Sixty years later and I still want to punch John Cashman in his fucking face.
Yeah, that’s a statement from someone attempting to practice non-violence, engaging in Nichiren Buddhist chants twice daily, and wishing all the guns in the world would be melted down into peace monuments in every country. I still have a huge chip on my shoulder from being the only Black boy in my Catholic elementary school.
I freely admitted this to a friend last night.
“But you wouldn’t really do that, would you?”
“Even if he were in a damn wheel chair!”
College years were spent at a HBCU. After my Catholic school experience at Saint Bridget’s, then at The Roman Catholic High School For Boys I knew I had a very skewed perspective on what it meant for me to be Black. So, I managed to get myself to Princess Anne, the county seat of Somerset County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Maryland State College (Now the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore) was perfect, not just because it was a Black school but also because there was enough of a distance from Philly but it was still somewhat familiar. I was the fourth member of my family to enroll there and I had my Aunt Marion (Cuyjet) who was on the faculty.
Those weekends I ventured home I had a guaranteed ride back to campus every Sunday evening. Five hours or so of one-on-one with one of the pioneers of Black dance in America. Someone who had negotiated her way through the bigotry of downtown, Center City Philadelphia land lords in establishing rehearsal space for a premier dance program for students of color.
Marion was a force of nature. Since my parents had separated when I was about five and we lived with my dad, she had become my mother figure. Her house in West Philly was our gathering spot every Sunday. The coolest thing about Marion was that almost every time she opened her mouth there was something to be learned from whatever she said.
School seemed to be on a straight line from Philly. The highway once you get past Dover was desolate, green pines on either side, hardly any lights. No radio, only knowledge being dropped. Lessons were had on dealing with ego and arrogance, lessons on being a man, lessons on being a proud Black man in the front seat of a huge black sedan rolling south down US-13. Lessons on the pride of being a Cuyjet and what that name meant. The high standards, the coolness in the face of adversity, things I knew I needed to attend to if I were to measure up to being a Cuyjet.
I never mentioned how angry I was. She just knew.
I can’t hear “nigger”, or any variation, even now, without a deep, reflexive clench all over my body and an instinctual urge to punch someone or something. I once did a spoken word piece where I used the term in my effort to reclaim the word for myself. After I sat down a friend had to interrupt the host of the open mic to quell the Black folks in the room by telling them that I was probably the only person there who had ever been called nigger in anger. I was new to the spot and very few knew I was Black.
Living in Washington I’ve been greeted in Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, and Hebrew…Yeah, I’m that guy with the international look.
I’ve had a complicated relationship with that word because the piece I performed that night was about isolation, bigotry, racism, and white supremacy as a psychological killer of Black men.
At Saint Bridget’s School it got so that I thought my middle name was nigger. There were twenty-two of us in my high school’s graduating class of 308. One of them had breakfast with me a couple of years ago in North Carolina and confessed that he had thought I was Puerto Rican.
Yeah, a somewhat complicated relationship…
I fought a lot in grade school. After we left a relatively integrated middle class neighborhood in North Philadelphia we moved into a housing project in the East Falls section of the city. East Falls was then mostly unknown, even to people in Philly. Grace Kelly was its most famous export. (Interestingly enough, I had the same nun in eighth grade that Princess Grace had, Sister Helen Marie. I remember her because to her my name was “Charles, you bold, brazen article, you!”) Prior to that the only notable aspect it could claim was that the mills there had produced most of the uniforms the Union army wore during the Civil War. It had been a mill town, divided by the Reading Railroad tracks. Most of the working class people lived closest to the river. The richer folks, like the Kelly’s, lived up the hill. The mills operated when there were actually falls on the Schyulkill River there. Years later the buildings in the projects were imploded and the video made national news on CNN. When I lived there they were called “Sin City”.
We moved in the summer, there was a huge field where we played baseball. It was 1955 and that was every kid’s dream, to spend a day playing ball and pretending to be Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, whoever. It was all about the game. We were who we said we were and color didn’t seem to matter. Even some of the Irish and Italian kids from our side of the tracks would come over and play.
Then school started and my sister and I were the only “colored” children at Saint Bridget’s. Grades one through eight had been lily white until that September, and there were people very upset about it. And did it ever show with those kids. But it seemed that at least until fifth grade the nuns kept order in the classrooms. Recess and after school was a gauntlet of epithets and fists.
My girlfriend freshman year in college was another kid from Philly. She was unapologetically Black, one of the first women I’d met to go natural and she was a dancer and, I suspect, was drawn to me because of my last name. It was a fun relationship and we became really good friends after breaking up.
The summer between our sophomore and junior years she entered the first Miss Black America contest.
My sophomore year I pledged Omega Psi Phi because it was a tough frat to get into, at least that was the word. Pledging was, at that time, the Blackest thing I had ever done. Of course after the Mexico City Olympics, raising my fist at the playing of the national anthem became the Blackest thing I did…
Sophomore year also became the year we started getting more white kids at school. One of them became a triple threat in football, basketball, and baseball in our conference. I remember being on the field after he scored a touchdown and he ran over and covered me with the muddiest hug ever. Not the blackest thing, but it stands out in my memory because I came to love that kid because he helped me rediscover some of the friendships I had with some of those white kids back in East Falls.
Fifth grade, I wasn’t one of the tallest boys so I wasn’t sitting all the way at the back of the room. There were two boys behind me. A couple of days into the year and the nun had to leave the room for awhile, she gave us an assignment and like the good nerd I was I jumped into it with my full attention.
Next thing I knew I heard a hissed whispered “Fucking nigger!” and as I turned my head to see what was going on John Cashman’s fist struck my cheek and chin.
I jumped up and spun him around to hit him back just as I saw the door open and the nun came back into the room. Cashman ducked my blow and I hit the blackboard. The sound caused the nun to look up and she saw me standing there. She asked me why I was there and what was I doing. I told her what happened as she angrily approached me.
She put her hands on my shoulders and squared my back against the blackboard as I was talking. She slid one hand along the side of my face and head and with the other hand she swung from behind her back and struck the other side of my face.
First and only time I’d seen stars in broad daylight. She walked back to the front of the room and proceeded to act as if nothing had happened and went on with a review of the assignment.
A girl from the other side of the room, without raising her hand, stood up and spoke out about what had happened. The nun told her to sit down and kept on with the lesson. She never said anything to Cashman, and she never apologized to me.
I was starting to understand how complicated the race thing was for other people. My relationship with the people that wore black and professed to be messengers of Christ changed. I found out later that the Catholic church in urban areas had begun to ‘recruit’ Negroes as whites had been moving to the suburbs. Some of the records of those efforts have been made public and church officials recorded some of the most paternalistic and racist things I’d ever read. Those words confirmed my self righteous enmity.
I wanted to punch that nun right in her self righteous face then too. The clerics clearly didn’t have the Word either. Hell, they were just as bad as those little assholes in the playground and on the streets on my walk home. The chip on my shoulder got bigger and my anger got hotter.
When I ‘confessed’ this anger (one of the seven deadly sins, mind you) the following Saturday I accepted my penance. I dutifully went through the process of Confirmation, where I became a Soldier of Christ and a full member of the Church Militant. I tried my best to live the belief that these Irish and Italian American kids were my brothers in Christ.
I believed it each and every time I threw fists any time one of them had gotten to the second ‘g’ in nigger. After awhile I realized I didn’t care to believe it. The lesson sank in when in high school my guidance counselor told me I wasn’t college material. I probably had a higher IQ than that priest because his job seemed to be psychologically slapping any Black or Puerto Rican kid back down into our place. (Pride is a deadly sin too, isn’t it?)
That priest was just like my fifth grade nun.
John Cashman never said that word around me after that. I know he constantly used the term, my friends would tell me. I figured I had enough of a lone superhero’s battle trying to fuck up those idiot little racist kids that felt brave enough to gather in groups of four, five, and six for one of them to issue the nigger challenge. He faded around me, the coward. He had to steal me to hit me. There were days I plotted revenge on him, but, like I said, I had enemies right in front of me to deal with each and every day.
My heart hurts remembering how my younger self felt he had to deal with that idiocy.
Thom Lord is the name of that college football player. He’s an artist in Ocean City, Maryland now. We’re Facebook friends and I can’t wait to share a beer with him. Joel Elder is my high school classmate who said I ‘was the fly in the buttermilk at St. Bridget’s school, the Puerto Rican kid’ over breakfast. He’s number 24 in the picture of our freshman basketball team below. In case you need to know, that wide eyed kid with the big ears wearing number 27 is yours truly. The Irish looking kid kneeling just below the #2 on my jersey, fourth from the left, was one of my tormentors from Saint Bridget’s. He became one of my best friends in high school and, along with Roberto Clemente and a man who’s one of my best friends today, is why my son’s name is Robert. In a long since dormant blog I wrote about him here.
Wrapping this semi-rant up with this thought.
That nun, I’ve long since forgotten her name, taught me that you can never assume that the words someone uses indicates what kind of person they are. Their actions do. The racist kids taught me that not all of them are victims of their parents’ racism, some of them believed that snake oil bullshit because it made them feel superior. They were still being little klan members well into their twenties as I remember them. I’d left Philly for good by the time I was in my early twenties.
But here’s the best lesson I learned from East Falls, the projects, Roman Catholic HS, college, and my adult years. I’ve always had soul mates and the Quest I’ve been on in my life is gilded with these precious souls. My soul mates, those people that share their hearts, minds, and inner light with me, remind me of this: The Quest not only begins in the heart but also ends there…I don’t really know if I’d punch Cashman in his face if I were to ever see him, I just know I want to. But the girl that stood up for me helped show me that I had people…No Quest can ever be completed without your people. And it doesn’t matter who they are, what color they are, or where they’re from. They self identify themselves by their actions.
Epilogue: A friend reminded me that on our class’s 25th reunion one of my white classmates followed me around most of the night. Little short guy, even at that point, must have been tiny in school. Even though we all had name badges on with our graduation pictures I didn’t recognize him. As we sat down to dinner he called me on it.
“Chuck, you don’t remember me do you?”
“No, I can’t say I do, sorry…”
“It’s okay, I just wanted to thank you…” (And he went on with this story. First day freshman year he and I had lunch period together. Two upperclassmen were messing with him, roughing him up in the cafeteria. I walked over and threw one of them on the ground and jacked the other one up against the wall by his jacket lapels. I said, “You fuck with him, you fuck with me.” Went to him, picked him up and walked back to my table.)
My wife said, “That’s so you, the cop of the world.”
The guy… “Chuck, nobody bothered me for four years!”