On The Bus to Liberty City
I had been impressed ever since arriving from Cleveland by the mystery of the black people on the Liberty City bus and at the bus stops along the route. As I grew older, I began to watch them, to observe them and to wonder what the place was like where they lived. But, there was certainly nobody that was going to take me there so that I could see for myself. At about age 10, I decided that I wanted to see where all these black people went on the bus. By now, I was old enough to have read and heard much more about black people and I really, really wanted to understand what it was about them that inspired such hypocrisy and hatred in my fellow Christians. I may have hoped that seeing where they lived would help explain it all. And, I just wanted to see what would happen if I tried to go there.
My friend Glenda and I had, at my instigation, already determined what happened when a white person sat at the back of the bus. The driver gets up, comes back there and yells at you and orders you up to the front of the bus. So, I did not need to repeat that experiment to realize that the rule, while not exactly cutting equally both ways, does also restrict white people in their movements. Now I would test the implied restriction against white people going to Liberty City.
There was another thing I wanted to test. I had visited enough other homes, including the home of our Jewish/Cuban family next door, to know that mine was, in addition to being violent, exceptionally cold, restrained and devoid of outward signs of affection. I was seldom touched in a loving way by anyone. Our neighbor, Norma’s, home was also violent, like mine, as was that of my friend Glenda, but the homes of others did not seem to be.
I was especially impressed by the family from Alabama that had moved in down the street from us recently. I noticed how loving and affectionate they were with each other—how very different the feel of their home was from ours. This was the family from Alabama whose accent I had been cautioned against picking up, lest dropping my G’s stamp me as lower-class rural South. But, I wanted us to be like them and it was hard to resist the drawl that went along with the affection.
The experiment I planned had a lot to do with the not-touching, persistent sarcasm and intermittent violence displayed by my family. Other families were not like mine and it seemed to me that the difference was the same thing that made colored people seem to know each other at the bus stop. With my experiment, I hoped to get to the bottom of it. I would go and see colored people on their own turf. Perhaps I would learn something about families as well as something about segregation.
The experiment that I devised involving the bus did not, as the earlier one had, include Glenda. She probably would have done it, but I felt I had a better chance of succeeding alone. I knew it had to take place on a Saturday. That was not only because, once I finished my household chores and was given my allowance, I was fairly free to roam, but because of the joke I had heard my father tell about colored people. I had not understood it, but I remembered the punch line. It was, “if you could be a colored man for one Saturday night, you’d never want to be a white man again.” I had also overheard this joke as told by my Uncle Buster, who had used the bad word for colored.
For this experiment, I was going to Liberty City to find out not only how colored people lived and why they were so much friendlier with each other than white people were, but also what the joke meant. And, I wanted to know what the area my mother called “their place” looked like. It was very easy. All I had to do was go downtown and get on the Liberty City bus and not transfer. The whole thing would be made easier by the fact that, at 10, I looked much younger. How could anyone get mad at a poor little eight-year-old riding the bus all by herself, who missed her transfer? I had figured that being a consummate liar would probably help, too. That day, I was prepared to enact a very big lie.
On the selected day, I went downtown on the bus and then waited until a medium-sized crowd gathered at the downtown bus stop in front of Burdine’s department store. It was the kind of crowd that today would be called multi-ethnic, but it was the early fifties, so I thought of it as a crowd of colored people and Cuban, Jewish and other kinds of white people. The Jews were, by cracker definitions, also Yankees, and I was still processing that piece of information, recently acquired from my big sister. I stood quietly to one side, to avoid being pushed around when the bus came, but I paid attention, looking up from my book at intervals, lest I blow my timing.
I knew from experience that when the crunch came, some adult would spot the skinny little bookworm with the long, blond curls trying to get on the bus and I would be taken under an adult wing and sheltered onto the bus. Sometimes the good Samaritan was a genteel white grandmother. Sometimes it was a dark-eyed Cuban woman who simply waved me in with her children. Once it was a little old Jewish man and once it was a colored lady. My method always worked.
A stir swept through the crowd as the bus approached and people began gathering up their belongings. It was a shopping crowd, rather than a working crowd, since it was Saturday, all leaving downtown on the bus marked “Liberty City.” There had been no problem riding the bus downtown. A problem did arise, however, now. The bus driver spotted me before a helping adult could, called me to the door, told me I was too little to be riding the bus by myself and asked where was my mother?
I managed to look forlorn and tear up a bit when I said, truthfully, that my mother was working but I had permission to ride the bus by myself. Luckily, a nice old Jewish lady, also waiting to get on the bus and probably impatient to get on, stepped up and said to the driver, “Don’t worry. I’ll watch her” and then pulled me onto the bus before he could object. I put in my money and asked for a transfer.
So far, so good. The Jewish lady, as I knew she would, got off the bus before we got to my transfer point. The bus, as it always did, filled up with more and more black people as we approached the stop where I was supposed to transfer. At that stop, most of the white people got off the bus while I made myself as small as possible and looked intently out the window. The bus started up again. Now, only black people got on the bus. I had planned things so that I was directly behind the bus driver, two or three seats from the very front, where it was difficult for him to see me. That way, he would not remember me for a long time or notice that I had not transferred.
As the racial composition of the bus began its usual change, I was, to all appearances, deep into my book. Bus stops went by. I stayed put. As people began to stand in the aisle next to me, I became nearly invisible to the driver. I was a little frightened, not only because things were starting to look unfamiliar, but because there was no one left on the bus but colored people, the white bus driver and me. I had never been a minority before.
I got away with it up to the point where the only seats left empty were the ones in front of me and black people had to stand rather than take them, a move that would place them closer to the front than me. At that point, the bus driver looked into his mirror to see what the problem was and spotted me. He pulled over, got up, walked back and stopped by my seat and I knew I was busted. Glaring at me, he bellowed, “Where in the hell do you think you’re going?”
I teared up again, shook my curls and tried to look small. I said, “I’m going home.” “Where is that?” he asked, unkindly. “27th Avenue and 93rd Street,” I whimpered. “Well you should have transferred five stops ago,” he blustered. By now, everyone on the bus was looking at everyone else with mixed expressions, some concealing smiles. I could be quite adorable when circumstances required it. Sighing an exasperated sigh, the driver, softening a bit, took my hand and said, “Well, get up from there and come sit right next to me where I can see you and don’t say anything. You’re going to have to ride with me all the way back downtown and then I’ll tell you where to transfer on the next trip.” He walked me through a sea of disbelieving stares, some people breaking into cautious amusement, and sat me down in the seat right behind him.
“Hah,” I thought. “Victory. Liberty City, here I come.” I had to move my book fast to keep anyone from seeing my quick smirk of triumph. My heart beat a little faster. I sang to myself, “Liberty, Liberty, Liberty City.” By now it was getting dark and twilight does not last long in Miami. It would be dark by the time I got home, but I figured I could come up with some kind of story to cover why I was so late. I could even tell the truth that I had missed my transfer, omitting the part about doing it on purpose.
Liberty City was well worth the ride. It was dark by the time we got there and the joke turned out to be right, it seemed to me, or right enough to satisfy one too innocent for sexual innuendo. All I can remember now is that I had never seen anything quite like it. It was nothing like any of the places I was ever taken after dark—Little River, downtown or Miami Beach for a movie with my parents, or church, or Opa-Locka.
At the risk of encouraging stereotypes, I have to describe it the way I remember it. People were outside milling around. Movement and laughter were everywhere. I could hear snatches of my beloved blues and music I would later know as “soul music.” It was pouring out of distant radios and through the doors of what even I knew were bars. At least, that is how it seemed to me at the time. I drank it all in, silent and amazed, through the windows of the moving bus. The colors of the neon signs and the clothing, the movement, the voices, all flashed by like a horizontal roll of movie film, through the bus windows.
There were far more people on the sidewalks than I had ever seen elsewhere and those people were laughing, shouting in a friendly way at each other and sitting outside their houses in groups. Compared to my neighborhood, it seemed exciting, warm and colorful.* Here they are, I thought. The people who joke with each other at the bus stops and have to sit in the back. Not only did I find out what I wanted to know, but I saw no danger there, nothing that could justify the evil of segregation. What I saw were people I admired and wanted to know.
My decision to up and go to Liberty City one balmy evening left me with the hope that I would someday know them straight across, one to one, without the layers of prejudice and irrationality with which our cultures had burdened us—as much as that might be possible. And, it left me with some tiny sense of control, a sense that I did not have to accept everything wholesale and ready-made. To some degree, I could do my own fact-checking.
*I have not posted an image of Liberty City because I cannot find one that comes near what I remember. All the online images are too recent and relate to how god-awful Liberty City is, being a ghetto and all. I can only surmise that there are no images available of the bus route, that things got a lot worse-looking since 1952, that it looked better at night or that my memories were distorted by my age at the time and/or the intervening 64 years.
Uncle John, the Bigot
In the summer of 1957, just before Central High School was integrated at gunpoint, I was in North Little Rock, Arkansas. I went there with my Aunt Jewel, my mother’s sister, and her family. Although my mother was born in Florida, all of my ancestors on her side came from Arkansas, and my mother was raised there, among a great tribe of relatives who all lived on the same street. This trip was to visit the extended family there, including my great-grandmother, Phoebe Price. I was taken along, I assume, because she was so old I might not ever get a chance to meet her, otherwise.
My Uncle John, Jewel’s husband, was the worst bigot to be found in our family, as well as a good example of upwardly mobile poor white trash, a datum I knew only through my skilled eavesdropping. So trashy was Uncle John’s family that his brother was then incarcerated at Raiford, Florida’s state prison, awaiting execution. He had stabbed his wife to death in front of the children in retaliation for her father shooting his arm off in what was said to have been a hunting accident. I had met this person, before the murder, when visiting Aunt Jewel in Okeechobee, and had called him “Uncle Leonard” because that’s what my cousins called him.
Uncle Leonard’s wife had stayed with us in Miami for a few days while her husband was in the hospital after the alleged hunting accident. So, when she was later murdered by her one-armed husband, my mother was so mortified that I was instructed never to speak of it, even with my cousins, the murderer’s nieces. Such an event, in my mother’s mind, would make us poor white trash by association. We could only pray that the neighbors or members of our church never heard the story, remembered our guest or connected her with the story if they did remember her. It was one more deep family secret.
After the murder, my mother informed me secretly, with great enthusiasm, that I was no blood relation to either Uncle John or Uncle Leonard, though I was never to let on that I knew that, presumably because it would provide Aunt Jewel with more ammunition for her routine accusation that my family was “too big for its britches.” Her sister, my mother felt, had married poor white trash and Uncle John’s vehement and overt racism was just one facet of that for her, including his constant use of the N-word.
Uncle John, however, in spite of his status as coming from poor white trash, got points for being so upwardly mobile as to marry my Aunt Jewel and become very active in the church—excessively active, to my mind. He sang tenor in a gospel quartet and the family frequently traveled around the South to gospel-singing events and contests, where his quartet performed. That was the only thing about him I liked. That, and the fact that he drove a bread truck he was allowed the personal use of, so that when they visited us in Miami, the shelves in the truck were converted to beds for the four children. I sometimes also got to sleep in the bread truck on the return trip to Okeechobee to stay with them and visit my cousins. Poor folks Winnebago, you might call it. I thought it was almost as much fun as the time my Uncle Buster, their little brother who drove a semi, let me ride in the semi with him once to visit Aunt Jewel and I got to sleep in the bed behind the seat in the cab and yank the overhead cord to blow the horn.
Uncle John was probably the worst racist with whom I ever had an ongoing personal relationship. He was the closest I ever knowingly got to a real, unapologetic, adult bigot, before I went to Georgia. If I learned tomorrow that he had been a KKK member, I would be in no way surprised. All the way from Florida to Arkansas and back I had to listen to this guy, my uncle by marriage, go on about integration and the people he could not be bothered to even call colored people.
Whether the pending end to school segregation in Little Rock had anything to do with his vehemence on this particular trip, I cannot say. I had to tune him out after a while for my own self-preservation. It was a very educational trip for me in this regard. Just experiencing that level of racism from so close-up was a real eye-opener for me. I saw my first mountain, I was blessed by my great-grandma, I charmed my Great-uncle Luther and I observed a dyed-in-the-wool, fanatical racist in his natural habitat.
When we got to Little Rock, I do not remember any further conversation about black people, though I can only assume that, on integration, all my relatives were “agin it.” (They really talked that way.) Anyone not agin it, such as myself, would have been very wise to keep out of such conversations, had they occurred. But, there were a few events that happened to me on that trip that could leave no one in doubt as to Uncle John’s position. One had to do with Uncle Luther, my mother’s father’s brother. Of the Arkansas relatives, Uncle Luther was the one that took the most interest in us girls–especially, for some reason, me. My cousin Paula and I were 14, my cousin Frances, 15. I have to wonder now, being realistic, if our early womanhood had anything to do with it, but there was nothing in his behavior that overly concerned me on that level.
Aunt Jewel’s children consisted of my two female cousins and their two little brothers. The brothers were evidently too small to interest Uncle Luther but he delighted the three of us girls by driving us around in his new convertible. It was the first vehicle I ever rode in that had an automatic transmission, which was enough, alone, to impress us but, on top of that, it was a convertible, white with a pink interior and whitewall tires, a big boat of a car and very flashy. None of us had ever been near such a car and he loved to drive us around in it. One day, he drove us into downtown Little Rock, handed us each a $10 bill and turned us loose in a big department store.
It was more money than any of us had ever had in our hands before and my cousins went a little crazy with it. While I headed directly to the women’s clothing department to find myself a respectable cardigan sweater, they went for the records. When we came out, I had a cardigan sweater and some money left over but they had spent their entire riches on 45 RPM records, all by black artists like Little Richard and The Platters. When we got back to where we were staying, a violent and terrifying scene ensued. Uncle John asked to see what the girls had bought and went into nothing short of a frenzy when he saw the records. I was also asked to show what I had bought and I showed the sweater and the change. There followed a tirade from Uncle John in which he held me up as an shining example of prudence, while castigating my cousins for their foolishness in wasting their money and bringing shameful music into the household.
In reviewing this scene as an adult, I have tried to understand how my cousins made such a mistake. Was it having so much money to spend on their own? I knew that, unlike me, they did not get allowances. Perhaps they simply erred through inexperience in spending money. Then I wondered if it was possible that they, like me in most cases, had no idea that the artists were black. I cannot remember if 45 RPM records had pictures of the artists on them. I think not. It is certain that they did not do it deliberately to annoy their father, since he was even more inclined to violence than my father and my cousins were at least as terrified of their father as I was of mine.
The scene ended with Uncle John instructing my screaming cousins to take all that “nigger” music and throw it in the garbage, where it belonged. This, from the guy who got so much pleasure from performing music that originated with black people—compartmentalization at its finest, though the full irony did not strike me until I got into folk music in college and understood fully the roots of gospel. When the physical abuse started, I made myself scarce and hid behind Uncle Luther on the front porch. The whole episode did not endear me to my cousins and they maintained their snit all the way back to Florida. I never saw them again until my father’s funeral decades later.
There was a second incident on the way home wherein I, being perhaps more foolhardy than wise, conducted another one of my social experiments. We stopped somewhere between Arkansas and Central Florida at a place that sold gas and souvenirs. I still had my money from Uncle Luther, so I looked over the souvenirs. Among them were little 3-inch high ceramic baby dolls in diapers. Some were black and some were white.
I was far too old for dolls at that point, about to enter my sophomore year in high school, but I saw an opportunity to see just how far Uncle John would go in pressing his racism on his wife’s niece, knowing he risked the wrath of my father if he went too far—not because of the issue, but because of his status as poor white trash. My father would have seen too much of an insult to me as an upstart insult to him. So, I bought one of the little black dolls to see what Uncle John would do. He saw it and gave me a face of disapproval but said nothing. I put it in a bag where no one could see it. To my mind, that was the end of the test but random events intervened.
As it happened, when we got to Okeechobee and were walking into the house, my little china doll fell out of my purse and smashed into a dozen pieces on the concrete walk. As I stood there staring at the pieces, digesting the situation and wondering what should be my appropriate response—should I get a broom and sweep it up or just sweep them to the side with my foot—Uncle John, a few feet ahead of me, turned around and said exactly what you would expect him to say, “Oh never mind, it was just an old nigger doll, anyway.” I was somewhat surprised that he did not come and stomp the pieces into grit with his foot. Perhaps he did that after I was gone, who knows.
There is one more Uncle John, the Bigot, story that really has to be told, as it illustrates not only the depth and obsessive nature of a true bigot, but something non-Southerners in my experience have had trouble understanding, or at least acknowledging that they understand, Harper Lee and her fictional descriptions notwithstanding. That is that it is not a simple case of white people hate black people, therefore all white people are bigots. There are degrees and shades of racism.
I was not present for this little drama. It occurred long after I had moved to California. My sister told me the story on the phone, as an example of my father’s tolerance and general rationality. I took it as that, plus his complete distaste for anything related to Uncle John. The story is that Uncle Buster was near death in the hospital and was being operated on. The family—my parents, my sister, Aunt Jewel, Uncle John and some of my cousins and their families—were all in the waiting room, waiting to see if he would live. Uncle John, apropos of absolutely nothing, began to wonder aloud if Uncle Buster was being given transfusions and, if so, whether the transfusions came from white people or “niggers.” No one had made any mention of transfusions.
While everyone else was worrying about Uncle Buster and some were, more than likely, praying, Uncle John continued to babble. My father finally got to the end of his rope. Walking his 6’2” frame over to tower over my much shorter Uncle John, he looked down at him meaningfully and said, “Well, I’ll tell you one thing. If I were laying there dying and somebody told me the blood I was getting was from a colored man, I would want to find that colored man and thank him for saving my life.”
According to my sister, there was complete silence in the room and Uncle John did not utter a peep for the remainder of their time there. I would be interested to know if he ever uttered a peep in my father’s presence again, but that is a pleasure I shall be denied.
While it is clear that my father was what civil rights activists and black people quite justifiably would call a “paternalistic” racist, I believe it makes a difference what shade a racist is. There is no hope for changing people like my Uncle John, but people like my father, forced to examine their beliefs and assumptions, can evolve over time. And, racism ultimately resides in the minds of individuals. This is in no way an argument that “you can’t legislate morality,” the argument used by segregationists against civil rights legislation. The answer to that is, no, but you can legislate the legality of behavior. My point is that, in some very famous words, “individuals [should] be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement may be over-used, but it cannot be improved upon and I choose to believe that Dr. King was including white skins in his statement, as well as black skins. In order to achieve that goal, truly achieve it, individual people capable of doing so, black and white, must evolve away from the racism they were taught from birth. They must change themselves and in doing so, change those around them. My father is a good example of someone who did that, though the same cannot be said for my mother. In conversations I had with my father as an adult, out of hearing of my mother, he explained to me that, as foreman of his maintenance crew at the phosphate mine, part of his job was teaching new workers the job, a job involving a lot of danger and a lot of skill.
At some point, he said, black workers began to be hired. In the years that he had been training “colored people,” he had never seen any difference in their learning ability, willingness to work or courage in facing danger and, he said, he was as willing to work with them and help them as he was to work with and help any white man. It is true that, as Daddy’s girl, I was probably the only person in his world in whom he would have so confided, but for a white southern man of his background to have come to that conclusion at all is remarkable.
How far my father came in his evolution is illustrated by something else that happened between us that I would never have predicted. During my Berkeley period, I met the man who became my second husband, a black man with whom I later had a child. I had been in the habit for many years of simply never telling my parents anything important about my life, so I had never told them about him. That pattern came to an abrupt end when my mother called me at 4 a.m. one morning, conveniently claiming to have forgotten the time difference, and my significant other answered the phone.
I took it into the next room as she asked me, in her usual judgmental tone and with the nasal Arkansas twang that creeped out in her unguarded moments, if I were living with a man. Something in my head popped and I just decided on the spot that I had had enough judgement emanating from the southeast. I told her, “Yes, I am, I love him and nobody here cares. Is there anything else you’d like to know?”
The conversation that followed was excruciating, for her much more than for me, but it still did not come out that my significant other was black. However, a week or so after that conversation, my sister told them my boyfriend was black and two days after that, my father had his first heart attack. My sister wasted no time in calling me and telling me that if he died, it was my fault because my sinful and outrageous life in Berkeley had caused my parents so much pain and my having a black boyfriend was the last straw for my father. He, whom I had only seen cry when my brother was not expected to live after a car accident, had cried for hours before having the attack, according to my sister’s report, which may be assumed to have been exaggerated for dramatic effect.
I refused to take any blame whatsoever, pointing out that not a single thing she mentioned my doing was sinful by any rational reckoning, certainly no more sinful than certain activities she had engaged in as a young woman that had also caused my father great pain and much that I had done was exactly what Christ would have done in the same situation. I was certainly sad that my father was so ill, perhaps dying, but I could not be responsible for his attitudes. If they caused him such grief, it was on him, not me, to change them.
The next day, I received from my father the only phone call I ever received from him. He was not a telephone kind of guy. He said that he had overheard what my mother and sister were saying about me. “They thought I was still under,” he said, “but I could hear them.” He said I was in no way at fault, that he was proud of me for having the courage to live my life the way I saw fit. He joked that it was only that rebellious Arnold gene coming out and said that I had it more than either of his other children. He said that he was long overdue for a heart attack, since he had been chain-smoking since the age of 13 and that nothing, nothing that had been said to him about me in recent days had any connection to his heart attack. My mother and my sister never forgave me and my sister never retracted her accusations, but my father never stopped evolving, on many fronts, from that time forward. When he later learned of my black child, he drove to California to meet her.
© Jentri Anders, 2016