by Dell Franklin
“I hate Obama. I can’t stomach that goddamn nigger as our president.”
These words are jolting, coming beside me as I sit on a stool in a restaurant bar talking to a man around 28, 29, whom I’ve seen grow up in Cayucos, Calif., a little beach town with less than one percent African American. He’s a good kid, a little rough around the edges, used to surf and brawl but got married and buckled down and has a good gig on a construction crew in San Luis Obispo County that is always busy. His reputation now is of a hard worker and family man with a job dog in the back of his pickup, a grown up—at last.
“You don’t mean that,” I say. “And you shouldn’t use the ‘N’ word.”
“I can use it any time I want. I live out in Paso Robles now and they got gangs, and those niggers fuck with my family; I’ll blow the motherfuckers away.”
What’s this got to do with Obama? I ask myself. I don’t know how we got on this subject on such a pleasant summer evening with the sun going down just over the pier and turning cloud cover into brilliant shards of copper/gold and crimson.
“How many black folks do you know?” I ask him.
“What’s that got to do with it? I know how I feel.”
I thought about telling him how when I was about 8 or 9 and growing up in Compton, Calif., I used the word nigger unwittingly around my mother, and for the first and only time this gentle, educated, highly sensitive woman, described by my dad as a “bleeding-heart Eleanor Roosevelt liberal,” slapped my face so hard my ears rang. She dragged me into the bathroom and began washing my mouth out with soap. She was crying hysterically and then I began crying and when she was finished she sat me down and explained how the word nigger was the ugliest word in the English language, how it was about meanness and cruelty and ignorance and the oppression of a people, and how hearing that word from her son broke her heart and made her feel a pain so awful she could not bear it.
I thought about telling him how as a sophomore at Compton High, a huge school, I made varsity shortstop in baseball and my best friend on the team was a black second-baseman named Loman Young, a junior mature beyond his years and who calmed me down and humbled me when I lost my temper and kicked at things and swore maniacally, and who counseled me when I felt close to cracking up from the pressure of being an ex-major leaguer’s son. He seemed to always put other people’s concerns before his own—rare in a teenager.
I thought about telling how when I was a medic in the Army, I spent a year on the graveyard shift in an emergency room out in the boondocks with Alvin Callock, an 18-year-old from one of the toughest ghettos in the country, Hough, in Cleveland, and who had to join the army at 17 to stay out of jail. In that year, we learned everything about each other, good and bad. During a racial brawl in the Enlisted Man’s Club started by some rednecks, I got caught up in the middle and it was Alvin who stepped into the melee as I was getting pummeled by three men and dragged me down to the dispensary for medical care, grinning the whole time, complimenting me on my boxing skills. Uneducated, raw, he lay on his bunk laughing out loud at Joseph Heller’s humor, mesmerized by his narratives, reading a copy of Catch-22 that I’d given him. Some of our graveyard conversations went on for hours, and from Alvin I learned the street, while from me he learned the discovery of knowledge via literature.
After my discharge, and a few menial jobs, I hitchhiked across country for New Orleans and Mardi Gras in 1969, searching for what I did not know, during a time of great social upheaval and racial tension in the U.S. After spending my last dime, I managed to luck into a gig as storekeeper on the Delta Queen riverboat, last steamship to carry passengers up and down the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. And, besides the captain and his officers, engineers and pilots, I was the only white employee among deckhands, porters, waiters, the entire kitchen crew, bartenders and maids.
I worked immediately under the ship’s chef, a 69-year-old named Henry Joyner, who’d grown up the oldest in a family of eighteen sharecroppers outside Tupelo, Mississippi, and came to Memphis at 29 in his first pair of real shoes, dead broke, facing the Depression. He ended up working two jobs—head chef at the Jewish country club and at the veterans hospital—for forty years and raising eleven kids who eventually became splendid citizens, and moving his entire family to Memphis. During the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., he was one of the powerful figures who took the podium and kept the riots out of Memphis. He was a deeply religious man who had no problem with my being agnostic. His fierce work ethic and disdain for slackers was tempered by a shrewd and easy going sense of humor. He became my instant best friend and mentor and to this day the most extraordinary and beloved person I’ve ever had the privilege to know, a person I hark back to whenever I become disheartened or negative and begin to lose my sense of humor.
Another friend was Mr. Davis, a waiter, an ex-professional baseball player in the Negro Leagues, a renaissance man who could cook, build and repair just about anything, a ladies’ man who moved with an unmatched elegance and fluidity and could carry on a conversation with the aplomb and erudition of a college professor. He was hard on me, always testing me, expecting much. I had to ASK him for advice. He had lived in Paris for years to escape the racism in America and hitchhiked throughout Western Europe in a sport coat and slacks. He made sure to give me an excellent haircut and beard trim and loaned me his shirt, slacks and sport coat before taking me to blues joints and chicken-shacks in Memphis and along the Delta where I became educated in a music I had been previously ignorant of. One of the black maids came along, and when I danced with her, and asked how all these black people dancing around us could be so joyous in the face of such tragic, heartbreaking music, she told me, “Chile, that’s how us black folk forget our sorrow.”
It wasn’t all easy sailing on the Queen. My real trouble was with the porters and deckhands my age, who were bitterly resentful of my presence, and as a carefree white boy who automatically latched onto one of the best gigs aboard ship on a lark and seemed to be “the chef’s pet.” It was a time of militant black power and combustible anger among young people and the burning down of our black ghettos in nearly every big city in America. Willie Hobdy, the top deckhand, a tireless, nonstop worker, a man around my size and built like a light heavyweight boxer, who wore a stocking cap and scowled continuously, stole blatantly from my pallets of stock on the bow while fellow deckhands looked on and snickered. He made comments demeaning my manhood. He snarled at me, goaded me. Davis told me I’d have to fight him eventually and warned me that Willie would try and get in the first punch, because I, too, was built like a light heavyweight boxer and posed a threat.
Sure enough, while finally having heated words when I confronted him on the bow, he hit me so hard I saw green and yellow flashes, my left eye immediately gushing blood as I retaliated with a right hand that crushed his nose and busted his lip. If the captain hadn’t come along we might have killed each other. Sad and shaken, I retreated to the bar at the King Cotton Hotel on the main drag in Memphis in my work shirt, eye swollen shut and bruised, a violent headache pulsing. A row of post-graduates from down the road at the U of Mississippi in Oxford, whom I’d run into before, lectured me on my stupidity in making friends with and trusting “nigras.” They lectured me very sternly about my “Yankee naivety,” explaining that nigras were an inferior species given to thievery, filthiness, laziness, a total lack of morals, all of whom not only belonged where they’d been for centuries, but that they WANTED it that way, because they had no initiative. While listening to this garbage, it dawned on me very slowly and with a bludgeon that because of my white skin, and only my white skin, I represented to Willie and his fellow deckhands everything they hated in this world.
I left. Back on the Queen, despondent, I ran into Willie, lurking in an alcove along the engine room, sitting alone. He was almost always noisy and with fellow deckhands. His face was pulpy and swollen. He wouldn’t look at me as I halted before him. I asked him if he still wanted to fight. He shook his head and told me, “It’s all outta me.”
“It’s all outta me, too,” I said, though there was nothing in me compared to what was in Willie. I’d merely defended myself against something I was beginning to understand.
I was starving, hadn’t eaten a thing. I had access to the galley through the chef. I asked Willie if he was hungry. He nodded. I invited him to join me in the galley. It was late, and dark, and I turned on the lights and the grill and slapped down two huge filet mignons that were reserved for our 100 percent white wealthy passengers and heated up a pot of black-eyed peas. We still hadn’t talked. Willie sat at the card table where cooks and the chef and our dishwasher and I liked to drink coffee and munch pastries and eat, and I plopped down a pitcher of ice cold milk. We ate silently, ravenously, two brutalized young men, and when we finished Willie said thank you in an almost inaudible voice, and the next day instead of stealing from my pallets he helped me stock, and he became my friend, telling me his life story of growing up in some tiny town on a river a few miles north of Mobile, Alabama, and explained why he never left the ship—all of his pay ($65 a week) went to his mother and his wife and kid, whom he only saw when the Delta Queen dry-docked in winter and he returned to Alabama for two weeks.
Almost immediately the resentment among my former enemies evaporated. Willie shouted, “The Beard!” as a greeting. Other deckhands referred to me as “Moses,” and “Mistah Sto-keepah.” I became immersed in black culture to such an extent that the chef paused one day and accused me of being black in a former life and coming back the same way only with a white skin. I have never been happier. It was a joy to be among people who’d started life with nothing, or in some cases less than nothing, continued to get the short end of the stick, faced police harassment, served time, missed meals, and never even conceived of achieving dreams (I wanted to be a writer), yet seemed to celebrate what little was left of their lot and complained far less about the state of things than the old men I see hanging around Cayucos listening to Rush Limbaugh and grousing with perennial scowls about that goddamn black bastard, or the men and women I overhear at the gym who, although far better off financially than they were in 2008, growl about Obama being “that black socialist giving those lazy welfare niggers their precious money.”
I’d like to explain a few things to this lad beside me, who was never, to me, a mean-spirited person, and who seems happy with HIS lot and his young family; I’d like to tell him how ugly it sounds to use the word nigger, and especially in reference to a man in the White House who is not corrupt, not a liar, not a born-rich economic boob or a draft-dodging war-mongering neo-con blowhard, is a good family man who seems to have a little compassion like all liberals for the underclasses. I’d like to ask him to try and step into a black person’s shoes and have to listen to the cruelty and ignorance spewing from his mouth.
Finally I say, “Kid, you expose yourself to be an ugly, mean-spirited person when you talk that way about black folks. You embarrass yourself.”
“I don’t give a shit,” he says. §
Dell Franklin writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif., where he lives with his mate, Wilbur, a very needy chocolate lab he rescued from the animal shelter. He is the founding publisher of The Rogue Voice and is currently working on a book about his dad, The Ball Player’s Son.