Am I racist? is a not precisely a memoir about growing up on the west side of Chicago, Illinois. It is not entirely autobiographical but everything in the story did happen.
Racism--a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. Prejudice—1). Injury or damage resulting from some judgment or action of another in disregard of one’s rights; especially; detriment to one’s legal rights or claims. 2). preconceived judgment or opinion (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2017)
I have an acquaintance. I’ve known her for many years but we’re not friends. I know her family. However, she doesn’t really know me. She thinks that I am prejudiced because I don’t respect white people. She is not old enough or worldly enough to understand just what racism is. She never acknowledges prejudice. She mistakes racism as personality conflicts. I used to think along the same lines. She believes that there are negative people, and that there are positive people, and that you somehow get to pick and choose who you interact with. This negates the randomness of real life. She says I am not open minded and that I seek out the negative. She only deals with positive people. If I expressed the notion, to her that it is an act of prejudice to decide who is good or bad, she wouldn’t understand. So here are example of what I have noticed about racism.
It’s 1973, we three adolescents, Howard, Donna and me, decide to cross the bridge, which separates the Austin neighborhood, now all black, from Cicero, Illinois, which at the time was all white. We were prohibited from travelling on this bridge, and into the village on the other side. It wasn’t our mothers who didn’t want us to go to Cicero village (although they’d be alarmed to hear about it). The village is defiantly, all white. No minorities are allowed to live there or to cross this bridge. We were either brave or bored that summer. We knew that for some reason we were prevented from crossing that bridge, however no one prepared us for hatred. When we got across the bridge, and stepped foot on that first corner, a car full of white teenagers pulls up and yells. “Nigger” and spits on Howard. Without a word we turn as a unit and walk back to the black side of the west side.
I am sitting in the day room, of Michael Reese Hospital. I am playing Scrabble with a nurse’s assistant. The only other African-American I’ve met is a rambunctious, 8 year old boy. All of the nurse assistants are Caucasian. After I win the game, she jumps up and announces to anyone who is listening. “Too bad you lost. I’m just the better player”. She is loud. I am speechless.
Inside of a full classroom of African American high school seniors an insincere teacher asked: “Give me a sentence using a verb.”
I said: “He relished the thought of kissing her.”
She said: “Relish is a condiment!” Is it a coincidence that the antagonists are white and the protagonist is Black?
Note: Why is “black” always capitalized when “white” is not?
On the west side, a man gets shot. In an all-black neighborhood, on the west side of Chicago. I call 911. It takes 45 minutes for the police to arrive.
But consider this:
On Lake Shore Drive, which is a predominately white neighborhood. While taking a shower, play my music too loud, according to my neighbor, who is four doors away. I was in the shower for five minutes, and the police show up.
On the west side, which is all black, the police walk into your house like they own the place. On Lake Shore Drive, which is de facto is all white, they won’t even breach the threshold, of the door.
The university I graduate from is all white. The town it is in, is all black.
“At this all white university the professor hands out a questionnaire. On it was the question do you believe in ESP? A white girl leans toward me and whispers, “What’s ESP?”
I read an article which stated that “it’s okay to write stuff about black people. Because black people don’t read.”
“White girls go into prostitution because they have been sexually abused as children. Black girls go into prostitution because they want to avoid working boring jobs.” (This is an actual paraphrase from a text book required by a female IUN professor). (Women and Crime text book).
I visit my cousin, in Loretto Hospital’s psychiatric ward. We are playing dominos. The person next to me, is a patient who says her name is Lisa Long. She is a transsexual prostitute. She tosses her long blonde hair and bats her baby blue eyes at me and offers to teach me how to get money of out men.
I’m in an IUN classroom a young white man, he’s got to be 19 years old. He is sincere when he says, “Black people have Black History month. This and that club is only for African Americans. Where’s our White history month? How come we can’t have a club advertised as only for Whites?”
“The Klu Klux Klan request to rally on the Lake County Court House, Gary, Indiana is in Lake County. The mayor granted permission if they kept it down to one area. They marched around and around, in a disused stadium, while a small group of counter-protestors looked on with only occasional jeering” (Chicago Suntimes, 2001).
“You bought a condo on Lake Shore Drive, across the street from the lake. You face the alley. You paid $179,900 for it. You spent a little less than $200,000 on an apartment. You think you own something? The building has an owner. The common areas have restrictions. You own four walls and even that’s an illusion. What you own is the white man’s idea of a house.”
My whole immediate family (all now dead) move across the tracks. Literally across the railroad tracks, which separates us from better schools and a cleaner and safer neighborhood. We are the first black family to move into this neighborhood. This is Chicago, in the Austin neighborhood. The exodus happens the year I turn five. We move on a cold, dark spring morning, big lake effect snow fell, with flakes as big as my eyeball. This is springtime for Chicagoans.
It is warm enough for short sleeves. The very first white person I’ve ever met, outside of nursery school is an elderly woman. She has a push cart filled with decrepit looking bags and other unidentifiable articles. She stops and speaks to me. She offers me a lick from a yellow lollipop she had in her mouth. Her face is dirty, grey. It wasn’t cloudy. She was grey, it made the yellow of the lollipop stand out as bright as the sun.
“A man in down-town Chicago, announces himself as ‘King of the Bums.’ He sounds Jamaican. He’s says “I need six dollars for a hotel.” I say, “six dollars, is that a roach hotel?” All the bums consider down-town as their primary hunting ground. I say “get lost.” He tips his hat and leaves.”
The next person I meet is a blonde girl named Colleen King, we became partners in crime. The subject of race never comes up between Colleen and me. There is no cruelty. I am never treated as “other.” Never, in jest or in the heat of anger is the word “nigger” uttered in my presence. We were allowed to play tea in her house. Her grandmother who seems ancient to my six-year-old eyes, never utters a word, but patiently serves us each a cup of cool water with a piece of hard candy melting at the bottom of the cup. We drink our “tea” in imitation of the “ladies” we see on television.
The King family are the only Caucasian family left in our neighborhood. The only boys’ Colleen likes are African American. This is after the white egress, and the black ingress. One day she is caught playing “house” behind the foliage (there was a lot of it) in the space which separates the properties. I see Colleen standing before what was a window in her living room. She is crying. Soon after, my mother takes me to Detroit. When I got back, she is gone. I never see her again.
His name is Mark. He wears large round framed eye glass. His lips are as red as strawberries, his skin pale as cream, his lake blue eyes, beam honesty and kindness. He asks me for one of the pieces of Hersey Kisses (I’d sneaked them in into school and placed on the edge of the inside of my desk). It’s easier to slip one into my mouth when Sister Grace isn’t looking. I try to give him all three. He tells me, “You don’t have to give me all your candy, Annette.”
He chose one and I kept the rest. I fell in love with Mark that day. When all the white kids were pulled out of school, he stays. He graduates with us. The only white face in a sea of black.
In 1966 before my neighborhood and school became “colored.” The school photographer comes, we all smile for the camera, all in a group at our identical desks, our identical folded hands, the girls in identical red paid jumpers, all the boys in white shirts, blue pants, and me, the only dark face in a sea of white.
I don’t remember when all the white people moved away, accept for the King family and an odd couple of homosexuals, whose next door neighbors (the only black hillbillies, I know) call them “the lawyers.”
The lawyers live a quiet life in the neighborhood. They are seldom seen. They live in that little blue house for decades. Peaceably. Finally the hoodlums could no longer stand that the two manage to avoid the rampant, random crime in the ‘hood. A day comes when all that changes. Shorty G and some of them Vice Lords, lie in wait, and they mug Raymond Chandler on his way to his garage. He dies as a result of the beating. The other stayed in his home, until he dies, of grief.
There is no crime on Lake Shore Drive, in Chicago. It’s called the Gold Coast for more reasons than the ultra-rich live here. The building I live in is a historical landmark. It’s a dump but, hey, it’s The Gold Coast. I’ve spent three years here and I haven’t heard one police siren nor the wail of an ambulance. There are a lot of cops. They congregate in squad cars, across the street from a longue. I count about half a dozen. It sounds like a party.
Each day, on the west side, of Chicago, a different corner of the neighborhood gets shot up. It’s progressive and systematic. This gang warfare, for territory began when the city tore down the projects and its residents flooded the west-side. I watch in horrified fascination as it unfolds before my eyes, every morning on the channel 7 news. I watch for six months. Today they shot up my corner, where I caught the bus every day for decades.
Coleen has some teen aged brothers. One day, on my way play with Colleen, at her house, two of her brothers’ one a blonde like Colleen, and the one with black hair, who was the elder. They stood with a small band of other neighborhood boys. They block my way.
“You’re not wearing panties.” Said the Colleen’s eldest brother.
“I am too.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Lift up your skirt and show us.”
“No.” I turn around and stomp away.
My professor who is white, gives us a list of required literature. Inside of this textbook is this paraphrased statement: Only white women were in danger of rape. Not black women. It is because black women are “low status” women (Women and Crime textbook title not remembered).
A woman got raped that night. It was J.J. Jones and some other man. From the window of my bathroom, I hear her scream and just as I am about to climb from my tub, call the cops, or something. I hear a man’s laughter. I think that this is a drunken squabble. I sit back down and finish my bath. The next day Robert told me a young woman was attacked. I can’t forget that scream.
An interview with Jeffery Dahmer, convicted serial killer, on Channel 127, the Oxygen Channel.
JD: “I feel so hopelessly evil.”
Reporter: Do you like feeling evil.”
Jeffery Dahmer strangled, raped, killed, and cannibalized his 17 victims. 10 of these young men were African American. He lived in a predominantly black neighborhood. Surrounded by such people he indicated that he felt concealed. He became angry when called a racist. Jeffrey Dahmer was probably not racist. He apparently liked black people. He ate so many of them.
In a conversation with a doctor during the same documentary:
JD: “...I used a drill.”
Psychiatrist: “Did it penetrate the skull?”
JD: “All the way to the brain.”
Psychiatrist: “Then what?”
JD: “I injected a diluted solution of acid into the hole.”
Reporter: “Why did you kill those men?”
JD: “I didn’t intend to hurt them. I wanted to be the aggressor. I wanted them to be passive. I killed them, because I wanted them to stay with me.”
Reporter: “When did you feel you’d done something wrong?”
JD: “When the police arrested me.”
Dahmer got 936 years in prison. He did two years before he was beaten to death by Darnell Hicks, an African-American.
Barrack Obama is elected.
I am listening to a Caucasian woman comment about him on a talk show. The woman sounds serious when she says. ‘Barrack Obama isn’t really smart. He just knows a lot of facts.”
He is the first African American president, in the United States. African American constituents raise the issue that “He isn’t really African American because his mother is a white woman from Kansas and his father is an African born in Kenya. You can’t get any more African American than that. Every African American in the United States can count at least one member of his or her ancestry who is Caucasian.
I live on Lake Shore Drive. It’s the Wednesday, after the Election Day. I’m on my way to work. I sit on a bench at the bus stop. A young black man is reading a newspaper. He nudges me and shows me what he is reading. The newsprint read, “56 percent of Americans did not vote. White men voted for McCain, and all the African Americans and Latinos voted for Obama. That left white women. Apparently, out of petulance, they forget that we are all democrats. Apparently because it was no longer Hillary! They throw a tantrum.
Once on the bus, I perform a mini sociology experiment. I look at every white woman who boards the bus. This is a predominantly white neighborhood. I couldn’t get one white woman to look me in the eye. Was it surprising? Not really. Was it funny? You bet!
But Am I racist? I don’t think so. However I can say that I am conscious of a divide that is man made. We have been allowed to mask those racist impulses with politically correct phrases, meanwhile the status quo, is maintained. It should make us more uncomfortable but I think it is obvious that racism goes both ways, even sideways. I no longer have patience for people who say the United States has changed. It hasn’t. Racism and prejudice have just gone under cover or wrapped in denial. It sounds like equality, but it’s not. However, I have come to expect being pre-judged, most African Americans of “a certain age” do. We put up an armor of negation in order to deal with life on life’s terms.
Annette Goggins is a recent transplant from Chicago, Illinois. She currently lives in Gary, Indiana. Annette is married and her only child is a 30 pound, black and silver schnauzer. Annette is a graduate of Indiana University Northwest and currently attends Indiana University East.