(Lessons Learned -- The Real Plague on Society is Bigotry)
by "Bud" E. Lewis Evans
I was just nine years old in 1960 when the first black family moved into our quiet, middle-class, all white, little neighborhood in Kansas City. It was a pleasant place to live. There was a beautiful forest behind eight blocks of homes for childhood adventures, and a nearby school within walking distance. For many years, all of the kids grew up together; played games together and walked collectively to a little elementary school – some even married one another when they became adults.
Most of the men were family men who lived there. They were a mix of skilled blue collar workers and college educated white collar mid-management employees. The women who lived there were mostly stay-at-home moms. All of the neighbors knew each others kids. Friendly back-slapping shindigs were the order of the day as the perennial aroma of backyard barbeques waffled through the air every weekend, and people just came over whenever they felt like it. It seemed like one great big happy extended family of people with remarkably similar interests. But, that all came to a rapid end because stupidity has a way of crashing the party when you least expect it.
One hot mid-day summer weekend, the gentle easy-going nature of our little idyllic community changed radically when the first black family moved into our neighborhood. I remember very clearly, as the moving van unloaded their modest furniture, seeing a young twenty-something black couple warily carrying belongs into their new house.
Slowly, a small, stunned crowd gathered in front of their home. An elderly woman had once lived there, but she had passed on. People there assumed that someone else in her family would be moving in. But that summer neighbors were scratching their heads in bewilderment; no one knew exactly what had happened. But everyone felt that their pastoral, uneventful little lives were about to change dramatically, because the one area where civility broke down, in this neighborhood, was on the subject of change. They hated change. In fact, they loathed any kind of detour from the comfortably reality which they had carved out for themselves and their families in this hermetically-sealed microcosm of middle-class predictability.
I remember how the crowd grew, and how the hushed grumbling from separate little groups of people converged to form one large vociferous beast undulating with impatient anger. As more people gathered, their children stop their playing and joined them.
Someone's voice, a woman's voice, Mrs. Bloome, I believe her name was, shouted shrilly: "What do you think you n*ggers are doing in our neighborhood?"
This was followed by men, I once looked up to and admired, who demanded: "We don't want no damn coons in our neighborhood. Go back to where you belong!"
Then a bevy of little children, clinging to their fathers' trousers and their mothers' skirts joined the angry chorus chanting, oblivious to it meaning: "Spook! Spook Go away! Spook! Spook! Go away!"
I recall how I tugged at my dad and looked up at him only to see his face, red like all of the others, seething with hate. The terrified black couple retreated into their unwelcoming new home.
Then a stuttering man's voice yelped out from the house: "If you all don't go away, we'll call the police!"
But the angry taunts and threats continued. White-knuckled fists pounded the hot summer air as racial epithets and profanities ensued. No one thought about the children standing there. The children thought it was a game. A cruel schoolyard game.
Then, I remember, there was a sudden ear-splitting shatter of glass. Afterwards, everything grew as silent as a tomb for one awkward moment. A picture window, at the front of the ranch-style house, had imploded. Someone had launched a brick through its once wide friendly smile so only jagged transparent teeth remained to mirror the intentions of the mob.
But, just as suddenly, a young black woman ran out onto the front porch with a baby in her arms; shielding its face from the intensity of both the midday sun and the blinding hate surrounding her.
I recall how she shouted: "Please! Please, leave us alone. Can't you see we have a baby here."
Through her tears, and joined by her visibly shaken young husband, she stretched out her arms which held a crying infant, though safely cradled in her embrace, like an offering of peace, and pleaded: " Please! We have a baby!"
At that same moment, two police cars arrived and some leaders of the protest, if you can call it that, spoke with a couple of uniformed, and very annoyed, white police officers. I heard one of them speak, at my daddy's side, and explain that there was nothing they could do about the fact that the n*ggers, his words, were taking over.
Then I saw a younger, and more sympathetic, white officer walk over and asked the black couple if they and their baby were okay. He was joined by the older policeman who reprimanded them and told them that they brought this on themselves. He threatened that someone was going to jail, if he had to come back out again. And he wasn't talking about the white folks.
The young black couple, with their little baby, moved out late that Sunday night. Come Monday morning, young children tricycled again together while some kids returned to front yard rubber swimming pools on our sleepy cul-de-sac. Just a block away, older boys shot baseballs towards the hazy summer sun to impress teenage girls who picnicked with their rayon clad families at the local ball-diamond in the neighborhood park. Everything returned to normal – for a while.
But by summer's end, old fears returned as surrounding neighborhoods became integrated. A neighborhood committee of frightened white property owners was formed. I remember my dad coming home from one of those meetings and telling my mom that no one trusted one another. One neighbor who lived at the end of the block, never really befriended before the integration began, assured everyone that he would stick with the other property owners, but he moved out a few weeks later and a black family moved into his home.
His house was far from the center of the neighborhood, closer to the main street entrance, so no one came down to protest. But soon adjoining property owners were quick to put out their own "For Sale" signs. No one wanted to lose all of the money they had put into their property. Many white property owners had been approached by real-estate agencies that specialized in selling homes to black families. My father called them "block busters". My father refused to sell. Our next-door neighbors said that they too would not sell their homes to blacks.
By the middle of the following summer, almost one year to the day, more than a quarter of the homes in our neighborhood were black owned. In the next three years, ninety percent of the homes were black owned. My father finally sold our tri-level that stood on over an acre of land that merged into a beautiful hardwood forest at back of our property. He lost most of the equity he had in our home, because no one white, no one with much money, would buy it. He's always been bitter about that.-- especially, when it happened again eight years later after we moved to southeast Kansas City.
That is the genesis of the white flight from the city. My brother, after he grew up and married, moved out of the city proper to a suburb far north of Kansas City. He is four years younger than me, but he is more like my father. So, he moved too. He didn't want his children to be "exposed" to the same disruption of his childhood. That is the legacy of our self-imposed exile from our cities of birth; it is the apartheid to which our racial fear and hatred condemns us.
For my part -- even with all of the fond memories of childhood which I truly cherished as I grew up in our little slice of middle class heaven -- I've still lost so much. I lost the opportunity to grow up along side fellow human beings who might have looked past the superficial and found a common good. But as a person in a same-sex relationship for nearly thirty years, as I write this, I too have stared into the face of bigotry and I know it has no boundaries.
Fifteen years after that racial incident in my old neighborhood, my partner and I went to one of the first Gay and Lesbian Pride Week events to take place in Wyandotte County near Kansas City, Kansas. It was 1975. The authorities were tipped off later to the nature of the event, but only after we had already applied and received a permit to use a local park for our community picnic.
When we arrived, the only road that led to the park, in this sleepy little predominately white and Christian cul-de-sac, was blocked by a large orange and white road repair barrier. But oddly, a group of little kids playing in the road told us that the road was fine and they actually moved the barrier out of the way for us so that we could drive the next block to the park for our picnic.
There were only about sixty people at the event – a big crowd in those days. Gay Pride in the early seventies was sparsely attended and it usually was spread out over several smaller events. Still, every one was friendly and it felt good to be with so many people who shared similar lives. Lesbian mothers and gay fathers brought their children, and there were an equal number of single gay men and lesbian women -- as well as a few straight friends and family members. But an unexpected tempest hit our little gathering; as dark and ugly as any unwelcome summer thunderstorm intent upon ruining a Sunday picnic.
Police cars with ruby lights flashing descended upon our picnic grounds. Sirens shrieked and children fled to their parents arms. My partner, Bill, and I counted at least three patrol cars and a paddy wagon. An angry and impatient police officer exited one of the vehicles and shouted:
"You have exactly five minutes to get your things together and get your faggotty asses out of here! This is a family neighborhood. You're not welcome here!"
Then he added, hatefully: "And go tell the queers in the bushes that they better clear out or we'll be busting heads in less than four minutes now."
Needless, to say, we all left.
Complaints were made by picnic organizers, which fell upon the deaf ears of county park commissioners, but nothing came of it. Our kind was not desirable; our kind was a threat to a community of people who were not our kind.
All of this just makes me wonder, is it our primitive fear of losing the power of numbers and the security of the tribe, and losing influence if the tribe is mixed with another tribe, is it that which frightens some people so very much? Is it the terror of assimilation and loss of group identity that the majority fears?
Do they fear that they will be swallowed up and ingested into irrelevancy, like the majority has done to so many groups which once made up the cultural patchwork quilt of America? The Judeo/Christian bible is replete with this fear and often calls for severe consequences to befall those who violate the status quo and wander off the reservation to mix with other tribes -- hence, its obsession with forced conformity and a vengeful deity to enforce the rules.
How often the familiar is elevated to an established and societally protected norm, whereas the unfamiliar is marginalized, ghettoized, or condemned. Some people say that marriage equality and the civil rights of same-sex oriented individuals are the last frontier of this movement towards a more accepting society – I say that it is just the beginning. There is so much unfinished work left to do in order to bring down all barriers which make so many of us intentional strangers to one another.
The color of a bird does not improve nor diminish its song, and neither does the nesting preference of one kind of bird undermine the nesting behavior of other birds. In other words, our diversity will continue to reveal aspects of humanity which positively contributes to society as a whole -- not in spite of our differences, but because of our differences. Moreover, regardless of these racial, religious, gender, ethnic, sexual or political disparities, we all still have a lot more in common than our fears would have us believe.
(C) "Bud" E. Lewis Evans
© Sole Copyright and Ownership of this essay is by "Bud" E. Lewis Evans, 2009
*One Time Only Publishing Rights conferred in 2004 by "Bud" E. Lewis Evans to AxisofLogic.com for online inclusion in Race and Culture section of their website. Copyright reverted back to its author, "Bud" E. Lewis Evans.