Posts Tagged Judyth Vary Baker

The Night I Lost a Second Brother

View of the Adriatic Sea

View of the Adriatic Sea


I finally made friends with a black man at school. He talks funny not because he’s black, but because of a once-broken jaw. I don’t know how his jaw got to be broken. Sometimes he comes into the office where I work , and when he does, he turns the big standing lamp so that its bulb shines directly into my face. He wants the lamp to light up the whole room, which he considers smoky and gloomy. Then he takes off his jacket and hangs it loosely across a chair and sits down and talks politics.
I never used to be very interested in politics. When I was about twenty, Kennedy was shot and somebody in the office said –I’m glad, the bastard.—That shocked me, because to me Kennedy was almost a brother — Kennedy was fine and handsome and we laughed at jokes made on records about him, we laughed at the cartoons. When he died, a long-drawn-out sighing sound seemed to cover the whole nation like a sheet, and suddenly there was a cloud hanging just over my right eyebrow, just hanging there, that wouldn’t go away, and I called it politics and tried to remain disinterested, but it was harder after that.
Charlie yammers constantly about the marijuana problem. The old jerks who run the country now more or less grew up with the idea that marijuana is bad, that it leads to perversions and the use of really frightening drugs like heroin. What’s funny is that practically everyone I know who has used marijuana is smarter, kinder, more open-minded and interesting than anyone who guzzles beer on Saturday nights. The marijuana user doesn’t get a hangover, either. Yet the old folks are so afraid of it, and frankly, they seem out to punish us who did not endure the Great Depression, the World Wars, and other assorted evils – o we who have nice, bright clothes, college classes, and maybe even a second-hand car, and good food anytime we want – this gives them unhappy regretful feelings. We must be punished for our wild and comparatively carefree lives – and so here come the men with the truncheons, literally.
They rounded up twenty-seven just the other night, got them up out of bed and hustled them to jail – girls and boys sleepy in the gray fore-dawn, young men and women who had been quietly lying together in the same bed, perhaps, privately and bothering nobody – they booked them on morals charges, but what the geezers were really after was the grass — the marijuana. They found a little, but most of the kids had to be charged with vagrancy. After all, you have to charge a kid with something if you haul him off to jail and beat him up a little. The fact that the kids were vagrant in their own rooms, in their own paid-for beds, the fact that many had jobs and were students, did not make any big impression. The unfortunates who did not throw their stuff down the toilet fast enough –if they had any of it – must go to trial and try to avoid five years in jail and ten thousand in fines. If you steal a car, if you beat your child to a bloody pulp, maybe you deserve that kind of treatment. But for a quiet hour of smoking on your front porch?

It doesn’t matter. Someday we will come to power. And from my experiences, I can understand a little, therefore, of how black black Charlie must feel. I wonder how he can come in and yammer to me. I always wonder if he’ll come again and yammer again in his almost unintelligible crisscrossed syllables, the stabbing of his black powdery hand up and down on the desk, telling tales of the FDA and IRS and all those other monolithic triumvirate initialed Powers who rule unseen but with the computer’s dreadful nose diving into all our business any old time.
He talks and I watch fascinated, thinking half the time he talks he’s to me a Negro, to others a black man, or a nigger, and I’m actually talking and listening to a black man, and now I can say I know a black man. But I don’t know him. We meet here to almost spy on each other. We feel friendly and half-ashamed that color enters our thoughts, and I know they enter his thoughts as well as mine because once he was staring at my hands, and he said they were beautiful hands, regretfully, as though he were ashamed of his own, so that he added –they should have been black hands : then I could say they’re really beautiful.–
He only talked like that once. But sometimes I have heard him say ‘Black is Beautiful’ about my fountain pen, or my dress, laughing about it and giggling like an imbecile, really, in his conmingled fierceness and embarrassment. So he sits across from me and wags his head back and forth while I listen and respond and listen, and we’ve got into some roaring arguments that have put both of us at a silent and specially restful ease with each other. That we can argue gives us hope that we might become friends someday. Of course, Charlie is my friend. But because, primarily, he has received the special consideration of his blackness, which made me listen to what he had to say out of curiosity and a paternal, sympathetic I’m-really-better-than-you-are interior secret – So ! Tell me all about yourself!
You build up a whole elegant ideal, too: you want to convince him you are the best white person in the world, and at the same time, that ALL white people are like you, so please don’t hate us for trampling on you most of your days. And am I kidding about that? –What the cops are doing to you kids now—he says – they do to us just for kicks.–
–That’s what they do – I answer – to us, too – just for the kicks.—
–But—Charlie adds –you’re upset about this. It’s new stuff to you. It’s old stuff to me because I’m not upset by it. You’re upset because it aint supposed to be done that way, you feel it’s unfair. Get to the point—he says – and you see that the Fuzz and what they do to black men, they think it’s okay and even lots of blacks, they thought it was okay. Only, not no more. They can’t touch us again. You take it awhile, honey. You find out what it’s like. You liberal people do the fighting for us, and when you’re wore out, we’ll jump in again.—
–Remember me—I said to him once, half-joking. –if I remember you, and you remember me, one or the other of us can help the other sometime. Like if one of us gets thrown in jail.—
— Pooh – Charlie said, –I’ll remember you, but you go to jail awhile, there’s not one thing I could do about it. And you stay there long enough, you’ll come out different, and there’s nothing I could do about that, neither.—
–You mean – I said –if you get put in jail—
–Anybody – he said –punish them enough, and you’ll turn a puppy into a weasel. First thing I’d do is let everybody out of jail and start fixing the mental hospitals so they can take the killers and treat them and all.—
I was thinking, I know a colored man – a darky. He knows a whitey or white or whatever. A few years ago we really could have been friends. We could have marched shoulder-to-shoulder for civil rights, singing songs no tear gas or billyclubs could have stopped. But now the new mood is here, and it began with Kennedy’s killing and continues with a mad and senseless debacle called a Necessary War to Help the People in South Vietnam Decide to Become Democratic Like Us, or Hell, We’ll Kill Every Last One of Them. It is no joke, however. By my twenty-third year, gloom and joyless anxiety settled not as a burial sheet, but as heavy black earth over a coffin lid.
Our new President lied on several occasions – surely other presidents have lied – but not with so many fine communications and so many educated people. The old words don’t fit together right. They call it a credibility gap, but the president and his top men, in short, lied to us, and in doing so, made it very hard for us to trust them. Which forces the old folks to fall back on blind faith – that our President didn’t mean to lie – that lies were necessary because we can’t be told the whole truth, because we have no right to know absolutely everything. And so on.
Yet all the time, it’s 1984, Orwell’s misery-chant and that regimented life closing in on us, like some disease affecting the heart, which then spreads to the bones and muscles, until it reaches the very will to live. The manipulation of our lives by the Grand Puppeteers: so it spreads. It is a leprous horror, with grotesque forces in play against each other: the war that destroys better jobs, better education, better homes, in favor of slaying our bright youth in muddy rice-paddies for stinking ideals out of date and guaranteeing the squaring off of black and white against each other at home. They crash together, and begin to burn our cities. That is not quite how our situation is described in the news stories. The news stories speak of riots, looting, and fires, and predict more for the coming summer. But all this long winter of our discontent, the burning brand smoldered.
I distrust our lives held in the good hands of big business, of state-run schools where kids are marched from grade to grade as illiterate as at first. A man lives in a five-room walk-up flat, works hard at menial labor all his life, sends his six kids all to school and watches them grow up, despised by themselves and by the affluent whites, or the affluent blacks even, he watches them grow up and begin the same dreary life he had striven through in order to give them a better one. The cycle, repeated over and over: only the hideous flat remains unchanged, until it’s knocked down one day by bulldozers and machinery, and $200 “middle class” apartments are raised in its stead, and the old man moves into a three-room flat in an unrazed, uncondemned, but even more despicable tenement than he had before. His children are grown: they produce children, and hate and despair grow up with them.
Charlie grins. Behind his grin maybe he would after all not mind killing me. I would almost not blame him. When the big-earlobed President said — we are going to have peace talks, and I am not going to run for President — I thought — at last, I can relax a while! I can stop writing letters and carrying a picket sign for peace, and I can stop ruining days and nights arguing about the war, about its immorality. The negroes next, but first, just let me relax. It was the slimmest, shiniest glimmer of hope, and the whole world seemed to relax as if a tourniquet had finally been placed over a mortal wound. –Now just for awhile I’ll go to parties and stuff—I thought. –I’m young, and want to have some fun, too.—
Vague in my mind was the threat of black rioting to come again this summer: but just for now, for a few hours, I walked down the street with my husband – he had been the first man I loved, and he could have been the only man I loved , but for a twist of fate. Tonight we hoped to be entertained, but the first movie was worthless. The second was better: I began to forget about all the troubles out there, felt it all slipping away. We laughed. We forgot for awhile…
I was working as a volunteer on an underground newspaper, because of all the fear I had, and some of the things I’d seen the police doing. The police, my friends: a very kind policeman had pushed my little car to get it started. He dented his own car’s fender to give me that push. He was a very fine man and a very fine policeman. But later the same policeman saw me marching for peace with some hippies, and thought it was okay to pull my hair as I walked past him. What could I do? If I stopped and protested, I could have been arrested. You keep on walking and wonder if being white has any advantages after all. I was not a White Racist, and therefore, I had no white rights.
Martin Luther King, who is for non-violence, and the last black man the militants want around when they are chanting burn, baby, burn, is still listened to. He has been leading marches for years, and has been in jail for it. Martin Luther King has a very round face, he’s very Negroid, yet whitish enough that he can command respectability on all fronts, including among all the old darkies. He is planning a march, and there will be demonstrations, because an advanced version of President Kennedy’s Civil Rights bill is once more before Congress, there on that high green hill where beauty abounds. Jack Kennedy, your body is not far away: you overlook many graves, as Lincoln’s statue and Washington’s memorial must look upon you. And you would have thrilled at Martin Luther king’s words: the bill must pass, that people might see that non-violent means in the form of peaceful petition can also be heard, can be better heard, than the rampages that caused the destruction of Watts, of Chicago, of Detroit, of Birmingham and Selma and L.A. and Houston and Jacksonville.
The whole black race is watching now. Are they tensed with hope? Congress bickers over the bill. The Southern groups, as usual, are against it. Nobody should be forced to house a Negro. Nobody should be forced to hire a Negro. Nobody should be forced to educate a Negro. If a man wants to get up, he should help himself, like we white folks, we rich plantation heirs and self-made thieves and robbers, we fine educated and self-employed and employable white white, ambitious from the first bottle of white white milk, eager to work from the first taste of good steak and I-want-more and will get it…only you forget, some of these poor whites down in Kentucky or New Orleans, or the blacks stuffed into the big city ghettos like olives in a pipe, you forget they’ve never tasted a good steak, so the stuff of their dreams is plenty of sowbelly and collards and cornbread to go around. The dream of bringing down bloated bellies flatter, with ten kids’ eyes staring at the ten pounds of flour you bring home after a week’s work of loading concrete blocks, or maybe you’ve gone and picked up the pittance the government gives you because you don’t have a job and wouldn’t get one, because, hell, you’ll sweat and slave and die young like your pappy, or you’ll sit in the sun and half-starve and do nothing like your friends, or else you can take off, run to a city, then run to another city, maybe steal, or live off the sweat of a woman. But there is no way through the use of books, or of school, or by connections.
As we walk from the movie theater, the ease and laughter fade as I glance around me at the world closing in again. To my comment about the Civil Rights Bill, my husband mentions that the haggling of the Senators and Congressmen will be endless. There will be a filibuster to stop all progress. He kisses me there under the faint yellow glow of a streetlamp and says, –Let’s forget about politics for awhile.—
I reply, —King is assembling a massive march and they will camp out there in tents and under tin roofs until that bill is passed. And their quiet chanting will bring peaceful reforms. –I sound just like a politician– I tell myself, as we continue walking. –I know all the right words now.– At the thought, I start to smile —– when here comes Charlie along.
My husband had never met Charlie, so I was going to introduce them, but when Charlie saw me, he spat. He spat between my feet, accurately putting with that slab of foaming liquid a message of hate and disgust, and I looked up startled at him, but he was stalking past us and I was ashamed to say, –That’s Charlie, honey, and I wanted you to meet him.—
I couldn’t understand, even when I heard the sirens wailing, and it was only later when we got home, that I heard a sniper had killed gentle Martin L. King.
————————————————————————————————-Judyth Vary Baker
Martin Luther King died April 4th, 1968, due to an assassin’s bullet that was not fired by James Earl Ray. The true assassin was never captured: a court trial, decades later, proved both facts to the King family and to the jury that exonerated Ray. Most people don’t know that. And most people don’t know that just one week after King’s murder, on April 11, 1968, President Johnson signed the expanded Civil Rights Act King died for, after a week of rioting throughout America.


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