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Black Like Who?


Hello,

 

Here is the final installment of the serialization of Parts One and Two of the memoir Remembering Tomorrow by Michael Albert, distributed in this 40th year since the New Left and May 68. Other parts of the book deal with organization and movement building, ideas, education, etc. We hope that the first two parts, serialized in mailings over these past weeks, were entertaining, even inspiring, and true to the anniversary of the events, informative about the times – not so much the facts of events – but their spirit and meaning.

 

 

Chapter 16
Black Like Who? 

 

 

 

Bar Mitzvahed into Radicalism? 

 

It is not by confining one’s neighbor that 

one is convinced of one’s own sanity. 

—Dostoyevsky 

 

Religion has had a lot do with cultural politics throughout history, as it does today. My own religious encounters weren’t particularly significant in my life, save for two. I am Jewish, just barely, I guess. I went to Jewish Sunday school until my Bar Mitzvah, which meant going to classes one day a week after regular school was out for a year or so. In Hebrew school I rebelled twice, and I think these acts may have primed what came later. 

 

My religious school required us to write a book review to pass. I had one, from public school, on Moby Dick. So I handed that in, ignoring that it wasn’t on the list of (in my view) ridiculous religious books we were supposed to choose from. The teacher wouldn’t take my report, which meant I would be the first person in the history of the temple to be left back from Bar Mitzvah. I refused to do another. My mother went ballistic, came to the temple school, and told them Moby Dick was more demanding than the whole list of titles they had and that they better accept my review or there would be big trouble. They gave in and I graduated. Not only did I benefit from mother’s willingness to do battle for me, I probably learned to do battle for others. 

 

At a Bar Mitzvah, the ceremony that welcomes 13-year-old Jewish boys into what the religion calls manhood, you have to recite a couple of paragraphs in Hebrew. I didn’t have to memorize the paragraphs, just read them. I didn’t even have to know what they meant. I just had to pronounce them correctly, out loud, in front of the congregation. Imagine the respect for tradition this inspired. In any event, I couldn’t do it. Not knowing what it meant, success depended on rote memory applied to random sounds. It was my worst nightmare. My parents had to pay the temple’s cantor to tutor me into marginal competence. 

 

The big day came and I recited my lines, barely, and then the rabbi, a wise and caring person, called me up to chat, much too quietly for the congregation to hear, before the open Torah. So it was Rabbi Schankman, the background audience, the Torah, and me. He did this with each person being processed to manhood. He said, “Michael, congratulations on becoming a man, and I know we are going to see you pursue your religious training in the temple class next semester, aren’t we?” The idea was simple—you had to say yes and then if you reneged later it meant you had lied. Or you had to say no, with him staring down at you and urging a yes. I suspect that that moment caused a great many boys to lie and later rationalize it and thereby helped many boys decide that lying was an okay pursuit, which, when you think about it, was quite an achievement for a religious high holy event. In any case, I looked at him and said, “No, I am done.” In 1960, I didn’t know how to say “I’m outta here,” which would have been perfect. I don’t think many kids told Rabbi Schankman the truth. Maybe some components of what made me radical later were in place at age thirteen. 

 

I remember one more thing about my Bar Mitzvah. During the party afterward, some friends and I went up on the roof of the club where it was held. Someone had cigarettes and we intended to smoke for the first time. I can’t remember how others enjoyed their inaugural cigarette, but I took one puff and broke into a hacking cough, almost losing my lunch. That was the last time I was tempted by a cigarette, which was the best outcome not only of my graduation, but of my entire time spent at any religious functions at all. Given the form-without-content character of my meager Jewish experiences, it was a struggle for me to be anything other than disdainful of religion, particularly Judaism, until I found political reasons for rethinking some of my attitudes. 

 

 

 

Blacks and Me 

 

The mind of a bigot is like the pupil of the eye 

The more light you shine on it, the more it will contract. 

—Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. 

 

Part of personal life in America is interactions with people of other races. Furthest back, I remember recountings of what some biographer might decide was a pivotal experience. When I was in grade school my family lived in a large house. In back was a nice large brick patio that we laid down ourselves during one of our few major family undertakings. In the backyard there was also a huge chestnut tree around which our patio sprawled, and in a distant corner was a huge gingko tree producing foul smelling nut-like droppings. 

 

We had a kind of house helper named Chester. He was a large black man who did cleaning, caretaking, chauffeuring, and so on. My mother tells me I was crazy about him and so was everyone else in the family. I don’t remember this, as I was just a few years old at the time. Neighbors began to talk. What was this big black guy doing in our house with the kids, and in particular with the young daughter, Anita, who clearly was also crazy about him? Girlfriends of Anita’s weren’t allowed to come over to spend the night. In time, I am told, Anita beseeched my parents to give her back her relations to her friends and Chester was fired. My mother tells me she told Chester exactly why he was being fired, and he was very understanding. Incredible, but typical. Perhaps this whole affair, even just hearing about it later, helped spur a hatred of racism in me. Likewise, a biographer might explore what the presence of a maid in our house for my whole young life meant, always black and always treated like a friend or a family member by everyone. It certainly meant that I never did any cleaning up of any kind. It could also have generated racism or it could have generated antiracism; maybe both. 

 

Regarding further experiences of racism in my own life, I went to a typical suburban high school. The town had a mixed population. My side was professional, white, and wealthy. The other side was a small black community plus a larger white working-class area. My grade school was entirely white and my junior high was far more white than the town’s other junior high. The high school mixed it all in one institution, but with separate cultures and classes. 

 

As a young boy I never had even one black friend and barely any black acquaintances. No Latinos, no Asians, only white folks. In high school I knew a few white boys on the very popular football and basketball teams, and one black player, at least to say hello. Of course I rooted my lungs out like everyone else, though knowing only a small percentage of the players. My college prep classes were overwhelmingly white. My advanced-placement classes, headed for the Ivy League, were entirely white. This was before the civil rights movement changed society. I was a high school senior in 1964—65. 

 

So my direct personal experience of race was largely nonexistent right through high school, and at MIT, too, the ratios were horrible. In my fraternity there was nothing but whites; all but two or three were Jewish. I lived off campus, later, with whites. The physics department had a handful of black students, probably fewer Latinos, and while there were many Asians, this rarely raised issues of race. Indeed, no one engaged in confronting prejudices or arousing commitments until movement activism made it happen. Nonetheless, I don’t know why or how, by the time I was in college I was aggressively antiracist. It probably came in part from my parents, in part from reading, and largely from uncorrupted common sense, or maybe Michael Schwerner’s experience. 

 

 

 

 

 

MIT Blackness 

 

There been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long 

But now I think I’m able to Carry On 

—Sam Cooke 

 

Oddly, I remember only one highly race-specific event while at MIT. I was campaigning for student body president and went to the black student union (BSU) seeking support. MIT was so white that the BSU was a lifeline for blacks on campus who had to fight for the slightest space for their views, culture, and dignity. I gave a typical talk, militant, radical, and highly aggressive, and the audience gave me some trouble. MIT’s black students were either the first in their families to attend college, or were from elite families long familiar with college but estranged from the black communities in their cities. It was a difficult mix, typical of many campuses. A number of BSU members told me I was distracting them from advancing in society. I had no right to disrupt campus life. This group, which I should have had as prime supporters, was, in other words, initially put off like many other sectors on campus, worried about implications for their future success. 

 

They said I was out of order. I said, no, they were. Succeeding in science doesn’t justify ignoring the war in Vietnam or poverty in Mississippi. It was a heated discussion. But in time we came to mutually respect each other and while I never knew for sure, my guess is I got virtually every black vote on campus. It wasn’t only, as I look at it in retrospect, that the black MIT students’ weighty responsibility to their families kept them from taking up activist stances, nor the probability that repression might hit them much harder. It was also the character of the movements available. On campuses where blacks attended in much larger numbers, or where they became active early and thus helped define the character of available organizational options, black participation was greater. But at MIT, movement options were so dominated by whites that movements embodied white attitudes and values, which added to the obstacles to black participation. 

 

 

 

 

 

Halloween Bash 

 

I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way, the social and political equality of the white and black races. I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. 

—Abraham Lincoln 

 

One Halloween, living in the South End of Boston at the mid-stage in my history of working at South End Press, I went out to get something from a nearby drugstore. I walked over, got what I needed, and headed home. It was rainy, not pouring but wet, and drifting toward night. There was a gang of young black teens about thirty yards off. They looked at me, I looked at them, and clearly I was in big trouble. They broke into a run, laughing and cursing, menacing me e

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