When I was growing up, my parents had a friend whom they’d met at church. Let’s call him Joe (not his real name). He was an elderly black man of Jamaican origin, and he was just like how I described myself here — Admitting It: I’m a White Guy, and I Might Be a Racist!
Though a black man, Joe was very much an open — and vocal, no bones about it — anti-black racist.
Joe lived in a poor section of Hartford, Connecticut, where there was regular violence and general dysfunction. It was well-known that, white or black, you took your life in your hands if you ventured onto the streets of the north end of Hartford late at night.
White people were told, point-blank, don’t go into the north end of Hartford. Period. At any time of the day. I used to go there often, because I was told not to. This was back in the late ’60’s, the ’70’s and the early ’80’s.
Joe’s family was largely gone, and he was distant from his children, so my parents used to invite him to all our major holiday dinners such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. We kids always found him a delightful addition to the festivities.
There was always a moment during the fun when Joe would sit down and reminisce. It was at this point that we younger kids would inwardly roll our eyes, because we knew that we were about to hear a dissertation about how bad the people were in Joe’s neighborhood, and… about how superior white people were to black people.
I should point out here that my very white parents were rather important figures at the time, in the effort to bring about reconciliation between all the races in Connecticut. They were always quite uncomfortable listening to Joe. They’d sit there smiling gamely, all the while preparing their rebuttals to present to us after Joe went home.
Joe was an elderly man at the time, and he had divided his time between his home in Jamaica and his place in the north end of Hartford. His points were simple and straightforward:
- In Joe’s ideal neighborhood, there were only white people.
- No white person had ever wronged him
- Only non-white people — particularly black people — had ever wronged him.
Whether it was the crime in Jamaica, or the well-known casual violence and thuggery of the north end of Hartford, Joe insisted, it was only black people who had ever done him wrong. We kids weren’t at all shy about challenging Joe on these assertions either, but he was adamant.
When Joe would make some generalization about black people, we’d ask him about the contradiction between his being a black person, and our friend, and the fact that he was saying terrible things about black people in general. Hs response was always simple (paraphrasing): “I’ve never felt like a black man, just a man. And it seems to me that’s how white people feel. These black people I’m talking about are black first and men afterward.”
Joe became an interesting side project of my parents. They tried ceaselessly to persuade him of the goodness of his own people. Joe enjoyed the attention, and I think he may have exaggerated his scorn for black people in order to egg my parents on. However, there was no doubt as to the sincerity of his convictions.
When Joe died, the funeral was at the church we all attended, and Joe’s kids were not there. In fact, we didn’t see many black faces at the funeral at all. He lived as he’d often said that he wanted to live: surrounded by people whom he enjoyed, and who enjoyed his company… white people.
I should say that, despite his eccentricities, we all very much liked Joe. He was a gentle, soft-spoken man, with a ready, booming laugh and a fantastic sense of humor. When he wanted to, he could have you in stitches. His smile was wide, open, engaging and lit up the room, and he unleashed it often. Life had been rugged for Joe, and it had etched deep lines in his face, but he had assimilated it all with grace and good humor. You know the expression: “A beautiful young face is a gift from God; a beautiful old face is a work of art.” Joe’s was a work of art; kind, warm, wrinkled and welcoming. He was very poor near the end of his life, but always managed to bring some kind of Christmas present for all us five kids. There was always a wistful sadness about Joe that you could feel more than see or discern in theusual ways. We never learned the reason for his estrangement from his children, but it had to have been painful for him. Over the years we all came to love Joe.
People are complicated. Joe was, definitely, a black man who was also, definitely, an anti-black racist.