Living in Texas in early 20th century, the matter of what current political correctedness. calls “ethnicity” was an integral part of the social environment. Blacks suffered complete segregation and it was not possible to have a normal personal peer relationship with one. Childhood culture included a repertoire of jokes based on racial stereotypes and dialect-driven expressions that live with one throughout life. The treatment of Mexicans was little better, though the segregation was not so explicit and, as I have already said, my childhood best friend was a Mexican boy who lived two doors away in an enviable house with a three-car garage in an era when a two-car garage was a mark of opulence. I used to joke that I learned about cultural differences every time I came out to play, when after raiding our respective ice-boxes, Babe, the Irish kid from across the street came out with his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread, I with my sausage and cheese ones on rye or pumperkickel, and Rudy with his enviable Mexican precursor to the taco. Since I usually envied Rudy’s snack, I learned early that difference does not necessarily carry the better/worse dichotomy of values.
I also belong to an ethnic group. There was no stigma to being German and, interestingly, the Jewish stigma was not felt until I came to California, when people would ask me if I was Jewish. I had a hard time giving an answer, for I couldn’t just say no honestly and yes was even more misleading. The question was never innocent. As I said, there were no Jewish customs or artifacts at 315 and I was only dimly aware of being “partly Jewish” as a child. Once a friend invited me to go to a Boy Scout retreat with his Jewish troop and I went, being amused at the underlying sense of “ethnicity,” and bemused by the to me unexpected inversion of prejudice when they sang a verse contributed to the WW I song, “Mademoiselle of Armentiers” that went, “We are the sons of Abraham,/ eating ham for Uncle Sam.” Each of the three of us joined Greek societies in college. Only much later, when I realized that because my mother was gentile, I was not Jewish by Jewish rules, I formulated the honest answer: “yes, but only by Nazi definition.” But in a household in which both parents came from families who had denied such identification and could be said to have a “mixed marriage,” all this ethnicity had seemed to be just so much nonsense when I first learned it – evil nonsense. I grew up with the assumption of differences as being culture-based and not a matter of biological inferiority or superiority and that all peoples had their virtues and peculiarities. I was apparently drawn to thinking about cultures, for I would get children’s books that described life in different countries – “The Bobsy Twins in China” sort of thing.
But we lived in and were adapted to a racist society. Willy, our weekly “help” washed the clothes out in the back yard, boiling them in an old iron kettle like those in cartoons of cannibals cooking, over an open fire. As in many southern households, however, there was a measure of warmth as well as exploitation in this relationship. Willie was a powerfully strong, dark woman (a descendant of “field hands” and not “house slaves,” whites would say). She was uneducated but we did not confuse that with being dumb. We quoted with approval those aphorisms that we thought were expressions of a natural wisdom, such as her saying that she wasn’t going to take her malady to a doctor, “’cause he’d just give it a name,” or when she came back at my cousin when he told her not to get any of the black of her hands on the sandwich she was making, “Sonny, my hands ain’t as black as your soul.” She taught us that racial discrimination is more complex than we had realized in an expression of her own feelings. Once, mother told her that one of our neighbors wanted her for some temporary work. When mother asked her if she liked it and was going back, she replied laconically, “No’m.” “Why, did they treat you badly?” “no,” she replied, “but those people jus’ don’ know they place” And she explained that they had told her to set three places for lunch and that when her husband came in and sat down, they told her to sit down, too. “I aint gonta eat with no white folks! As I say, them folks jus’ don’ know they place an I aint goin back there – no way!.” This was a sad, unforgettable introduction to the realization that the oppressed often adapt to their oppression.
There was nothing militant or “radical” in our attitude, just a kind of academic interest in, concern for, and support for the interests of Blacks and Mexicans, the ethnic minorities of consequence in early 20th century Texas. As is clear from the discussion of my family background, cultural differences and cultural relativism were taken for granted in our household, and while we, too, accepted discrimination as a condition of our society and even took advantage of some of its benefits, we did not condone it. There was a book in our library called !Viva Mexico!, which made fun of the culture of the quasi-colonial masters and thus expressing the universality of human foibles.
This interest in other cultures led me to be curious about what we would now call “the other.” Sometimes, on my magazine route I would stop at the Catholic cathedral and talk at some length to the priest, who was as alien to me as a foreigner and he seemed as intrigued by this curious child as I was about him. I have no memory of the content of our discussions but they were not just fatuous pleasantries. An even more enigmatic memory that, again, I cannot contextualize was a visit I made to the home of a middle-aged “middle-class” Black couple when I was in high school. There must have been some reason for the visit, for it is impossible that I just knocked on the door. I have a clear memory of my being in the neat and orderly living room of the modest house and the polite, if stilted, talk that ensued. It had a unique smell, composed largely of cleaning fluids, it seemed. But the only content of our conversation I remember was about the player piano, prominent in the parlor, which was totally new to me, and so they demonstrated it for me. I cannot understand what brought me to this social confrontation, so out of keeping with the norms of San Antonio in the twenties. Later, when I was at college and when I was on digs in rural Texas, I would go to Black churches to listen to their music, for the Negro spiritual sung by Black choirs is a beautiful experience. This, too, was against the grain of the culture, and in retrospect, I wonder how my hosts felt at these intrusions, which they had not dared to contest.
So I entered anthropology with a total acceptance of culture as the source of behavioral difference without any trace of the terrible infection of racist prejudice. Or so I thought. But the mind is a far more subtle and devious instrument than we like to think, as a terrifying experience I had some twenty years later made me realize. Let us fast forward to a sunny December noon on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley in 1943, after I had launched my career deeply rooted in this liberal anti-racist presupposition. I was a bit distracted, trying to figure out what to buy Gale for Christmas on our constricted budget when a man of uncertain age came by me in a persistent stride and struck me lightly with his hand as it swung with his walk. A thought sprung into my mind – a whole sentence appearing on the screen of my mind as they nowadays do on my computer. A nanosecond later, when its message entered my consciousness, a cold shiver ran down my spine. The sentence was: “Only niggers swing their arms like that.” There was nothing in the situation that merited such a reaction; the man wasn’t African-American nor had he more than grazed me. How could I, with a career devoted to the denial of racist causation come up with such a wording and such a thought? If this piece of shitty nonsense was lying deep within my subconscious, what other garbage was there? I tried to think how that sentence came into my head in the first place, for it appeared full-blown — all of a piece and not just cobbled together. I conjured up a scene of walking up dusty Stieren Street with Thea and Buntz on the way to Bonham School, but in this memory I did not actually hear the words being said. So I can’t say that was its origin, but it remains my best guess. It is a lesson in the subtlety of cultural indoctrination and made me forever aware that nobody ever truly frees himself of early experiences. I have told this story many times, for it is to me a morality tale, yet it troubles me still, even now as I write of it. It also piques my curiosity, for I cannot believe a thought like that could lie in my brain without having some form of materiality, and I wonder if some place inside my noggin a string of synapses had held together for a quarter of a century.