“Douglas!” My father yelled, and I winced. My body tensed, but I recovered quickly and rolled my eyes. I didn’t want the other guys to see my reaction. I wanted them to see me staying cool.
“What?” I shouted back. No “Yes Sir”, no “Coming!”, no respect. I’d grown out of that quite awhile back. And he had given up demanding it.
“Come here!” He yelled.
My father was a good man. Even a great man. He worked hard, provided for his family’s needs, and, in his own way, gave a great deal of himself to others. But holy shit he was hard to live with.
What was so important that he had to interrupt this game of horse? He probably wanted me to help him hold something he was nailing, or measure something he was sawing, or look for something he was needing. It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter what he wanted and it didn’t matter what I was doing. It was always the same; his needs came first, at least for things like this.
It was the strangest thing; he built the basketball goal. Why wouldn’t he want me to play with it. He knew my friends rarely came to the house to play. This moment was rare. Why was he screwing it up?
I passed the ball to Pete as I turned toward the house, shaking my head. I walked through the back door and Dad shut it behind me. Index finger pointing, seething, he said, “Don’t you ever bring a black boy in this house again.”
What the hell?
I grew up in a house with its share of dysfunction. Was it more than what other kids had to face? I can’t answer that. In my house, anger flashed white and hot one minute then burned itself out and was gone the next. I was used to hearing a list of my faults and of the wrongs that I and others, by either omission or commission, had committed against my father.
But this–this nasty, hateful, blatant racism–this was new. Racial issues were pretty much non-issues in our house. I don’t remember any comments, or discussions, or even feelings expressed about black people one way or the other. Where was this coming from?
Kevin had come into the house about thirty minutes before and had used the downstairs bathroom, the one just off my bedroom. How did my dad even know Kevin had come in? And what was Kevin supposed to have done instead? Held it until he got home? Pissed or shit in the bushes?
I was blown away. I didn’t argue. I didn’t yell. I was numb, and maybe a little sad, when I asked, “Why?”
Not long ago, I told this story to my mother. She didn’t remember it, but as I told her, she nodded her head knowingly. She had recently read The Help, and the novel reminder her of an African-American woman named Frances who had worked as a maid for my grandmother. Similar to stories in The Help, my grandmother did not allow Frances to use the bathroom in her home. There were a number of rationalizations for this, all new to me, and none of which made sense. “Black people have different diseases than white people.” “They aren’t clean.” “They have lice.” My mother assumed that Dad’s reasoning regarding Kevin in the house went along the same lines. But that wasn’t it.
“When he came in here, he saw what we had. He will go back home and tell his friends and his family what he saw. He may not mean for it to happen, but when he tells them, we’re more likely to get robbed.”
Dad wasn’t upset about Kevin peeing in our toilet (as far as I know). He was upset because he believed Kevin was a security risk.
In Les Miserables, Victor Hugo tells the story of a priest who invites Jean Valjean into his home for a night’s rest. Valjean steals a silver candlestick and, when confronted by the police, the priest lies to them and tells them he gave Valjean the stolen candlestick. Throughout Les Miserables, grace abounds. But out of everything that happens in that epic story, that’s the scene that speaks of grace the most to me. I remember it now because somewhere there’s a powerful connection between these two stories.
All of this is getting muddle though. There’s too much going on. Kevin was completely innocent. He didn’t steal anything and he wasn’t accused of a crime. All he wanted to do was play basketball. Then, all he wanted to do was pee. So there’s no comparison to the character of Jean Valjean.
I need to track Kevin down and ask him if he remembers anything differently, or anything at all, about that day.
And what about Dad? I’ve painted him in a harsh light. How much of his character was a result of timing? He was born in 1918. He grew up in the Great Depression. I find myself wanting to defend him, even as I recoil at the memory of the event. I believe he was less of a racist than most of his contemporaries, but when it came to the security of material possessions, that was a different story. Would he have reacted the same way if I had invited a white boy into the house, if that white boy had come from poverty, or from criminal origins?
Dad’s command to never bring a black boy into the house was based on both racism and classism. Judging others based on their race, class, age, nationality, gender, sexual orientation–it’s the opposite of grace.
…in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28-28).
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. (I have a Dream Speech, Martin Luther King, Jr.).
A life is sacred. Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround it with rights and respect, it has no personal being. It is part of the earth man walks on. It is not man (A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.).
May I see others as children of God. May I refrain from judging others, period. May I never put possessions above a person’s need.
May I live a life of grace, and lie about the candlestick.