Inclusion and Exclusion in Our Daily Lives PART I: CHILD'S VIEW
OF HEROES AND SUCH
The overt display of racism came from one of my friends, a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy who lived across the street from us. During an imaginary game of “airplane” in my house, said friend and I were sitting in the cockpit of our aircraft: two chairs situated in front of my brother’s chest-of-drawers. When I mentioned that it was my turn to pilot the plane, he replied that I couldn’t, "because Negroes aren’t heroes.” He then challenged me to name black people who could be deemed heroic. I could only name one—Martin Luther King. My paucity of candidates seemed to reinforce his point; in addition, Martin King’s type of valor didn’t resonate with seven-year old boys who idolized cinematic heroes such as John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Lee Van Cleef and Burt Lancaster: tough guys who settled differences with guns, knives and fists. I didn’t respond in kind and ask him to name any white heroes, somehow sensing that he carried a plethora of white men in his cultural arsenal who could fit our narrow perception of a heroic ideal. Following my initial surprise at my friend’s comment, I remember feeling a burning sense of shame at my lack of a retort to his challenge.
Ironically, this uniquely American exchange took place far from home. In 1971, as an Army family newly transplanted to Munich, Germany, my father, mother, brother and I found ourselves coping not so much with an adjustment to German culture as to an American culture that had been, until then, largely foreign to us. Prior to our transfer to Munich, my father had been stationed at Ft. Lee, Virginia, just outside the town of Petersburg. We had lived off-base in Petersburg, where our ties to the community were rooted, multiple and strong. My parents were both graduates of (then) Virginia State College, a historically black university in Petersburg. Prior to our move, my mother had been working toward her Master’s degree at Virginia State and my brother and I had attended the college’s lab school on campus. One of my uncles was a professor at the college, two of my cousins matriculating students. In our immediate neighborhood, my mother’s college roommate, Jackie Payton, lived across the street from us; her husband Richard was a close friend of my father’s, they having attended ROTC school together at Virginia State. Neighbors outside the Virginia State circle also mentored and nurtured us. The Williams family, ten strong, lived at the close end of our street. The Williams boys befriended my brother and me; the pretty Williams girls baby-sat us. Doctor Barnwell, a surgeon, and his wife lived on the far end of our street. We raced bicycles with their children in their basement (it was that big) and played on Doctor Barnwell’s fishing boat when it was parked outside their home in their huge gravel driveway. Across the street from the Barnwells lived The Robinsons, close family friends of ours.
There was a sprinkling of white families in our neighborhood but the vast majority of people within our community and its social circles were black. The characteristic that distinguished us most from our neighbors was the fact that we were the only military family living on our street.
By contrast, upon our move to Munich, we were immediately immersed in an exclusively military population. Our housing area, Perlacher Forst was an open housing area with no fences or guard posts. However, our section of Perlacher Forst was reserved solely for officers and their families. Racial diversity within this micro-community was virtually nil; aside from two families we immediately befriended, The Austins and The Glasses, all of the families in our housing area were white.
In a pattern that we would follow in subsequent moves throughout our childhood, my brother and I carved out our individual circles of friends relatively quickly. However, just as quickly, we both began to sense the contrast to Petersburg. In Munich, we became known as “the McManus boys,” just as the other kids were identified by surname. In our community in Petersburg, adults adopted a more communal sense of ownership of kids; our neighbors directed us and, if need be, disciplined us. Correspondingly, we referred to many of our neighbors by the familiar appellations, “aunt” or “uncle.“ In our new community, we encountered kids who were openly defiant toward their parents, a notion unheard of to us in Petersburg. Culturally, in addition to our introduction to mainstream westerns and war movies, we were also exposed to rock and roll music that we had never heard of: Three Dog Night, America, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, the Godspell soundtrack (the only remotely “soulful” stuff was the hillbilly strains of Credence Clearwater Revival).
Other aspects of our move to Munich were more unsettling than the sense of dislocation from changing continents. It seemed that within the black families, parents and kids alike often vacillated between optimism and pessimism, enthusiasm and abject frustration in regard to the specter of race. I remember being coached by my mother, for the first time, on how to respond to racial epithets—more accurately, the racial epithet (with fists). I remember my parents' exuberance when they discovered that my first- grade teacher, Ms. Kneipfel, was black. As her student that winter and spring, I found her to be very stern, somewhat cold, not treating me any worse or any better than any of my classmates—with the exception of one little black girl, all of whom were white.
I remember looking to my elders and even my peers as barometers for how we were managing. Major Glass seemed to personify our swings in mood and outlook. Major Glass was the type of man children knew, instinctively, not to test. His twin sons were spirited, outgoing boys who were usually undaunted by Major Glass’ intimidating demeanor but he scared the daylights out of every other child in our neighborhood, white or black, with his no-nonsense persona. However, I remember participating in a piano recital where Major Glass dropped his tough façade and overtly voiced fear about the prospects of us kids coping in an overwhelmingly white environment.
Major Austin was a quiet, reserved man, in sharp contrast to his own son, who was the most aggressive, fearless kid in our neighborhood, forever at odds with other children over some offense, real or imagined. Major Austin’s pulse seldom seemed to rise; his son rarely sat still for quiet or calm.
My brother, four years my elder, began throwing monumental tantrums, spectacular cloudbursts of anger: smashing bicycles, slamming doors, screaming at less capable teammates in Little League baseball games, all with a ferocity belying his thin frame.
In Petersburg, my brother and I had moved at the center of a world of people who were caring and attentive, adults who expected us to be, like them, smart, educated and successful. Anyone who thought contrary to those expectations of us was simply wrong, someone to be shunned. When the white neighbor of the Williams family posted a “George Wallace for President” placard in his front yard, he caused a scandal. I remember the neighborhood mothers gathering in our front yard, hands on hips, as they glared down the street. No one within our circle of friends and family believed that Wallace’s political ideals were anything but backward and grotesque, as was the mindset of any who supported him. Yet, in moving to Munich, we were suddenly planted in an environment where our most basic knowledge about who and what we were (and were not) could be challenged.
My playmate’s proprietary racial claim caused an emotional ripple within our household. After I reported the incident to my parents, the child was not allowed to visit our home again—a significant event, given the degree of access that my parents always granted friends to our home. I remember my parents buying a book of “Black Firsts” shortly thereafter, a pictorial with page-long biographies of black pioneers and heroes such as Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Banneker, Thurgood Marshall and George Washington Carver and Dr. Charles Drew.
I also remember family discussions about another “Black Pioneer” in medicine: Daniel Hale Williams, the first man to perform open-heart surgery. In the Spring of 1971, there was an incredible amount of media attention focused on white South African Christian Barnard as he prepared to perform the world’s first heart transplant operation; Williams’s exploits in particular were a counter-tune to that chorus, and I remember the “Black Firsts” book in general serving as a type of antidote to my experiences with my American peers. The book didn’t give me a swelling sense of pride; any book, however factual, however well-documented, would be of questionable efficacy in dealing with people like my little friend, whose “statement” was perhaps unformed, not thought out, but still imbued with an implicit sense of power. But I remember the book as something to give me a handhold as I adjusted from the insular lifestyle of Petersburg, Virginia to one more daunting, stripped of the pretense of my primacy in the world.
The tone of this story is very measured. Do you find this reassuring, giving you a sense that these events are in the past psychologically as well as chronologically? Or do you find it flattens the story, as if the events are still too painful to get close to? Does the tone, whatever interpretation, makes it easier or more difficult to empathize with the author now or as a child?
What does it mean, for any of us, at any age, to be "stripped of the pretence of primacy in the world"?
What inspired you to write this memoir?
The incident in the story--the slight from a friend--has always stayed with me; I think of one of the reasons is that the move to Germany was such a momentous change in my life.
How true to life is it for you now?
Very much true to life. However, I must admit I feel a bit bemused by the incident itself, it not by the feelings around it.
How did writing the story change your understanding of the situation and of yourself and of the dynamics of inclusion or exclusion?
Writing the story gave me perspective on the precipitating incident--made it less painful by degrees. Writing also gave me a stronger appreciation for the world my parents, extended family and friends built in order to nurture and protect me.
From this point, having written the piece, what freedoms might you give your characters or yourself that you weren't able to see before writing the story?
I think my elders lived in a very constrained world. They sought to afford me more freedom, broader choices, through their actions. In hindsight, I see how difficult this must have been for them, having grown to adulthood through staunch segregation. I wish that I could give them some of the freedom they granted me through their actions.
One thing I now know since writing the piece: people suffer everywhere in the world, for many reasons. Suffering is varied, but universal. This universality may not make suffering more palatable, but it shakes one out of the conceit that our particular pains are the only pains.
KEN McMANUS has published nonfiction previously in Potomac Review (Port
Tobacco, MD), Fake-City Syndrome: American Cultural Essays (Red Hen
Press) and The Village Rambler (Chapel Hill, NC). Formerly a resident
of Queens, NY, he now lives with his family in Connecticut.