In his 1984 essay for Essence magazine, “On Being White ... and Other Lies,” Baldwin discussed how whiteness is constructed. Whites became white, James Baldwin argued, “By informing their children, that black women, black men and black children had no human integrity that those who call themselves white were bound to respect. And in this debasement and definition of black people, they debased and defined themselves.” A great example of this comes from Carl Zimring’s book, Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in America. Zimring relates the story of a Slovakian woman, recently immigrated to Connecticut, speaking to a researcher in the 1930s.
“I always tell my children not to play with the nigger people’s children,” she said. “But they always play with them just the same … This place now is all spoiled, and all the people live like pigs because the niggers they come and live here with the decent white people and they want to raise up their children with our children.”
Growing up in San Antonio, Texas, I had similar experiences, though these only came into my consciousness as racist much later. At the age of about four, my biological father skipped town never to be heard from again. We lived with my maternal grandparents until I was about nine. Among my most vivid memories from that period was the annual Fourth-of-July trip I took with my grandparents and my two younger brothers from San Antonio to Kansas City, for a reunion with my grandfather’s large, extended family. Grandpa was the youngest of ten siblings, great uncles who pinched my cheek and great aunts who buried me with hugs in their large-bosoms. There were dozens of aunts and uncles, my mother’s cousins (though mom never came on these trips), and somewhere short of a thousand cousins of my own, all with good Catholic names like Michael and Anthony and Margaret Mary and Josephine. All the clichés of large Italian families were there for the taking. The women were constantly cooking, except for the barbeque, which the men tended to. Because I was named for my grandfather, I was called “little Phil,” a name still assigned to me in some circles.
In 1967, when I was nine years old, the men at this annual gathering were headed to the liquor store to get more beer and pop. I must have had some really pathetic look on my face because one of my great uncles asked if they should take me along.
“Little Phil?” another great uncle said. “Sure, why not?”
We piled into somebody’s station wagon and headed for the North Side, Columbus Park, the Little Italy of Kansas City. In those days, Columbus Park had a long history with the mafia. The crime boss Nick Civella was born there in 1912, the same year as my grandfather. In 1969, a Senate committee identified Civella as the leader of the Kansas City mafia, though Civella denied the existence of organized crime, stating coolly in a 1970 interview, “I’m not a joiner. I’m not even a member of the Knights of Columbus.” Civella was buried with full Catholic rites in 1983 in Columbus Park’s Holy Rosary Church. This was the neighborhood where my grandfather and great uncles went to buy beer and pop.
We went into a liquor store where the men greeted each other with hugs and handshakes. They talked about all sorts of things, without, as far as I remember, ever getting around to ordering the beer and pop. I was left to wander around the store. Peeking behind the counter, I discovered a two-way mirror, something I’d never seen before. I went back and forth, poking my head into the store room and looking through the mirror at my grandfather and great uncles, then back out to the store, where I only saw my own reflection.
“What is this?” I asked. “Why do you have this?”
“That’s so nobody robs the store,” the man behind the counter said.
“Has anyone ever robbed the store?” I asked.
The men rolled their eyes and winked at each other, in gestures meant to acknowledge my naiveté.
“They tried,” the store owner finally said, smiling at me. Then to the men, he said, “Couple o’ Black Panthers.” Everybody laughed.
“What happened to them?” I asked. At that point my grandfather hurried me out of the store and back into the car. “But what happened?” I asked again. “What’s a Black Panther?” No answer. It wasn’t until much later that I came to understand the meaning of their silence. Two black guys had tried to rob a store in a protected neighborhood and they got “taken care of.” Maybe they were Black Panthers and maybe they weren’t. I’m guessing to the bent-nosed Italians in that liquor store, and probably to my great uncles, all black folks were Black Panthers, or they might as well have been. Hey, the Italians were only protecting their own, they must have thought, and those two [N-word] got what was coming to them, etc. None of this was in my consciousness at nine years old. I did not heroically stand up to my elders and declare that “black lives matter.” I didn’t do anything but stupidly take it in. It’s remarkable to me that this episode from my nine-year-old life sticks out. I now understand it as one of my first experiences of how my people dealt with issues of race.
Less than a year after the encounter with the two-way mirror, in April 1968, there were race riots in Kansas City. Police fired tear gas on student protesters on the day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral. The protest turned into a riot that included looting, vandalism, and arson. So many fire alarms went off that the Kansas City Fire Department couldn’t keep up. Joel Rhodes, a history professor at Southeast Missouri State University, wrote his dissertation on the riots.
“When you look at the looting and the arson and the vandalism,” Rhodes said, “people had specific reasons for why they targeted some businesses and why they didn’t hit other businesses.” I have no idea if that liquor store in Columbus Park was hit. By the time the riots ended, property damage was in the millions, over 100 people were arrested, and five black men and one black teenager had been killed at the hands of police.
We did not travel to Kansas City that summer for the family reunion.