–Wow, a guest speaker! A guest speaker means a class to screw off, right?  Just don’t be rude to the speaker so that the instructor is not embarrassed and everything works out fine.

As the speaker turned to the class after his introduction by the instructor I thought he looked a bit over the top with his black leather jacket, black beret and dark aviator glasses.  Man, I didn’t have a clue that I didn’t have a clue.  The speaker immediately started a rant about how there was going to be war between the races and that all white people should be killed because of what they have done to the black man.  After completing his diatribe, the guest speaker asked if there were any questions.  Being the person I was/am/will be I put up my hand.

I asked him why he wants to kill all white people and what specifically had I done to deserve such a fate.  He replied that is was not what I had done but what I had not done.  He told me that rich, white kids like me sat on their asses and did nothing to oppose the oppression of black people.

I told him that I didn’t understand what he meant by that.  He quickly replied, “You come to Detroit this summer and you’ll understand what I mean when I shoot your ass.”

Damn!

The threat from the guest speaker took on significance that summer as Detroit burned during the race riots.

That same summer, back in Princeton, I ran into Sherman Greer and we sat down to have a beer.  I was in college and he had joined the Air Force.  I told him about my experience with the guest speaker and we discussed the whole race issue from our different perspectives after leaving our hometown.  I don’t remember much of that conversation because, in all honesty, we sat down and had more than just “a beer.”

The following October I rode to Evansville  with a group to protest George Wallace who was running for President on a platform of segregation.  Looking back on the whole event, it could have turned ugly.

Wallace was giving a speech on the grounds of the county courthouse and there seemed to be people everywhere.  There was no milling around because everyone was packed into the area very tightly.  As Wallace came to the podium he was both cheered and booed at the same time.  The were Ku Klux Klan members there in full regalia as well as blue-color workers and hippyish, young people, of which I was one.

When the Alabama governor began to speak those of us there to protest began chants of, “No, George, No!” and “Bombs Away With Curtis LeMay!”  General LeMay was Wallace’s running mate.  Those there to support Wallace began to chant one of Wallace’s catch phrases, “Segregation now, segregation forever!”

As can happen in a den of collective human voices, sometimes there is a momentary sound vacuum as people either pause or breathe in preparation from their next words.  At that rare moment when Wallace paused and the crowd fell near silence, I screamed, “Go home, Wallace!” and it rang out across the courthouse grounds.  I didn’t plan it that way but it was none the less a dominant and clear acclamation. Apparently, Governor Wallace heard it so clearly that he looked in the direction where I was standing and said, “You are nothing but another pin-headed college student!”   I am sure he did not pick me out of the crowd or look at me directly but he did direct his comment to me.

I have always found it ironic that within less that eight months I had a Black Panther and a segregationist call me out and yet I was the same person I always was.

During one of my  recent “memory drives” around Princeton I traveled to a small community just outside of Princeton called Lyles Station.  I heard of Lyles Station all my life but the mention of it was without context.  It was like Buckskin, Decker Chapel, Snake Run or Gleason; a name of a tiny community somewhere in the vicinity of Princeton but without any significance other than a name and, maybe, a dot on a road map.  For the first time in my life I found myself at the heart of Lyles Station; the school which has been turned into a museum.

You see, Lyles Station was founded by Joshua and Samuel Lyles in the late 1840s and early 1850s.  The Lyles brothers were freed slaves from Tennessee.  They came to Gibson County, Indiana and bought farm land less than five miles to the northwest of the county seat, Princeton.  After the Civil War and considerable financial success as farmers of rich land, the Lyles brothers returned to Tennessee and persuaded extended family members and friends (former slaves, as well) to return with them to Lyles Station.  In a short period of time a robust and generally autonomous African-American community existed.  The history that surrounds this community is truly fascinating and yet, I knew nothing more than the name of it until last week.  In some cases, what you don’t know may not hurt you but the elimination of ignorance can help make you a better person by understanding things are not always as you thought they were.

For the life of me I cannot figure out why I knew nothing of Lyles Station until last week.  My dad is the one who instilled a love of history in me and made sure that that I was exposed to a vast amount of local history.  I knew about the Native Americans, the first European settlers as well as the ethnic and religious communities established in southwestern Indiana but nothing about Lyles Station. Even three years after his death I am still wading though all of his books on the history of Indiana and Gibson County. Maybe he just didn’t think Lyles Station was important.

For additional information on Lyle’s Station, Indiana, check out the website: http://www.lylesstation.org/how/index.html

-gw-

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2 responses

29 12 2010
rachat de credit

Il semble que vous soyez un expert dans ce domaine, vos remarques sont tres interessantes, merci.

– Daniel

30 12 2010
gw

Daniel:

The last time I spoke or read French with any degree of competency was nearly thirty years ago. However, I think you are paying me a compliment that I appreciate but do not deserve. I have always believed that an expert is someone who knows what he or she is talking about. The only subject that I consider myself to be an expert on is my own opinion.

American Paradox is just the recounting of some memories from my life.

Again, thank you for the kind words.

-gw-

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