At the Charity Hospital

Just recently I used the word “charity” while trying to write about “welfare” and as I was doing that I felt another discussion going on in the back of my mind; it seemed worth listening to but I couldn’t make it out so I just wrote on in the groove I had laid out for myself. Later, like just a few minutes ago, I tapped into that discussion I was having with “myself” while my other “myself” was writing away. Here it is.


In the mid-1950s, the State of Louisiana ran a big hospital in Shreveport, where I lived. It was officially named “The Confederate Memorial Medical Center” but it was more usually referred to as “the charity hospital” and, in certain circles, “the nigger hospital.” The state had operated “charity” hospitals since the 1870s but a modern state-wide, state-financed hospital system was the creation of Huey Long’s administration between 1932-1936. That system was expanded after WWII from six to eight medical centers in which half of the beds were reserved for whites and half for African Americans. These hospitals were rigidly segregated in terms of beds and services.

 The hospitals were supposed to provide medical care to the working poor and although early on whites used the hospitals as often as blacks, white Louisianans assumed, or pretended to assume, that only African Americans used the hospitals. In the immediate post-war years, black admissions outnumbered  those of whites in the state centers  but, statisticians said, whites stayed in hospital longer so “usage” was nearly equivalent. In fact, in the late 1940s, while black children were admitted at a rate of about 42 per thousand population (by race), white children were admitted at a rate of 70 per thousand (by race). This suggests that white adults would not use the services but they would take their children there.

In the summer of 1957, when I was 16, a nurse my mother knew got me a job as a ward orderly at the charity hospital. In 1953 the hospital had moved into a new, $10,000,000 building and had, for the first time, hired a black doctor. By the time I got there, some black doctors and nurses staffed the African American wards and services, but in smaller numbers than their white colleagues. At the same time, African American patients far outnumbered white patients, from what I could see on a day-to-day basis. The existence of Jim Crow wards meant that black patients could not be given beds on white wards, and vice versa. In practice, Jim Crow wards meant that the greater number of black patients outstripped the number of beds available in black wards and so, rather than placing the overtally in empty beds (of which there were many, given white folks reluctance to use the “nigger” hospital) on white wards, we made pallets on the floors and in the hallways for the black patients.

I say “we” because I was assigned to the black cancer and orthopedic wards as an orderly, the only white orderly on the African American “side” of the hospital. (The hospital was divided by a yellow line that bisected the central tower in which the in-patient wards were located; clinics, also Jim Crowed, were in opposing wings on either side of the central tower. One was not allowed to take a patient of the inappropriate color across the yellow line, not did the nursing or orderly staff usually cross over for service; certainly no black doctor treated a white patient.) How or why my assignment happened I never knew but I took no exception to it and, in fact, for reasons I’ll write about another time, was glad of it.

In the next installment: some stories about medical care in a segregated hospital in the 1950s and some reflections on them, by a man trying to remember the boy he was.

Oligarchies, Inequalities, and What’s Coming Down the Road

I’m going to get all wonky on you this time around.

 I’ve been noticing the waves of rhetoric sweeping over the inequality divide in this country and it strikes me that no one yet wants to admit that the folks at #occupyWallStreet were ahead of the curve. The recent spate of books and articles by Piketty, Krugman, the Princeton researchers on oligarchy, and the rest are actually later, and obviously more analytically rigorous, iterations of the #occupyWallStreet phenomenon: –reaction to the increasingly visible contradictions inherent in late stages of capitalism.

 As a “good” Marxian, I have always admired capitalism in its early stages as a far more efficient system for the allocation of resources and wealth at the time of its appearance than those of late feudalism. But without some controls, internal or external, capitalism inevitably becomes less efficient in the distribution of the value produced by its activity. That is, advanced capitalist economies begin to suffer more and wilder and unequal swings of productivity and profitability in local markets and reward an ever-shrinking pool of very large capitalists while maldistributing the surplus value of productivity among other sectors of the  population. One response by governments is to try to reconcile these contradictions by regulating the practices of the generators of the energy that drives capital markets. This is done to help preserve capitalism because, as both Marx and Roosevelt understood, once the contradictions become inevitably visible and permanently on display, non-capital-intensive portions of the society (workers) will demand direct redress, i.e., will take to the streets seeking it, even if that means a different system for the distribution of the means of production, more specifically, a change in the ownership of those means.

 Thus, #occupyWallStreet, which seemed inchoate because it was genuinely populist; that is, was a response to contradictions by the population most affected by those contradictions; Occupy was not an analysis of those contradictions nor could it produce a “program.” “It” only wanted relief from the cognitive, fiscal, and physical contradictions between capitalism’s promise and its performance in their lives.

These or similar conditions are present in all the major western capitalist countries and some (but not by any means all) of their Asian clones. However, revolutionary change is not imminent. Capitalism will, sooner or later (probably later), be replaced by something like “socialism” but not until capital succeeds in transforming the latent feudal economic cultures of the rest of the world into more efficient market arrangements. Once the world’s labor force acquires the skills to function under capitalism and the intellectual and experiential “capital” to appreciate its (labor’s) own role in that system, will the inevitable contradictions we are experiencing be felt widely enough to shove capitalism down the road toward the next stage of economic history.

I know this might seem unlikely, but just  imagine yourself the Earl of Something-or-other in 14th century Britain or the Count de Whosis in 13th century France and discussion in your court tries to turn on the inevitable end of feudalism and its replacement by a capital-intense exchange economy fueled by the productivity of paid industrial labor. My, My!


(For fun, one could reread Mark Twain’s,

A Connecticut Yankee in King

Arthur’s Court.)

When Stranded….

When I was a young man in college, I was less bedeviled by the question of what I was doing than by that of “how” I was doing. Today I see all over the media people in education arguing among themselves about “what” students should be doing. The “Common Core” issue has got folks with kids in school riled up all around the nation and from colleges and universities come sounds of discord over the conflict between knowledge and training: can the study of philosophy get you a job?


I had, back in the day, a very interesting professor, Elsie Dean Hively. We called her “Sis,” mostly because she lived with her sister in a two-storey 19th-century house on the edge of the campus. Their mother was buried in the garden. Sis had been, in fact still was although they were separated, married to a pianist. Wells Hively had a minor reputation as a concert pianist but had made his name, such as it was, as the accompanist to the soprano, Lily Pons, a considerable figure between the world wars. As a young woman, Sis had followed Wells around the concert circuit, much of the time in Europe and when their relationship fell apart, she was more or less stranded in France, where she had a nervous breakdown. She was institutionalized there, for treatment, and eventually came home to America, to Kansas.


Sis Hively came away from her European life with two strict rules: 1) inasmuch as we are each flawed in our own way, it is incumbent on us to do the least harm possible to others; and 2) the act of listening to music must be an exercise of its own integrity, not an adjunct to some other activity and, as such, should be a matter of listening only to that which you and you alone have chosen for that exercise. Each of these rules hearkened back to Wells; the first a reflection of his failure to observe it and the second a consequence of her institutionalization.


That second rule needs a bit of explanation. Sis had been abandoned by her pianist husband and the abandonment had shattered her. In the hospital, the well-meaning doctors sought to soothe her as she healed. Unfortunately, they assumed that music therapy would be just the thing for her, as it was for so many other patients, so she was subjected daily to a background of classical piano recordings as she went about her therapeutic regimens. The doctors were at a loss to explain why she seemed to be getting worse, not better. I haven’t any idea how or when she convinced them otherwise, but I know that once away, she forbade the piano in her life.


Sis was an English professor when I came to know her in the late 1950s. She looked older than she was; her face was severely lined, perhaps from years of smoking French cigarettes. (Years later I thought I had come across her twin when I saw a photo of Lillian Hellman.) Sis had been at the college for many years by then and was somewhat legendary. She was irascible and strict, profane and worldly, edgy and wrapped in an aura of loss and regret, but clever and funny/witty still. She gave my first essay in Freshman English an “F” because, while technically flawless, it contained not one idea—only words.


But it was Sis Hively who explained to me what it was that we were about in college. The goal, she said, was to become educated for two purposes. One was so that, when you were abandoned in some difficult place, without a book to read or paper and pen, you could understand your situation, place it in its rightful context in the world’s affairs, and entertain yourself until help arrived, no matter how long that took. If, she said, you were lucky enough to escape abandonment and had a full life and made money, your education should be such NOT that you could do your own taxes every year, but that you could hire someone to do them AND know that they had done them correctly.


Those precepts became mine, along with keeping my weight on my elbows, which, as I have noted, I learned later in life. But for today, what can be said of a liberal arts education? The mystery of Malaysian Flight 370 notwithstanding, the likelihood of being stranded in some remote part of the world has become less and less assumed over time. Is there a contemporary equivalent of that first purpose Sis laid out for us? (The second makes even more sense today!)


I think so. I think the purpose of a liberal arts education, a “major” in history or literature or philosophy or some interdisciplinary mix of those should be this: come into the adult world possessed of the things you need so that when you find yourself, as you statistically are likely to, without a job, adrift in an economically horizonless sea of Wal-Mart/MickeyD/food stamp desperation, you can understand your situation, place it in its rightful context in the world’s affairs, and entertain yourself until help arrives, no matter how long that takes.


That help will arrive one day, perhaps not in the form you expect, but those same gifts the study of the humanities have given you are the gifts the world, despite itself, is waiting for and will wait for, long after the beans have been counted, the codes written, the bitcoins transferred. And those of your comrades stranded with you who have only data and charts and multiple choice answer sheets to sustain them at 3 in the morning when the Black Dog comes ‘round; well, we feel sorry for them; they should have taken more electives from Sis Hively.


I’m busy these days. I have projects. And enthusiasms. All of them have to do with words, not things. I am not building a model of HMS Bounty in my garage. Not fixing the upstairs toilet. Not planning the garden for the coming (will it ever?) spring. But this Sunday I go upstairs to the bathroom with the broken toilet to look at it. I jiggle the handle. As I suspect, that isn’t the solution.

Behind me, the bathroom window gives out onto the hill that rises above the house, up seven acres or so to the top of the ridge line. I stand at the poured concrete sink and look up the hill at the woods. In winter they are stark against this year’s unusual snow and I can see where the logger has come once again to take what he can. We split the profit.

For twenty four years I have been able to look up toward the top of the ridge, impossible to see in summers, always there in winters. And this morning I forget the toilet and I think about the trees. That works for me, like jiggling the handle; but it works.

Just this morning, before coming upstairs, I have been reading The New York Times Book Review. Looking out of the bathroom window in the second floor up the ridge through winter’s trees, I think that reading a book review is like walking in these familiar woods in winter and anticipating these same woods when it will be spring—I know the rise and fall of the land, the seasonal directions of animal trails, what blooms and what does not, where the stream flows and from where. Suddenly I see a new path and I intuit where it leads; it is not necessary to follow it all the way, if at all, but I imagine the coming experience of it, having its trace before me. There is the same familiarity reading a book review—there is a lay of the reviewer’s land, a sense of where this is going, a revelation of slope this way or that, a hint of what is to come, a promise or, sometimes, a warning.

Then again, reading a book is like logging those same woods. I am in them until I finish, until I have chosen the trees to fall and cut each one, until at the end of the day the woods remain but that I have been there is undeniable; nothing is the same. When I come the next day it is to woods I have encountered, engaged, altered. Reading is a necessary, imaginary winnowing. Possibilities are considered, rejected, embraced. The author’s intent, like Nature’s, is less than secondary as I cut my way carefully through to a sudden configuration. When I have finished reading the book, it is still a book but it will never look the same to me again.

Writing a book is, perhaps, like being a, what is it, arborist? Intent on planting one good tree, I begin with all trees around me and where I plant is so dependent on how I understand how and why the others are there. Then, when I am done, the forest remains but is altered by the addition I have insisted upon. The new tree is singular but still the product of the presence of the other trees, seeded by some of them, protected by others, shaded too much and maybe stunted on one side by others. My book, the same, written in the protected swale here, shaded by some, shadowed by others, competing for room, desirous of continuity, hoping to leaf out, to cast its own shade or shadow.

Here in the country for twenty four years I have walked, cut, planted. But someone must fix the toilet.


Oscar Night with all its …am I cynical? Illusion? Let’s leave it at that. If only because this problem of what you see versus what you would like to see is really what’s on my mind.

I‘m not after anything earthshaking here, no trenchant social critique. Just  pondering over the last couple of days…what do I look like? That is, is what I think I look like anything like what I look like. I know, I know! “To whom?” you ask. My answer, “I’m not sure.”

Let me start more concretely. Yesterday I looked in the mirror and thought, “I don’t look anything like Randolph Scott.” You youngsters don’t know Scott; he was a good-looking contract actor in the 1930s, wasted in drawing room comedies, despite his courtliness and southern accent. Then, after a few years as an action and drama “hero,” he decided he would make only “westerns” and held to that notion. Scott wasn’t much of an actor, was stiff, and had a vocal range of about ¼ of an octave. But he had a square face, proportionate brow, and a strong chin. He was sinewy and as he aged, lines in his face only enhanced his appeal. Every morning I expected to see Randolph Scott looking at me from the mirror. Or, I have wanted that to be the case, especially as I have got older.

In fact, I have often been told I looked like one movie actor or another. One evening, after work, at the corner of 9th Avenue and 59th Street in New York City—about 10:15—a drunk hailed me.

“Hey! I know you! You’re that actor!”


“Yeah! Al Pacino, right?”

If you know me, or Google me, you’ll realize just how drunk this man was. But these sightings come in pairs, perhaps. Not a week later, after class, two students stopped me in the hall.

“Did anyone ever tell you, you look like that movie actor?”


“What’s his name?” she turned to her friend.

“Al Pacino;” the words formed in a thought bubble over my head.

“Karl Malden!”

Google him.

When I was a teenager, the comparisons were, if not accurate, at least in synch with the times. A sophomore girl in high school thought I looked like Ed “Kookie” Byrnes on “77 Sunset Strip” It was my hair, that cantilevered shelf of a relaxed pompadour that shaded my forehead from the Louisiana sun. Back in those days, children, you had your choice of a Kookie Byrnes or Frankie Avalon pompadour or an Elvis “DA.” The “DA” stood for “Duck’s Ass”—your hair swept back from your temples over your ears and came to a sort of horizontal crest in the exact middle of the back of your head; from both sides, hence the similarity to a duck’s behind. That we were all, including Elvis,  no more than one generation removed from the farm, explains the metaphor. (Digression: You can now understand why the Beatles were such a phenomenon.)

But my ability to be almost anyone but myself really paid off in the summer of 1956. That summer my parents and I moved to Hollywood. The ostensible reason was that my mother wanted to study deaf education at a center funded by Spencer Tracy’s wife. The Tracys had a deaf son and Mrs. Tracy had pioneered in deaf education research. My mother had been teaching without credentials at a school that had adapted second hand some principles developed in California. (If you have read this blog in the past, you know that I have, or suspect, reasons other than the ostensible ones, for every move my mother ever made. But those are other issues.)

As far as I knew, this was to be a permanent move; I was heading into my junior year in high school, my dad had given up his job at the glass factory, and it looked like we were pulling up roots and putting down stakes. We found an apartment in North Hollywood, on Fountain Avenue. Yes, the building looked like a noir set and it had one feature that I had never imagined. It was a one-bedroom apartment with a sunken living room; the bath, kitchen and bedroom were up a short set of steps on what I can only think of now as a mezzanine. But the grand feature was my bed. My folks, of course, had the bedroom and I slept in the living room, as I had done in 4th grade in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, those many years ago. My bed, however, was not a foldout couch but something I had never seen before. I HAD seen, in movies made in the 30s, a Murphy bed, a bed that folded up into the wall, made or unmade, occupied or empty. Many funny scenes could be built around a Murphy bed. But this apartment had the “demonic” version of a Murphy bed. The bed did not fold down from a hidden compartment in the wall; it slid out from beneath the mezzanine, just above the baseboard, into the center of the sunken living room. In this bed, you were doomed should it decide to retract while you slept; there was no headroom. When I saw it, the rhyme from my childhood, slipped into my head:

“Peanut sittin’ on a rail-road track

A word he would not utter.

Around the bend came Number 10…

Toot! Toot! Peanut Butter!”

Dad and my mother got jobs as sales clerks at the May Company, a downtown department store, and she started classes at Los Angeles City College.(She also began acting lessons with a character actor named Douglas Fowley [Google him] at his house in Malibu; but that’s another story.) I got the best job of all.

Arthur P. Jacobs ran a public relations company in Beverly Hills and he had employed, of all people, a young man from Shreveport  my mother knew (but that’s another story), as an office boy. That position no longer exists because we have interns but back in the day one would be paid a salary for sharpening pencils, delivering the mail around the office, getting coffee, and even answering the phone. Well, my mother looked this young man up as soon as we got to Hollywood and as it turned out he was about to return to college and, one thing and another, he got me the job as his replacement.

As it turned out, the job involved more than sharpening pencils. I delivered contracts and drafts of press releases (this was before faxing) to studios and clients. I drove all over Los Angeles in the days before freeways. I knew all the local streets. And I met people; Joe Pasternak, Ida Lupino (at her home I walked in on her haranguing her husband, Howard Duff, who was tied to a chair in the middle of their patio; rehearsing, she said); Bo Derek’s husband, John, an actor and photographer who, until Leo Di Caprio in “The Great Gatsby,” I would swear was the most beautiful man I had ever seen; and other B-grade actors, writers and producers. I never got to meet our BIG clients but, I touched their lives.

The first touch came early in the summer when our biggest client, Marilyn Monroe, went to England to film “The Prince and the Showgirl.” Monroe’s press agent, an amazing woman named Melvina Pumphrey, called me into her office and told me to drop everything; she had a job for me. I was to correspond with Miss Monroe weekly and keep her personal scrapbooks up to date; I must do as she directed and air mail the scrapbooks to her express, every week, for her..amusement? Edification? I was excited and did the job well and, of course, was too dumb to save even  a scrap of paper that had passed between us. Go figure.

Nevertheless, I had showed that I could be relied upon so I was put in charge of all the publicity mailing for Ronald Reagan’s western anthology show, sponsored by General Electric. I have felt responsible ever since for being so good at my job. Had I know then what I know now, I would have….., you know.

Then, in late July, a call from Art Jacobs himself.

“I want to take a look at you, kid.”


“I’ve got a job and this has to go to the right guy.”


“You look the part, so I’m gonna give it to you.”


“From now on, every request for a photograph for a fan made to Marlon Brando will be signed  by you.”


“As far as the public knows, you are Marlon Brando. Sign those photos. Talk to Sid about what to say. It’ll work out. You look just like him!”


“Marlon! You look just like Marlon!”

And so that was how the picture business worked in the 1950s. A week later, I was also given the Yul Brynner franchise. I can’t imagine what they saw in me for that.

Pacino, Malden, Brando, Kookie Byrnes, Brynner. Not Randolph Scott. The story of my life.


It was a given in my early years  (the 1940s, 50s, 60s) that Jews and American Blacks shared an affinity of historical suffering and that their marginalization made kindred of them. There was some tension, in the 1970s, as Black activists appropriated the word “Holocaust,” from its role as signifier for the policies of exploitation and extermination of the German National Socialists in the 1930s and 40s, to apply it to the trans-Atlantic slave trade of the 17th through the mid-19th centuries.

Nevertheless, the record of Jewish-Black cooperation and shared sympathy through the first six decades of the 20th century is pretty well documented. What has remained unremarked, however, is how vastly the histories of these two peoples differed in the years that followed their release from state sponsored oppression. In 1865, Africans in the United States saw the formal end of slavery, a paradigm shift analogous to that, eighty years later, of the defeat of the Nazis and the end of the regime of formal repression, exploitation, and death to which Jews had been subjected. But in less than two decades after the abolition of slavery, Africans in America were resubjugated to a policy of exploitation to a point just this side of extermination. The story of Jews in Germany, on the other hand, has followed a different arc. The following counterfactual to history as we know it is simply an attempt to imagine the story of the Jews of Europe after World War Two if that story followed along the lines of the history of African Americans in this country after the Civil War.

It is 1945 and the Second World War is over. The horrifying evidence of the inhumanity of the Nazi’s “final solution to the Jewish problem” is finally becoming visible to the world. Of course, the deaths of millions of Jews  had already been known to Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin—but not to the man in the street in the countries those men led.

As a matter of policy, a program of reconstruction begins in Germany under the aegis of the allied powers and some high leaders of the Nazi party and the government it suborned are arrested, tried, and punished. Some kill themselves in prison. But many escape, to other countries or escape notice altogether, especially those Nazis and those who profited from Nazi policies in the “private” sector, businessmen, corporate executives, entrepreneurs, managers. These men will be needed to run a reconstructed Germany and within ten years, these men not only run the German economy but hold positions in the German government. In 1955, The United States, England, France, and the Soviet Union withdraw their troops from German territory, dismantle the military government that had monitored the democratization of Germany and turn control of the government over to the men who were running the private sector.

Immediately after the war, efforts are made by the occupying forces to reunite Jewish families separated by Nazi polices. Some efforts are successful, but there is little purpose in resettling Jews throughout Germanys as Jewish properties and accounts, personal and commercial, have been allowed to remain in the hands of the Germans who had usurped them in the 1930s and early 1940s. Jews settle into urban enclaves or in rural villages and work for Germans on land that they had once owned, in factories they had once financed. There are some Jews who advocate a national homeland but colonial powers in the Middle East refuse to part with enough contiguous territory and only a few token Jews are allowed to migrate to the British protectorate of Palestine. By 1955, the Jews who had survived the death and work camps are ageing and ill. Under the supervision of the occupying allies, they had been allowed to govern themselves in those states where there numbers allowed them a majority voice, but without access to the economy except as laborers and without ownership of productive property, they become client citizens in a nation that barely tolerates their existence.

Within five years of the withdrawal of Allied troops from Germany, national laws protecting the franchise for Jews are revoked by the German National Court and local jurisdictions are allowed to legislate terms for full and conditional citizenship based on Nazi-era criteria of Aryan identity. Jews are forbidden to live among Germans, own property of certain kinds, qualify for bank loans, attend schools with Germans, or even occupy the same public spaces. Special cars are put on German trains and streetcars are divided into compartments. The children of Holocaust survivors are identified and prevented from participating in state-financed programs for intellectual and physical  development. Doctors who had once worked in the German camps conduct medical experiments on the survivors themselves, including injecting them with syphilis bacteria and allowing the disease to run its course as they make clinical notes.

Under this pressure, the breakdown of the Jewish family that had begun in the camps continues unimpeded by ameliorating social policies. Elderly Jews, suffering from disease and the effects of years of malnutrition, provide little guidance to a generation of young men and women who see no promise in the land of their birth and no place elsewhere in the world to go. In their ghettos, Jews tell stories of the past and consume their history along with quantities of despair. Some young Jews make it “out,” by passing into the Aryan nation itself, some by becoming professional storytellers, entertaining Germany with mythologies of a popular, “universalized” culture underwritten by Jewish suffering and wit, stories that “pass” for German just as the straight-nosed, blond brothers and sisters of their authors are doing. Some Jews dream of a Jewish nation and hear tales of Palestine, dress in tribal cloths and call each other by the ancient names of long-dead heroes of a romantically recollected Israel—. They stalk majestically through the ghetto calling for a renewal of the empire of Israel on the weekends but return to their jobs as bootblacks and porters and street sweepers on Monday.

Other young people try hard to find lives within the space allotted to them by the German state but there is so little money, no honor, no education, only cheap escapes in diversion: wine, sex, crime, gambling. Soon the ghettoes of Germany are seedbeds of moral and physical corruption. But the rest of the world just shakes its head, critical of the Germans but determined not to interfere in another nation’s internal affairs. To Americans and the French, Jews are esoteric and romantic figures; Jews who escape the German ghetto and make it to Paris or New York can find a patron there and a literature, a visual art, a music of the Holocaust and its aftermath begins to emerge. Jews writing outside of Germany and the few Jews inside Germany who had begun to translate their parents experience into forms Germans could consume without gagging on it build a record of response that made its way into print.

Out of the suffering of those Jews comes the real story of Germany. There is no aspect of German life that was not in some way shaped by the presence of Jews in Germany and by the consequences of German policy about that presence. German music, German, art, German literature, and above all German wealth is the product of the presence of Jews in Germany.

Well, I could go on, I think, but perhaps the analogy, extended and elaborate, is really not necessary. During each Black History Month, I become aware once again of how invisible the actual injustices done to African Americans are, even in those 28 days we are called upon to focus on that history. Black History Month has become a space of celebration for African Americans, as it should be; there is nothing wrong with setting aside a moment to praise one another for grace, strength, courage. But for whites, the month should be a reminder of the grave sins we, as a nation, committed against an innocent people, sins we not only institutionalized but, then, after once called  to the bar of history’s justice, re-instituionalized and re-embraced.

I enjoy the celebration of African American triumph over adversity during Black History Month, but as a white man I set aside some part of that month for a moment taken in shameful recognition of my people’s responsibility for the telling of the tale at all.


Sometimes Black history is about Black folks’ relationships with whites and that history is, as we know, pretty uncomfortable. Sometimes, though, that history is really just about the day to day business of living in the same town and sometimes the story is not so uncomfortable.

 My dad was a southerner, born in Cason, Texas, in the eastern part of the state near the Louisiana line, in 1917, and he grew up in Louisiana. He met my mom in high school in Shreveport and they were married there. A few years later, I was born. But somewhere along the line, my dad lost the racism that was every white man’s burden in the south.

 I have four “tales” about that. I don’t know what is causative and what is merely indicative.

 1. When my dad was a boy, my grandfather drove an ice wagon around town, delivering to folks with ice boxes. This was in the 1920s. One day my grandfather came home with a young Negro boy on the wagon seat with him. He said this boy, Scobie, had been jumping up in the wagon all week stealing chunks of ice. The boy had no folk, lived on the street, so my grandfather brought him home to live with them. Dad said that my grandmother made room for Scobie in the house and in the family and that was that. But after a while, neighbors came by to complain that it didn’t look right to have Scobie living in the house with white people. So my grandfather made Scobie an “apartment” out over the garage and he slept out there but ate and “lived” pretty much in the house and he and my dad grew up together. This lasted for years until Scobie got old enough to leave school; the Negro school only went to the 10th grade. When that happened, Scobie eventually ran afoul of the law. My dad never told me what Scobie did but he was sent to prison, to Angola down south, a terrible place. My grandfather was heartbroken and tried every year to get him out but never could. He went down there to see him “all the time,” my dad said, until finally he stopped. Dad didn’t know why and he didn’t know what became of Scobie. Maybe he died there.

 2. After my dad graduated from high school, he and a friend went into “business” cutting and hauling cypress logs out of the north Louisiana swamps. They would go all week into the swamp and cut and trim trees, sleeping at night on the porches of the Black folks who lived way out in there. Dad was called “Little Boss” by the Black folks because at 5’8” he was shorter than Wayne, his 6’ -whatever partner. Then they’d snake the logs out with mules and get them into town by the first of the next week to sell to the mill. The lumber mill was owned by a Black man whose silent partner was the white man who owned the Ford dealership in town. But the old man, whose name Dad told me but which I can’t remember, ran the place and made all the decisions. And he made a lot of money for himself and his silent partner, whose name was Hanna, I think. Anyway, the old man had two daughters whom he sent north to college and in the summer they worked in the office. Dad said that that first summer he and Wayne were bringing cypress into the mill he got to know one of the daughters because Dad was little but he was the boss and handled all the business. Every week Dad and this young lady did business and, Dad said, he fell in love. But he knew there was nothing that could be done about it. He said he wasn’t rich enough to have a Negro girl friend “on the side” and besides, she was clearly more sophisticated and smarter than he was and her father would have killed him anyway. So they never said a word about it to one another but just looked at each other and enjoyed it as best they could. My dad was a good looking guy, so I suppose she could have taken to him.

 3. For a short time when I was in high school we lived way out past the end of town in what was supposed to be a sub-division but hadn’t really taken off. We had a house on a big lot so every weekend I had to mow the lawn. The whole thing. In those days even working class white families had Negro women who “did” for them and the woman who came to our house on Saturdays usually brought her young son with her. “Junior Boy” was the only name I knew him by, that’s all his mom called him and that’s what we all called him.  Junior Boy was about 6 the year I was a sophomore in high school, the year I got my driver’s license.  On Saturdays I would drive over to Nigger Town to pick up Mrs. Mason and Junior Boy. They lived in a house on thick stilts over a field of red dirt that turned to red mud when it rained. You walked on a wooden plank across the yard to the front porch. They had electricity but the only water was from a common spigot among four or five houses. When we got back to our house, Mrs. Mason and my mom would talk and clean and Mrs. Mason would do the ironing and I would mow the lawn. But Junior Boy and my dad? Junior Boy loved my dad and Dad loved him and they would walk around the outside of the house seeing if there was any work to be done but by the time I had finished mowing and raking up the lawn and got back in the house, there the two of them would be, stretched out on the couch watching the ball game. And likely as not, one or the other or both of them would be asleep, Junior Boy curled up in my dad’s lap. Sometimes I’d see if Junior Boy wanted to help me wash the car and then he and his mom would pack up whatever food she and my mom had made and divided up for them to take and they would get in the car and I would drive them home. And then I would go find my friends and the rest of Saturday was mine.

 4. My dad left his church when I was a senior in high school because the church, Mangum Memorial Methodist Church, not only refused to let two Black families join or even attend services, but passed a resolution to the effect that God disdained Black folks and so should whites. He just resigned from the Board of Stewards and converted to Catholicism a few months later, which was considered a pretty liberal thing to do in those days.

 So that’s it. I don’t know what made him the man that he was but he was just that kind of man; I always knew him that way and always wanted to be just like him in that way. Other ways, maybe not so much, but that man, yes.

Race, Discretion, and Policing

As Bill de Blasio’s term as mayor of New York takes shape, I’m thinking about the stop and frisk issue. Just the other day his administration announced that they would not appeal the recent decision handed down against the most egregious of police practices. Police Commissioner Bratton then announced that the NYPD would no longer deploy squads of rookie cops to high crime areas as part of their initiation into the world of urban policing. I think that’s wise, but there is something more fundamental about policing that needs to be realized.

I taught cops, would-be cops, and retired cops for 35 years at the City University of New York. Here’s what I think I learned: policing is driven by rules that define your career and by laws that tell you what you can do, not what you must do. Consequently, police, who are civil servants, are conservative in their practice and jealous of their discretionary prerogatives. So, for instance, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a few years ago when Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested by Sgt. James Crowley at the front door of Gates’ own home, Sgt. Crowley acted as many line officers would and as most supervisors regret–he arrested a man for challenging his use of police power discretion in choosing how to act. Many New Yorkers are aware of this dynamic. It’s not against the law to do what Gates did, but Crowley had the discretionary power to remind him just who was in charge. At this level, race was not necessarily a factor. Power, and I suspect, class, was.

That having been said, the other thing I know, from being a white professor of African American lit and having a Black son, now a man in his 40s, is that most whites assume Blacks are culpable EXCEPT for the Black people they know, whom they assume to be exceptions. White theories of the distribution of racial execptionality have no basis in fact, but they are deeply held. That’s why any given white man can tell you he has Black friends; he does. But he thinks his friend or friends are exceptions to the rule of Black sociopathology and suspects every Black person he doesn’t know. That’s where race enters into Sgt. Crowley’s practice.

Nevertheless, at the specific core of police mistreatment of civilians is the jealous regard for discretion, such that even Black police officers brook no question of their discretionary choices by Black civilians. Sgt. Crowley’s Black colleagues could have done the same thing Crowley did because they are cops; Sgt Crowley did it because he is a cop AND because he is white.


English teachers at every level, from pre-k to doctorate, watch with dismay (too weak! Horror?) as the apostrophe goes the way of the –whatever endangered species you are currently supporting with a tax-credited contribution.

 The poor mark causes such confusion that some (;   have suggested that it be eliminated entirely to avoid chaos and, dare I say, guilt. Common eruptions of both arise when one is forced to make a plural, e.g. “tomato’s” or “Honda’s.” Or perhaps when one has to indicate ownership, e.g. “it’s” or “their’s.” All of these are wrong.

 The simplest solution from the old school was memorization but I prefer explanation. Everyone within the sound/sight of my voice/text can avoid the problem of the apostrophe by remembering one simple fact:

— the apostrophe is a mark that stands in for/takes the place of one or more missing letters–

 Here is an example. If I want to show that Walter owns a car, I can write “Walter’s car.” The reason I can do this is that the apostrophe stands in for the letters “hi” in the word “his.” The complete un-apostrophed construction is “Walter his car.” Similarly, but on the surface, contradictorily to our notion that apostrophes always make possession clear, “it’s about time” doesn’t mean “it his about time” but “it IS about time.”

 So, for another example, if you want to talk about the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, you would write “the Constitution’s Second Amendment establishes the right to bear arms” and you would be really saying “the Constitution its Second Amendment….” Here the apostrophe stands in for the “it” in “its.”

 [The trick with apostrophes is to know what letters are being substituted for. That is why, for instance, making the plural of “Honda” by adding an apostrophe and an s makes no meaning—in the construction “seven Honda’s” nothing is being substituted for; something (the apostrophe) is just being added for no good reason.]

 But you may well ask, could it not be that “the Constitution’s” might be read as “the Constitution his,” with the apostrophe standing in for the “hi” in “his”? Well, no, since the Constitution has no gender.  Unlike nouns in other Western languages, English nouns don’t carry formal gender identities. We use pronouns: “he,” “she,” “it” when we want to do that. The assignment is usually pretty arbitrary. But with apostrophes you can only choose between the male gender and the ungendered: “his” or “its”—never “her.” You can’t write “Linda’r car” and expect folks to understand you mean “Linda her car.”

 So, what’s (what is) up with that? Who OK’d (OKed) this gendered decision? No one knows, it seems, and aside from your reporter here, no one has much considered it. But it is, nevertheless, the case that English denies, in grammar, the capacity of female nouns to show possession except in the presence of a male construction.

 Here is my proposition: I think the historicized basis for this rule should be pretty clear. It was not until the 19th-cetury in English speaking countries that women could inherit property exclusive of male oversight, either by male relative or guardian. See, for example, the struggle over inheritance in “Downton Abbey” as Lady Mary’s share of the estate is seems up for grabs. By the time this situation was changed by the Married Women’s (ironic!) Property Act of 1870 [except for the peerage], the grammar rules covering the use of the apostrophe were long since fixed.

 Therefore, what we have is a grammar “rule “ (unlike the French, we have no academy that codifies such rules; we are fundamentally usage-driven speakers and writers in English) that reflects the condition of women under property law when the usage began to evolve, sometime prior to the 14th century.

 I’ll (I will) close now as my wife’r (wife her) desire to be on time at a brunch overrides my (and your, not “you’re”) all-consuming interest in this topic.


Here are two sonnets I posted earlier today to Facebook. I like them. They were written over forty years ago, when I was a graduate student. I told myself that winter that I would try out the sonnet. I saved ten of the twenty two I drafted and then kept four. These are two.




I have not walked on whiter days
Nor felt the sun’s ice-blue presence so
As on this day. Winter, as though
To claim dominion, lays
Too firm fingers on my soul
And all his nature’s strength
Invades my world; the length 
And depth of myself feels cold
And memory whispers images of past
Warnings, how winter’s gentle alarms
Sighed disaster, the cool arms
Of his messenger taking me at last.
How quiet a turn–the sun’s pale presence after winter rain,
The sharpening of summer loves into winter’s pain.

Winter dusk, in waves of grey despair,
Engulfs the world. White ices grown brown
And dead give off muddy clouds in the heavy air;
Black trees, dried grasses all broken down
Around themselves, an evergreen
Turns rusting red along its tips.
Back down cold hostile alleys once clean,
Now ragged with the husks of frozen rotted scraps, slip
Thin yellow ugly dogs with half-icy sores.
Their bleeding feet leave sign for other beasts
That come on winter nights to sniff such spoor,
To lick the rotting ice, to feast.
We cling at this late hour to the myth of day
But fear that winter’s night will have the final say.