As an anthropologist who is expected by disciplinary mandate to apprehend and analyze evolving patterns of cultural behavior, I have noted with considerable interest and at least a small measure of anxiety the growing and sometimes gratuitous technological intricacy underlying the modern educational environment. Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in the visible contemporary interest by academicians from all fields of endeavor in the classification and synthesis of research information through the use of electronic computer systems, a process which inevitably circumscribes the range of topics amenable to investigation and also dictates that resulting data be capable of organization into self-contained and easily quantifiable increments lending themselves to unambiguous reciprocal comparisons.
I can give assurances that I have nothing against quantitative methods as legitimate tools of scholarly inquiry. We are all counters from birth, it seems, and even our most subjective and qualitatively bankrupt observations are generally based upon the feeling that, in our experience, the issue being addressed has customarily unfolded and been resolved in a manner consistent with our particular expressed opinion. We must also remember that, as Norman Horowitz has observed, Gregor Mendel’s powerful insights into genetic principles failed to find initial acceptance among peers, who rejected them as mere numerology, and had to be independently rediscovered decades later.
What has become increasingly disturbing in recent years is not the fluorescence in quantification so much as the possibility that excessive and narrow preoccupation with it is too often accompanied by a concomitant diminution of intellectual insight. This criticism is not aimed at mathematicians who, as a group, are often surprisingly abstract in theoretical orientation and typically exhibit a healthy respect for both the limitations of their support equipment and the once more widely recognized implications of the term artificial intelligence. It is those incorporating statistical methods into their work on a trivial or insubstantial basis, particularly in the social and cultural spheres of existence, who motivate my principal concern because of their potential to promote rather than undermine superficial symptomatic explanations and, consequently, to encourage rather than impede the ever-present human tendency toward reductionism. It is evidently quite possible for one to be seduced into blindly following a high-tech data processing path of what Stanislav Andreski has called circular verification to a point where one’s thinking becomes so preoccupied with the discrete that it slips into a form of “primitive mentality” far more virulent than anything ever envisioned by Lucien Levy-Bruhl in his unflattering discourses on the alleged cognitive deformities to be found in aboriginal populations.
The first and still most memorable personal example relating to the potential pitfalls which accompany symptomatic empirical seduction comes not from the classroom or structured field research, but from a situation to which I was first exposed as a ten-year-old child in Florida. It had to do with the often-repeated contention, held to be beyond dispute by West coast gladiolus growers, that black field supervisors were ineffective, or as it was consistently articulated whenever the topic came up, “A nigger won’t work for another nigger.” Some area residents expressed this point of view with the simpering but uncomprehending certainty of the dilettante who intones “E = mc2.” Others said it with the gleeful commitment of those to the bedsheet born. Still others stated the idea in a more oblique, puzzled, and faintly wistful way, as if they were not necessarily comfortable with the merits of the proposal but, nevertheless, could not easily negate the great volume oí evidence supporting it. My father fell into the latter category and, although he demonstrated through his actions that he would have liked to undermine the basic premise of such an allegation, he was, in the final analysis, never persuaded that it was possible to do so. Thus he simply dismissed it from his mind.
Harry Crews has written with moving intensity of the degree to which incidents recalled for him by others that involved a father who died when the author himself was not yet two years of age appear in his mind with such detailed clarity that he momentarily forgets they sometimes happened even before he was born. In a related vein, Russell Baker has noted the degree to which we all appear to suffer from what in a wider context Robert Ardrey referred to as the Illusion of Central Position. It seems we each play Lear in our own little road company production, and we remain convinced that no one was ever gifted with the insight and depth of feeling we ourselves possess. Even our parents become merely supporting players and, as Baker observes, it is only when we are shouldered aside by a younger generation that we begin to think of our elders as total human beings with childhood aspirations, talents, and reservoirs of moral virtue which all too often surpassed our own. I, too, see quite clearly actual incidents and early adventures involving my father and his sometimes well-known acquaintances to which I could not possibly have been a witness. Yet as I glance around the walls of my study, I realize there is still much about him I don’t know and will now never be able to find out. There is the framed envelope bearing a 1934 Los Angeles postmark and a self-executed pencil sketch of the great cinema comedian Ben Turpin followed by his autograph and the admonition to “Always Wear a Smile.” This would be from a time when Dad was serving with the small army of regimented nomads who dug post holes and erected the imposing canvas tents under which the artists and oddities of Ringling Brothers performed on vacant lots throughout the country. Hanging nearby as testament to an earlier and more self-fulfilling period in Dad’s life when he was actually rubbing shoulders as an equal with athletes and other celebrities of the day is an affectionately inscribed sepia photograph of cartoonist Frank Willard, the creator of Moon Mullins, sitting at his drawing board and smoking a pipe. Above the pipe’s bowl is an original multicolored likeness of Moon himself, frantically waving a golf club over his head and muttering expletives as he stands in tall grass and searches for a lost ball. However much I may wish to savor the particular series of events which accompanied these graphic reminders of Dad, I realize they can never be reconstructed. Still, my knowledge of family history is sufficiently broad to permit me to make at least some confident and verifiable observations concerning my father’s world view and his salutary influence on my own developing judgmental attitudes.
Dad was not in any conventional sense a racist. As a high school dropout forced by necessity to seek early employment in order to help his parents support a large family of brothers and sisters, he had worked among people of widely varying backgrounds as a farm hand, a stock boy, a hod carrier on construction projects, and, in more affluent surroundings, as a golf caddy serving individuals blessed by circumstances far less austere than his own. He had thus seen more of the world than most young men his age, even in the volatile era of the 1920’s. His aptitude for golf eventually enabled him to become a teaching professional and, for 16 years, holder of the record low score for a single round at one of the more exclusive Florida golf courses, but he subsequently embarked on a business venture with others that became a casualty of the depression. My earliest recollections of Dad, which began somewhat later, involve an endless series of relocations as he worked at first one physically demanding job and then another.
Dad’s basically egalitarian attitude toward racial and ethnic groups was acquired via the back door, so to speak. The grim experiences of his formative years had led him to conclude that Homo sapiens in general had little to recommend him, but, like many who are cynical about human beings as a category, he was unfailingly gracious and friendly at the personal level, particularly with those who, like himself, had been denied easy access to the more elusive material rewards of their society. As has been the case with most truly tough men I have encountered, Dad felt little need to affect a formidable demeanor. His easy self-confidence, his quick sense of humor, and such visible souvenirs of youthful conflict as his somewhat battered nose and the three-inch scar along his jaw all combined to promote initial respect and subsequent affection for him on the part of most with whom he came in contact. Throughout his life he remained the softest touch I have ever known when it came to providing assistance to small animals, distant relatives, friends, and, later on, to employees. Even when someone was clearly taking advantage of him, Dad would still generally be counted on to offer help, justifying his actions by observing that anyone who had expended the time and energy to develop such an outrageous story as he had just heard deserved at least some margin of investment return. His colorful background had provided him with an exceptional vocabulary of ethnic epithets, but he used them sparingly and without rancor, confining himself mostly to those of mid-range intensity even when highly incensed.
My early childhood, then, was relatively free of overtly manifested ethnic biases. From my maternal grandmother’s side of the family, whose members proudly proclaimed their “shanty Irish” heritage, I learned that ethnocentrism did exist, but the fact that my maternal grandfather was of English stock put a damper on most of its more overt manifestations. It was at the home of these grandparents in West Virginia that I was to pass most of my preschool years, and it was to this haven of stability that I would usually return to spend later summers.
Several black families lived in the area, and they seemed to be respected and their children well treated. I do not know if they were viewed by nearby whites as typical representatives of the black population or as exceptions to some larger general rule. The husband in one of these families was a rather courtly and dignified older gentleman who was by profession a plumber. Whenever elderly people in the neighborhood became ill, he would show up at their houses unbidden and without fanfare to inspect the water and gas pipes, making any needed repairs without charge. Then, with the gruffness of the truly shy, he would dismiss all expressions of appreciation and depart. When his own wife became the victim of a debilitating disease in her later years, white residents maintained an unwavering and supportive concern throughout her long and incomplete recovery.
When the few black children in the vicinity interacted with those of white residents on the neighborhood playground, there was no apparent tension or antagonism. Discrimination was not practiced when sides were chosen for such games as baseball, no matter what was happening in the major leagues, since skill was the only essential qualification for quick selection. In this rather firm meritocracy, black youngsters were often the team captains and were themselves charged with enlisting additional players. On the few occasions that I found myself alone with my black playmates, who seemed to exhibit a more taciturn and mature demeanor than my white peers, the customary discomfort I felt did not arise from any sense of personal anxiety or racial animosity. Rather, it originated from the fear that my remarks would be more judiciously judged for quality by them than by the white children I knew and would probably be found wanting.
My only other close contact with a recognized minority came in the fourth grade, at a time when Dad was employed by a gas company in southern Michigan and was walking 20 miles a day through whatever weather presented itself as he searched for hazardous leaks along rural pipelines and at service facilities. He would return to the family each Friday evening, but Monday morning found him again marching forth on another grim and open-ended odyssey. It was at this time that I was more or less adopted as a mascot by older Mexican classmates whose parents worked in the nearby sugar beet fields and, if they were able to capture greater relative security, at the area processing plant itself. This act of charity on the part of the Mexican youngsters may well have been inspired to some degree by the realization that there was at least one Gringo oppressed by circumstances more unfortunate than their own, the requirement to wear knickerbockers. These baggy knee pants, which must rank at about the same level as the pilonidal cyst in their desirability quotient among members of civilized societies, were inflicted on me through the whim of a grandmother who thought them stylish. She presented me with a half-dozen new pairs of these sartorial abominations every summer for five years, and, since their durability suggested that they were constructed of equal parts wool and piano wire, I could neither destroy them nor wear them out. Thanks to the intervention of the recognized leader of the generally older Mexican contingent, a rotund and seemingly lighthearted individual known to me only by the Anglicized sobriquet “Arthur,” I was permitted to move freely among his people and treated with a congenial if somewhat condescending tolerance similar to that usually reserved for a much younger brother.
Among students who were the children of more deeply rooted local residents, I was also exempted from much of the abuse that might have been expected to be visited upon a diminutive newcomer with a decidedly exotic taste in clothes. If any uncomfortable situation began to arise, the omniscient Arthur would appear and gaze quizzically at those responsible for this potential breach of public order. At his shoulder, as always, was a perpetually silent youth named Manuel, who was a head taller than anyone else on the school grounds. Manuel’s striking persona combined the aristocratic features of a Mayan almehen with the disinterested farsightedness of a syndicate enforcer. The ominous synergism thus produced was sufficient to discourage even the most intractable playground bully.
As I recall the pervasive atmosphere of kinship that surrounded my Mexican friends and the way in which I came to be enveloped by it, I now realize that I had been incorporated into a fictive family grouping many years before I would be formally introduced to the full ramifications of compadrazgo through the writings of Robert Redfield, George Foster, and Sidney Mintz. Even today the unfailing and admittedly unreasoning sense of initial good will I feel when introduced to individuals of Mexican extraction derives less from any anthropologically induced wisdom I have acquired through the years than from memories long ago of youngsters who, although already crippled by a transient lifestyle and the need to shoulder incredible social burdens, had both the time and inclination to exhibit an unfaltering familial compassion toward a pint-sized outsider on a schoolyard in Michigan.
By the time I was ready to enter the sixth grade, Dad had accumulated the capital necessary to return to Florida and fulfill his long-held ambition to grow gladioli there for shipment to markets in the North. Within a few years the business was prospering, and Dad had become perhaps the most popular employer among the growers, largely because he paid higher wages and gave bonuses when his flowers, which always had to be shipped on consignment, brought a good return.
Unfortunately, Dad’s relatively open-handed approach to employee management was responsible for my first personal experience with the malign forces of bigotry. These appeared when the son of another grower and his limited circle of friends began making fun of my name and calling me “Jew-Boy.” This group was not large to begin with, and their numbers were not appreciably augmented in the coming weeks by other classmates. Anti-Semitism was certainly not unknown in the area at this time, but its manifestations were subtle and were probably confined principally to restrictive real estate agreements and jokes between adults about the population of Miami. Most parents I knew would have disapproved of any ethnic or racial epithets being casually delivered by their children, if for no other reason than that such activities would have been considered an unhealthy breach of proper social deportment which could only lead to further behavioral decay in other spheres if not promptly discouraged.
After several weeks of enduring jibes whose implications I didn’t fully understand delivered by individuals whose unfriendliness was, nevertheless, quite clear, I stormed into the house late one afternoon and demanded to know, “Hey, are we Jews?”
My mother, who was examining the collective aesthetics of the evening place settings on the dinner table, ignored the substance of my inquiry but firmly corrected me for the lapses in decorum revealed by both my manner of entry and tone of voice. Mother was a slender and lovely lady who, as part of her preparation for life, had attended an exclusive Eastern finishing school for girls. Consequently, her Irish temper, a gift from my grandmother, lay rather far beneath the surface and made only rare but memorable appearances, usually in response to the taxing demands of rearing a wayward son. She had an excellent soprano singing voice and had performed with a community opera company to some published critical acclaim while still a teenager. She also played piano well and was a hostess competent to entertain guests of the highest station. She was in many ways the product of a period in which, as Dorothy Parker noted from her own family history, a desire on the part of any young woman of good breeding to train for gainful employment would have been viewed at best as declassé and at worst as downright sinful. Yet there was nothing snobbish or superficial about Mother, though she came out of a background in which her every wish had been lovingly translated into reality by doting parents. Until our family business became a success, she put in 12-hour days at the farm doing every job imaginable with a level of endurance and quiet strength of purpose more commonly associated with nurses, nuns, and top middleweight contenders. This protracted exposure to hard work had left no rough edges on either her beauty or her social sensitivity and, as she again demonstrated upon my latest lapse in etiquette, she was not about to tolerate a son who slammed doors and bayed at his parents.
Dad, on the other hand, greeted my strident query with a good-natured chuckle and, after Mother’s displeasure had been clearly articulated, asked what had inspired the sudden interest in my ancestry. When I told him about my nickname at school and identified my principal tormentor as the son of a business rival, Dad laid down the newspaper he was reading and gave me his full attention.
“Son,” he said, “it’s hard to tell about people from the old country. Pop always felt that somebody had fooled around with our name, since he’d never run into it anywhere else and neither have I. I’ve gotten a little of the kind of romance you’re talking about myself from time to time, but it’s usually been secondhand. Besides, this isn’t about Jews, kiddo. It’s about whether you take advantage of people who work for you just to stay friendly with some dismal bastard who’s not worth a damn anyhow.”
I sought to move past the philosophical basis for my dilemma and on to more practical matters by asking Dad how I should handle the situation. His advice was, “Don’t get excited over the names because they can’t hurt you. If those clowns put their hands on you, though, it will be your job to teach . them that disrespect can be expensive.” Years later, as I was conducting field research in Japan under the sponsorship of the National Institutes of Health Division of General Medical Sciences, I came to marvel that the most succinct synopsis of the Bushido Code I would ever encounter was articulated by a man who had never heard of it.
Within a few months, events took a strange turn which served to emphasize the axe-handle eclecticism that is often the perverse companion of the closed mind. It was now late 1944, and some of the fiercest battles of World War II were in progress. After a long and reasonably quiescent period at school, I again found myself the intermittent target of ethnic slurs. This time, however, I was being labeled a “Kraut” by the same small group who had previously been trumpeting my Semitic origins. These latest incidents filled me with an anger the earlier ones had not, since the family had recently been notified that Uncle Charles, Dad’s endearingly irresponsible youngest brother and a recognized family treasure, had become a casualty of the fighting around Bastogne. I subsequently began to adopt Dad’s supply-side approach to neutralizing bad manners with an appreciating degree of enthusiasm. I didn’t always carry the day in these encounters, but, as Dad had counseled, I did succeed in making them unprofitably “expensive” and they gradually ceased.
The previous observations have been offered only to establish that my own experiences with bigotry were sufficiently memorable to make it a topic of more than simple clinical interest to me. They should not be presumed to signify that I was the unhappy victim of consistent or protracted peer abuse. I was always well treated by the overwhelming majority of my classmates and, in spite of the periodic and herein necessarily distilled problems to which I have called attention, I was overjoyed by such novel benefits of our new lifestyle as being able to go to school with the same friends in the same town year after year. I had also discovered by now that I possessed at least a modicum of the musical talent I so admired in Mother. I became a regular member of the high school marching band and, in relatively short order, was also earning the impressive sum of five dollars a night on occasion as the youngest working sideman in a local dance orchestra. This fortuitous circumstance did not develop from any excessive personal aptitude but was almost entirely attributable to an absence within the community during the war years of adult musicians proficient on my particular instrument. I was delivered to these “gigs” by my parents, who were decidedly ambivalent about such appearances, and they watched me closely throughout the evening. Thanks to their relentless scrutiny and the avuncular oversight of the band leader, a gentleman well beyond draft age, I suffered no lasting spiritual deterioration from these experiences. I was, however, unable to enjoy such standard perquisites befitting my station as the ubiquitous half-pint bottles of Dixie Belle gin that could be found beneath the music stands of my fellow performers.
On weekends and after school I worked in the gladiolus fields or in our packing house with members of the all black labor force. As a budding if unfocused participant observer, I quickly identified with the field hands and adopted many of their values. I gradually became aware that, while workers were intolerant of an avowed malingerer, they would slow up their planting, weeding, or flower cutting efforts to match the speed of the least capable or coordinated among their number. I cheerfully entered into these benign conspiracies and was rewarded with the good will of those around me, some of whom were not much older than myself.
It now saddens me to realize that only a few of the more remarkable individuals with whom I came in contact during this particular period found a permanent place in my memory. There was Willie, the cheerful 30-year-old illiterate whose check I would endorse for him in a rather formal private ceremony every Friday evening. There was Leon, a boy of about my own age whose obvious intellect and graceful handwriting so impressed my father that he gave a quite respectable sum of money to the parents and suggested that they keep their son in school. There was also Sap, a tranquil seven-foot giant with a perpetually innocent expression, the morphological symmetry of an inverted triangle, and an episodic history of chain gang servitude. I particularly remember Sap because he once quite effortlessly snatched me out of a drainage ditch with his left hand when he noticed the water moccasin whose repose I had unknowingly disturbed.
Most of all I remember George, a small man of perhaps 115 pounds and 45 years, who was the first person ever hired by my father. George was a hard-working and thoughtful individual whose industry and insight into farm problems were both highly prized. He was held in great affection by the entire family, and I was particularly fond of him. He was one of the few people of the period who talked to me as if I were an adult, although excessively juvenile behavior on my part or deviation from the work ethic to which George unwaveringly subscribed would bring a quick reprimand and an order to “get your little white butt out of here.” This admonition was delivered when we were alone or in the presence of my father with equal ease and firmness. It never occurred to me to challenge George for any reason. As a practical matter, my family would have come down on his side in any dispute, no matter how cogent my explanations or excuses might be made to sound. Beyond this, George’s honesty and lack of guile gave him a vulnerability that in some peculiar way actually worked as a shield on his behalf. My constant association with George led me to the early conclusion that if there was a Hell, any abuse or disrespect I directed toward this man would guarantee me a front row seat there.
During these years, in many ways still the happiest of my life, I was constantly distressed by the implications of the repeatedly voiced local contention that blacks would not accept direction from a black supervisor. I gave it little heed at first but, as the years passed, I saw ample evidence to convince me that it must be true. I noticed, as did my father, that if George was left in charge of field operations, instructions were not carried out and required on-the-spot decisions were neither made nor implemented. The occasional suggestions casually offered by George to members of the work force in my presence rarely seemed to register or take root. He in no way slackened his own efforts and would, in fact, accelerate them. Yet his formal mandate to exercise leadership consistently led nowhere. My father, although seemingly disturbed by such incidents at times, never made an issue of them. Sunday afternoon would find the three of us fishing in some nearby stream with the concerns of the past week at least temporarily forgotten.
I gradually came to the conclusion that the apparent lack of respect blacks held for each other was an indication of a critical racial flaw. This assumption did not make me feel superior in any way but, because of my closeness to George and my undeniable love for him, it only filled me with great sadness. I would find myself staring at him and at other black men and women, hoping to uncover a clue to the structural source of their shared imperfection. Some nights I would lay in my darkened room and worry about George’s presumed disability in the same way I would later feel concern for family members or friends stricken by terminal illness.
I was still periodically pondering the implications of this weighty matter when word reached us one evening that George was dead. The strength of the muscles in his wiry little arms and shoulders, which permitted him to throw 70-pound hampers of gladiolus into the freight car of a sometimes already moving train at the end of every work day, was ultimately unmatched by the durability of that greatest muscle of all, his heart. It failed him and suddenly stopped as he was peddling a bicycle down a country road. The effect on our family was traumatic, and I am certain that George’s death had a great deal to do with my father’s decision shortly thereafter to retire from the business. The farm fields and the packing house had now become places of unbearable gloom where no one laughed anymore. Even such urbane visitors as the wholesalers from New York, Detroit, and Philadelphia who occasionally arrived to discuss the vagaries of the flower market with Dad were not above being touched by the pervasively depressing atmosphere and would comment upon it. It is significant, I think, that as Dad himself lay dying several years later from a heart disorder probably attributable to the same stresses and strains which had felled George, his last conversation with me involved the recounting of an afternoon the three of us had shared on one of those Sunday outings.
By the time I had received word that I was accepted for baccalaureate study at Florida State University, I was optimistically beginning to distance myself from the postulate of a constitutional black incapacity to exercise leadership. Central to my incipient but growing disenchantment were the encounters I had experienced back home with Henry, the sole black municipal policeman and a man of considerable local celebrity. It was Henry’s responsibility to maintain law and order in the “colored” section of town, a stretch of perhaps ten square blocks known as Safety Hill. This name was not the ironic euphemism it might at first appear, since Henry’s righteous wrath and demonstrated ability to prevail over malefactors had made his district one through which even the lone pedestrian could proceed with confidence at any time of the day or night. Yet Henry could not be dismissed as some brutal and insensitive autocrat. He was the one to whom residents immediately turned in the event of any personal, family, or community emergency, secure in the certain knowledge that help would be promptly provided and would continue for the duration of the crisis.
I had met Henry several times in the company of my father, but my only official confrontation with him came when I was carelessly wheeling an automobile through the streets of Safety Hill with insufficient regard for traffic regulations. Henry put a stop to my travels by the simple expedient of placing himself in the middle of the road with his fists on his hips and glaring balefully at the hood ornament of my approaching car. I was then made to stand respectfully in the center of the busy intersection and absorb a lecture that only the most merciful would describe as merely firm. Dad was so impressed by my subsequent revisionist account of this incident that he relieved me of the keys to my treasured 1940 Mercury club coupe and kept me grounded for a full month.
During my days at FSU I was fortunate enough to become acquainted with black students and professors at nearby Florida A&M College, an institution now over a century old that was awarded full university status in 1953. While A&M’s emphasis upon quality was reflected in many academic departments, prevailing white myopia regarding the full range of black competence undoubtedly contributed to the fact that the alumni were most familiar to those in the world at large who were devotees of competitive sports and the frontiers of contemporary music.
I was recently reminded by A&M Sports Information Director Alvin Hollins that students of this period who would later rise to positions of prominence in athletics included future Wimbledon tennis champion Althea Gibson and several pioneers of black membership in the National Football League. Alvin suggested that for additional information I might want to contact the premier source of data on the history of sports at A&M, legendary Coach A.S. “Jake” Gaither, who guided the football program there from 1945 until 1969. He assured me I would find the experience both instructive and spiritually rewarding, an assessment that was to prove entirely justified.
Coach Gaither, a genial gentleman now in his 85th year, lives an actively retired life with his charming wife, Sadie, in an atmosphere of conjugal warmth and mutual concern that would be the envy of even the most devoted newly weds. He advised me that the three earliest players from A&M to enter the NFL were Willie Lee and Willie Galimore of the Chicago Bears and Willie McClung of the Pittsburgh Steelers. At this point I recall being struck by the transient thought that such a line-up may well have given even Juliet cause to reconsider her assertion that appellations were irrelevant.
The performance of Lee, who joined the Bears in 1953, proved to be sufficiently impressive to provoke communications with Coach Gaither from the staff at Chicago inquiring into the possibility that there might be other local prospects possessing a similar level of potential. This exchange ultimately led to the 1956 recruitment of Galimore. In the meantime, McClung made his debut with the Steelers during the 1955 season.
My conversations with Coach Gaither convinced me that those fortunate enough to make his acquaintance would unfailingly come away with an abiding respect for the breadth of his knowledge and an even greater sense of humility related to their own powers of perception and retention. The level of his integrity also became clear as he recounted the lengths to which he went to insure that the welfare of his players was safeguarded as they made the difficult transition into the demanding and unstable world of professional athletics. At times, as in the case of Willie Galimore, this concern took the form of the coach personally transporting his charges to their new locations, providing in the process whatever assistance, counsel, and reassurance was required.
Life on occasion can be seen to furnish striking examples of the degree to which simplicity is an illusory and deceptive characteristic as it applies to interpersonal affairs. The concept that skin pigmentation can be a dependable guide to human worthiness seems at first glance to offer a method whereby at least some of the judgmental demands imposed by an already complicated existence could be alleviated. Yet closer scrutiny of this thesis reveals that Nature, always the ultimate pragmatist, exhibited an appropriate level of strategic wisdom in avoiding the developmental pitfalls inherent in such a scheme. For one thing, it would present insurmountable logistical difficulties, since any paradigm that permitted an individual to be objectively and accurately evaluated for quality on the basis of skin color would of necessity require that Jake Gaither be given a color all his own.
Future jazz greats matriculating through the A&M curriculum during my undergraduate days at FSU included such noteworthy and creative instrumentalists as the fabulous Adderley brothers, Nat and Julian. My own friends there were mostly students who, like myself, were financing a part of their education by playing in dance bands. I would have to agree with Anita O’Day that music has often been overrated as an incubator for brotherhood. Nevertheless, the medium, and those black performers I knew who were active within it, did serve to break down many cognitive barriers for me during these still compartmentalized years when the visit of a black acquaintance to my own campus under quite unthreatening circumstances could cause even the most well-meaning of security personnel to experience visible discomfort and uncertainty.
Another nail in the coffin of the blatantly racist hypothesis which had concerned me so consistently throughout my youth was delivered by Jimmy Lunceford’s incomparable tenor saxophonist, Joe Thomas, who, with fellow band member Ed Wilcox, took over and directed the orchestra for a brief period after Lunceford himself had died. Joe performed two and sometimes three times a year, first with the Lunceford organization and later with his own smaller group, at the Two-Spot Club in Tallahassee’s black section. This fabulous entertainment center, an unsightly barn of a building devoid of paint both inside and out, was a magnet for every musician and jazz enthusiast in the Tallahassee area. While more elaborately appointed establishments uptown could offer only the occasional local or territorial ensemble to relieve the monotonous predictability of their jukeboxes, the Two-Spot featured such powerhouse outfits as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Lionel Hampton with a frequency that warmed the soul of the true aficionado. Joe was particularly popular with resident musicians, not only because of the technical proficiency and conceptual brilliance he exhibited on his instrument, but because he would spend many hours after each performance giving advice and instruction to young hopefuls, including myself, who crowded around him. The after-hours jam sessions that were a standard part of such evenings were also gems to be forever stored in the memories of those of us lucky enough to be chosen to take part. Over the years that I knew Joe, I came to realize that his capacity to influence others was easily equal to his unsurpassed skill as a musician. Although his manner was consistently charming and thoughtful, Joe absolutely dominated any gathering at which he was present. He continues to remain on the top tier in my personal pantheon of great men.
I lost touch with Joe upon my entry into the service following graduation from college, but Bradford McCuen, a production supervisor with Nashville public radio station WPLN, has been kind enough to provide me with information concerning his later years. Brad, whose encyclopedic knowledge of jazz is based on both exceptional scholarship and devotion to the art form itself, tells me that Joe eventually left the world of music and became a successful businessman in Kansas City, Missouri. He did, however, make a brief but memorable return to the music scene with an enthusiastically received appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in July of 1968 and, as the critical accolades will verify, he was still able to take his beloved “axe” and show a new generation of fans how it’s done when it’s done right.
By the time I graduated from FSU, I had interacted with a sufficient number of demonstrably influential black individuals to be able to view the deterministic observations on the subject I had absorbed during my adolescence with disdain. Yet I would still have been hard pressed to offer any substantive explanations for all of the many instances of seemingly failed black leadership I had observed back on the farm. It was left for the armed forces, that surprisingly volatile laboratory in which many obscure social secrets can be uncovered, to furnish the essential information which would establish that the central problem being considered had little to do with active melanocytes or skin pigmentation.
When I first entered the Air Force, most junior grade enlisted men, like those found in other services, were living out of their footlockers while housed together in barracks featuring open bays. At the end of each such unit was a single private room which was the domain of the sergeant, that most fearsome and intimidating of all military minions. Within a short period of time, it was decreed that senior non-commissioned officers who were not living at home should be given private and more insular quarters paralleling those of the commissioned staff, a move that ultimately undermined rather than enhanced their status. Lower four graders were then placed one or two to a room in dormitory type structures and were now exempt from the close scrutiny and supervision to which they had previously been accustomed. The ranking junior enlisted man on each floor was made bay chief, although the term “bay” was now an anachronism. Because of continuous changes in personnel within the parent organization and the strong likelihood that some of the new arrivals assigned to his particular area would have more time in grade or a higher rank than he did, the bay chief of the moment came to realize that he could probably expect to be replaced in short order by someone who held seniority over him. If his tenure had been marked by overt attempts to exercise authority, he was certain to be socially ostracized once he was again relegated to the status of one of the troops. Caution compelled him to refrain from taking his ephemeral position too seriously. It was much more sensible to risk the periodic displeasure of an official visitor making a rare appearance than to alienate one’s buddies. Consequently, few housekeeping tasks demanding any significant degree of collective effort were ever satisfactorily completed, although the bay chief would customarily keep his private quarters spotless to demonstrate to any inspector that he did indeed take his personal responsibilities to heart.
As this drama unfolded again and again before me with the stylized predictability of a Homeric battle scene or a Japanese Noh drama, I began to realize that I had witnessed it all before back on the farm. George was dedicated and hardworking, but he had no real job security. Unlike Henry, Joe Thomas, and Jake Gaither, he had no institutional reinforcement to guarantee the permanency of his position as foreman, no matter how sincerely the title was bestowed upon him. Moreover, even if he was still employed at the same place tomorrow, a number of others he attempted to supervise might not be. Animosity which developed over any attempt on his part to exert authority would not be left on the job, since he would constantly be in contact with both present and past fellow workers whose company a flawed society had dictated he could not escape on the streets of Safety Hill. His only sensible recourse, one necessarily to be followed by anyone in similar circumstances, was to establish his own capacity to produce and then follow the dictates of discretion by avoiding any fruitless attempts to fulfill the obligations of a supervisory position that was in truth mostly form and of little substance.
As I gradually assimilated the full implications of my belated discovery, I began to wonder if George had ever been aware of my doubts about his capabilities. I found myself wishing that I could explain my mistake to him and demonstrate how all of that vaunted empirical evidence by which he had been victimized didn’t add up to diddly. Upon reflection, however, I now realize that if George were able to make an appearance, he would listen for a few moments to my protestations and then tell me with that amiable exasperation I remember so well to “get your little white butt out of here.” Now, as always, George’s counsel seems worthy of my immediate attention.