I remember, when I was 15 my father handing me a semi-automatic. We stood in the humid cool of his house’s basement in Detroit, the only place to escape the stifling summer heat. We both were and still are white.
My father had been promising me a surprise all afternoon, and when it happened to be my first shooting practice, I was less than enthused. In fact, I was annoyed with him and his glee. What sort of solution was this gun to any problem? Why was destroying his basement with bullet fire any better than him punching holes into the walls upstairs? His wife at the time would disguise the evidence of his drunk/drugged rages by covering them with framed pictures.
At the point, that I held the heavy metal thing in my sweaty hands, it was already in the 80’s as the Crack-crime epidemic wore away at a city already violated by a decade of governmental corruption and mismanagement. Since the race riots in 1967, Detroit had hemorrhaged wealth and white people into the suburbs. Detroit local news relentlessly lead with what bled, one murder, one rape, one assault, one violent mugging after another. Gramma would moan,
” Detroit used to be such a “lovely” city, and “they” have done nothing but ruin it!” I knew who “they” was. Even without the scrawled negroid features on the targets that my father had drawn on the wall in front of me, I knew who my father expected me to “have to” shoot some day. Before handing me the gun, he talked me through the operations and warned me of the backfire. I took hold of the pistol, and struck a triangular stance and fired at a human outline, unadorned by facial features, black or white. What I remember most was this sense of brutality, the kickback jarring my hands and arms, the explosion still buzzing in my ears. My father complimented my aim since I managed to shoot near the heart of the target. He asked me if I wanted to give it another go. I said simply “No, I don’t like it” and climbed upstairs.
Breaking down the Barriers
My best friend at the time and since the age of 4 was Della*, her Mom was hillbilly white, and her father was a taciturn black man. They lived two houses down from my grandparents on my father’s side. Della’s family treated me like family. Every summer I returned to see them, their voices called out my name in a celebratory chorus. Their home was always open to me. But my grandparents were squeamish about me having Della over for any extended amount of time, and wouldn’t even think of letting me invite her little sisters over as well. If something in the house had been misplaced, my Grandmother would grill me as to whether Della or her sisters had been in the house. I remember the anxiety of both hiding and shielding Della from discovering my families’ racisms. I feared of losing her friendship, thinking she would lump me in with their hatred. I didn’t realize yet, that Della and her sisters, being the first children of a mixed race couple in the neighborhood had been dealing with a racism from every angle since always.
It was understood that guns were a necessity in every Detroit household, whether it was black or white or mixed. Guns came out for Halloween/hell night and New Year’s Eve. Thousands of guns blasting skyward, never minding where the bullets fell. The only thing that made sense to me was to hide under the bed.
I remember coming across my grandparents’ revolver in their bedroom dresser nestled in one of Gramma’s silk nightdresses. Della and I squealed with the discovery, but we left it alone. Even though we were both tomboys, guns held no fascination for us. We knew they were serious business and not toys. Once a week, Della would relay to me in thrilled-hushed tones how Burton*, the one-man security force of our neighborhood, had scared somebody or other away with his shotgun, sometimes shooting away in their direction.
Burton and his wife Felicia* were black. And they supposedly were my grandparents’ best friends. On sticky summer evenings, Grampa would sit on the front porch with Burton and smoke cigars and drink beers while Gramma would drink pop and chat with Felicia enjoying the chill of the Livingroom AC.
From a very young age, I learned that racism was never cut and dry. The only person I personally ever knew to use the word “nigger” was Burton, directly and quoted by my Grandmother. She would flash a devious smile and tell me – “Burton says, there are two kinds of blacks – the decent folks and the ones’ that are trashy niggers.”
The only black people that my father had any social relationship with was Burton. He counted on him to watch my grandparents’ old house when he was out town. This was the little white clapboard house that Burton had expected Gramma would leave him and Felicia, after 6 months of Felicia nursing her as pancreatic cancer rubbed away her life.
Unlike my grandparents, my father, who chose to live as a mathematical minority as a white man in Detroit, somehow managed to avoid forging friendships with anybody but whites. But in spite of the fact that he and I would get into throat-scorching arguments about politics, economy, culture – I never let his beliefs interfere with my life choices. After college, I went to live with him full time, and within a year I was dating Randy* a blues guitar player, whose mother was South Indian, and whose father, then deceased, was black. His parents had both been professors at Wayne State University. He intentionally struck a style somewhere between Jimi Hendrix and Prince. My Gramma and I went to see him play in a Jazz club, and when he walked up to me like the gentleman he was, she gave me a wink of approval. My Dad and he got along fine. Every time I worried that my family would embarrass me or hurt my friends with some off-color remark or behavior, they surprised me by their civility.
The Many Shades of Racism in America
Since I was four, I spent all my days, except the summers in Detroit, and a handful of Christmas’s with my mother. Till grade five I was living in Virginia, then the San Francisco Bay Area, California.
She and I lived primarily in white majority middle-class enclaves. I remember when Alex Haley’s Roots came out on tv, that it was the talk of the schoolyard. Inwardly I squirmed as white kids discussed the show revealing their racist preconceptions for the first time. I realized then, t hat the silence about blacks as a source of corruption, crime, or target of hate, wasn’t a sign of being more tolerant or enlightened. White people in middle-class California didn’t talk about black people in America because their (the blacks) existence in America didn’t matter to the whites. It was the privileged ignorance ideology of – What I don’t see doesn’t hurt me, nor does it concern me.
And in adulthood, I always wondered at the conversations of the white middle class, when it came to crime. And how they claimed a gun would give them a sense of ease and comfort, believing that its iconic presence in the home guaranteed safety for their home and family. And generally, it was always understood, that those who committed crimes were more often than not black. But this was only “hinted” at rather than stated outright. What I never got, was – why were they so scared, these white people, living in a quiet and crime-free community, where people often neglected to lock their doors? In a Northern Michigan kitchen, with the crickets creaking outside in the high grasses stretched out for miles, I asked one friend’s father –
What is the advantage to shooting someone dead over simply filing an insurance claim for stolen goods?
Besides most break-ins happen when families aren’t home, anyway.
His eyes glassed over and he pinched his lips – silent. My friend stifled a giggle, as we excused ourselves from the table to go to bed.
My oldest male cousin grew up in Grosse Ile, an upper middle class island of white privilege in the Detroit River, about 20 miles south of the urban border. And, I remember him at times rant on race and crime and corruption in Detroit. Had they been in the same room, my father and he would be humming in agreement like a fine-tuned engine. The family irony was, even though they despised each other, all the elders of the family thought Lewis’s personality was a mirror image of my father’s. Both were hotheads. And both used drugs or alcohol for years to self-medicate their demons, what I later surmised to be undiagnosed mental imbalance. And both were brilliant – with minds that could explain to you the intricacies of a combustion engine, and turn an everyday event into a riveting tale or sidesplitting comedic episode.
In both of these men was this strange concoction of daredevil dreams, intellectual (without the pretension) curiousity, sensitivity toward women and this bottled rage that came out in republican/racist soundbites. My relationship with my cousin, once we emerged from the pre-adolescent years had never been antagonistic. He was the closest thing I had to a big brother. But as we got older our lives diverged. I travelled the world, while he crossed the bridge with his first wife and her kids to live off the island. He never was academic. It wasn’t a matter of a lack of intelligence, but a matter of a hatred of authority. He knew and he was often right that he was smarter than most of the bosses, and that he was damned if he would follow the rules of a fool. I got it, because I was the same way, cause I took after my Dad. We were all rebels, who could be too smart and too smart-mouthed for our own good. We got it originally from Grampa, from whom we also inherited the curse and power of explosive rages.
Thing is – from what I could see, we weren’t so weird compared to other families I met. Every family seems to have its secrets that it hides from society as a whole. The last day I saw my cousin, a horror’s chest of secrets came pouring out. We hadn’t seen each other for most of our adulthood, (politics and lifestyle separated us.) He told me of his unfortunate ability to remember way back into babyhood, and how he remembered his mentally ill mother trying to smother him as a baby. His Aunt, her sister, told him that she told her that she had successfully smothered the baby sister before him. I started to finally understood why he had turned into the type of man who would keep an arsenal in his house; who had dealt drugs for years; who never could pull it together, 2 time divorcee, while still being brilliant. He told with eyes set straight on me, that if he was ever to get a “terminal diagnosis” of any kind, that he would take the opportunity to take some people out. God knows he had the munitions to do so.
Ten days later, he was dead of a heart attack.
But I can’t help wondering after reading one massacre after another, carried out by some crazy white dude ….
There but for the Grace of God Goes my Family Member
I know about my family, and have been acquainted with many other white people’s families – and there are MANY troubled White men in our country. It really isn’t that abnormal a thing. And I also have met many families of ALL colors who are comfortable spouting racist things, especially against Blacks … even Blacks against Blacks (which is a special topic that I am not really qualified to cover). A discussion of this in an earlier blog – Silence is NOT Always Golden
It’s not that I am an apologist for anybody that kills innocent people. I am not. I am just saying, that it is RIDICULOUS for so many white people to keep pretending that the following have never been issues in their lives, or in the lives of other white people they know –
- Mental Imbalance/Illness in the Menfolk
- Recklessness with Guns
- Substance Abuse
And that sometimes these issues are inextricably related.
It is time for us White folks to start pulling our heads out of the sand or our A**s and start addressing these issues at home and in society. It doesn’t help anybody, let alone our aching hearts, by playing the game that Hollywood has taught us and “acting” as if everything is okay.
* Names were changed to protect the privacy of those referred to in this post.