Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Only in America

Every Friday night, young folks from miles around jammed the place. There was a dance floor, but it was too crowded to dance. You'd hug your date and swing and sway, shoulder to shoulder with the couples around you, to Adderly, Coltrane, Rollins and Monk; to Mingus, Roach, Gillespie, Mulligan and Clifford Brown; to Kenton, Parker, Bellson, Jamal and Dave Brubeck. It was the only place to be, man, with that juke box and that crowd.

The whole crowd was there one Friday in September of 1957, the same week Ike sent the army in to Little Rock to escort the black kids into Central High School in defiance of Gov. Orville Faubus and his Arkansas National Guardsmen.

One fellow, well-fueled by the elixir du nuit, was loudly praising Ike and disparaging Faubus, making himself heard over Miles or Duke or whoever was blaring from the Wurlitzer. The pert little blonde who was with him kept shushing him.

They closed the bar and accompanied a group of friends to an all-night restaurant for ham and eggs and coffee and sobering up. They filled a large booth; other groups from the bar filled other booths. The blonde girl said she had to get home, she had to get up early Saturday to drive to her parents' home across the state, so she and the guy with the mouth left early. They paid no attention to the six young men from another booth who left shortly afterward. The guy with the mouth paid no attention to the car that followed them to the girl's place, and again after the good-nights as he drove to his own apartment. Once there, they jumped him before he could close his car door. They gave him a nigger-lovin' lesson . That's one of the things they called him: nigger-lover. He awoke in the hospital with a concussion, nine stitches, a broken collarbone and uncounted aches, pains, abrasions and nicks.

And this wasn't a state where the Klan rode. This was Iowa.

* * *
Iowa wasn't a racist state 51 years ago. That town with the bar with the great jazz on the jukebox had always had Negro students in the schools and thought nothing of it. Why, one year the captain of the high school track team was a Negro kid, state champion in the 440. Folks in town loved to tell the story about how Coach would say to that boy, "You learn the proper way to pace your splits, son, and you'll break the state record." "Pace? Splits?," the kid would reply. "Coach, Ah jes' wins!" Guys at the Elks Club never tired of telling that one. The captain of the track team and the other black kids couldn't go to the local public swimming pool, of course. The best paying factory jobs were down at the sugar house, and they had five or six Negroes working there, but they were janitors and trash collectors and they couldn't belong to the union. Hadn't ever been a black man, or a hispanic, for that matter, on the city council or the school board or in the Chamber of Commerce or the country club. But it wasn't a racist town and Iowa wasn't a racist state. Why, some of the town's leading citizens would even drink a Bullfrog beer or two with the darkies fishing for carp down by Beaver Slough on a really hot, muggy summer day. Kept the fish flies away.

* * *
Here in post-racial America, there's a black man in the White House. His unlikely political run to the Oval Office began in Iowa, the very same state where, 51 years ago, a guy with a loud mouth got busted up pretty badly by half a dozen young heroes who didn't like what he had to say about admitting black kids to public schools.

But this is post racial America.

A black man and a white cop can agree to disagree over a beer in the Rose Garden, right?

Only in America.

And the voices of hate? Limbaugh and Beck and Dobbs and O'Reilly and their ilk? Racist? Nah. Outspoken, maybe, but, hey, that's why we got a First Amendment, right?

Only in America.

And the Republicans? In post-racist America, they'd never play on deep-seated racism among their "base" for political ends, would they? Nah. Those mobs at the town hall meetings, at the Palin rallies, toting signs depicting a black president as Hitler, filling the internet with watermelon patch "humor," the so-called "birthers" -- they're patriots, man. Not a racist bone in their bodies.

Only in America.

I had occasion to drive across the Deep South earlier this year. Sure enough, in Mississippi of all places, right there in broad daylight, a black man and a white man, sittin' side by side on a river bank, drinkin' Bullfrog beer and fishin' for carp, keepin' the fish flies away. And the white guy is tellin' the black guy, "I'm gonna marry a Lesbian nigger gal and live like a king off the gummint the rest of my natural born days."

Only in America.

Citizens toting everything from an AR-15 assault rifle to 9-millimeter Beretta sidearms have been detained in crowds at town halls across the land, several outside the building where President Obama was speaking in Arizona, one of those pack heat legally states. And in Hagerstown, Md., a man appeared at a town hall meeting hosted by Sen. Benjamin Cardin with a sign that read 'Death to Obama' and 'Death to Michelle and her two stupid kids.'"

Only in America.

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