The Race Card

Several years ago, when we first became acquainted, I attempted to explain racism from the angle of vocabulary taught to the young, Naughty Words. In the essay I tried to come clean with my white boy impressions from the 1950s and 60s as if knowing a few Supremes songs qualified me as a baby boom Noam Chomsky. I was sincere and naive. Even if I was on to something I quit too shallow to conclude. I offered a separate peace, if I apologized I hoped to be forgiven, one on one.

To keep things simple, offering myself in a first impression, I understated my experience with race. It seemed more credible to describe it as aloofly as I had lived it without trying to take credit for exceptionalism and coming across as white boy knows all. Sees all. The master of omniscience. I think in that essay I wanted to establish my cred early on with the blog in case the subject kept coming back up, which it has and does in unforeseen ways. I was glib. Being careful to not misappropriate Black Experience I left out Black people I grew up with. Just so I wouldn’t cross the line of being patronizing I skipped over the unspoken general prejudices of the community where I grew up. They weren’t as enlightened as I portrayed, and neither was I. I regret my memoir supported the supposition in 2016 that interracial relations and social justice were, in the words of that song by Timbuk 3, “Things are going great and they’re only getting better.”

I did not foresee the Trump presidency, the covid-19 pandemic, the acquittal of the cop who shot Philando Castile or the murder of George Floyd and the concurrent sociopolitical and economic upheaval. If I’m coming at you all woke now, all preachy, you may have missed a few of my last 35 blogs. Even so, it’s not as if white Tulsa had burned Black Greenwood a hundred years ago and covered it up so nobody would know. It’s not like the 1619 Project is breaking news. It’s not as though my own city, Minneapolis, Minnesota has been rocked by riots simultaneously with increasing gun violence. I think of the court testimony of Darnella Frazier, the Pulitzer winning teenager who video recorded the death of George Floyd, who says she lies awake at night apologizing to George Floyd she didn’t do something to save his life. I feel that way sometimes, that I haven’t done enough to foresee and prevent the calamities humanity has befallen on my watch.

Nah I didn’t just awoke.

Maybe I’m just slow on the uptake. My 8th grade nun teacher at St Simon of Cyrene used to use that phrase — slow on the uptake. She’s the one who taught the class the definition of the word niggardly, to be stingy, just in case anybody had any ideas it might mean anything else. Our parish school — entire parish — was a hundred percent not Black, so literally all our liberal attitudes about race and civil rights were purely academic and shaped by a church which preached charity and social justice, John XXIII style. There was one Black family in our whole suburb at the time, and they belonged to St Richard’s parish, west and south of St Simon’s on the Edina border. Curious, now, that they were also Catholic. The Staples family. A son my age played football for St Dick’s, Ricky, a galloping halfback who hardly needed blockers; I played against him for St Simon’s as a linebacker; never knew him but wondered what it might be like to be the only Black kid in town. I wouldn’t have known he existed if we hadn’t both played football. I hoped people didn’t treat his family niggardly.

My childhood awareness and feelings about Black people were shaped by my parents, my grandmothers, and by rock and roll radio. My dad grew up in the inner city during the Depression and WWII. He had black friends. His mother was a social activist and proud fan of Jackie Robinson and Nat King Cole. My dad worked in the car business on Lake Street where Black people were as common as apples and sweet corn. They worked at Sears. They drove buses. My dad and mom used to entertain and go out for dinner with his friends from work and their wives. At the age of about three I learned from a Mrs Pullens it was okay for Black women to wear make up. She left a lasting impression on me. As I recall she was a good looking lady.

The respect and kindness for Blacks I learned from my mother bewilders me today considering the opinions and attitudes openly flaunted by her own mother, my other grandmother, who was from Missouri, considered herself a Southerner and expressed nothing but loathing and ridicule for people she referred to by the N word if she acknowledged them at all. Grandma and Grandpa Kelly had servants — cooks and cleaning ladies — and she refused to hire Blacks and went out of her way to find Scandinavian and Eastern European immigrants — Gypsies and Jews even — to keep away from hiring Blacks, even to do the ironing and gardening. My grandfather apparently had no say, though he was second generation Irish and likely held some opinion which influenced my mom, who taught me and my siblings in no uncertain terms there was absolutely nothing wrong with being Black.

As for Nat King Cole, he was great for that chestnuts roasting on an open fire thing, but my ear caught Fats Domino on the radio and I found my thrill. There was Chuck Berry. Frankie Lyman. Lloyd Price. Little Richard. Ray Charles. Johnny Mathis. Sam Cooke. Gary US Bonds. Jackie Wilson. All singing on the radio when I was a little kid. Nobody ever told me, don’t listen to them, they’re Black. I suppose if they had I’d’ve listened closer.

I was about nine going on ten when my mom got pregnant with Heather, the eighth kid. I was the oldest, then there was Leenie, Bernadette, Molly, Kerry, Sean and Meaghan. Leenie, Bernie and I, with a little help from little Molly kept up the housework and looked after the three youngest ones the best we could and kept up with school while our parents fought and our mother cracked up and went to the hospital, not for the first time. When she got out our dad introduced us to Eula Pratt, who would be coming to work for us to help our mom with the chores.

The short version of the story, Dad met Eula’s husband Ezra and one of their sons, Joe, looking up and down Lake Street for jobs. The Pratts were new in town from Mississippi and living in an upstairs half of an old house next to a used car lot, Eula, Ezzie, Joe, JD, Elsie, Melvin, Raymond and Raphael, whom they called Ralph. Dad met the family and interviewed Eula, who was looking for domestic work. Dad wanted somebody steady who would keep up the housework and help mind the kids because it was clear Mom couldn’t keep up on her own and Leenie, Bernie, Molly and I were growing up too fast while Mom regressed and we tried to fill in. Eula was a godsend.

The long version of the story finds the Pratt family in Mississippi. It’s 1960. For no good reason a middle aged couple from Minnesota were driving a dusty backroad near Grenada, Mississippi when they stopped in front of a shanty of a house where kids were playing out front. The couple approached the kids, met the parents. Became acquainted. The couple from Minnesota offered to help them move to Minneapolis if they wanted to leave Mississippi. The Pratts considered the offer and accepted the couple’s gracious generosity and moved to south Minneapolis, where the couple found them housing and schools and networking for jobs. The couple knew somebody who knew somebody who knew my mom and dad, and from their introduction and recommendation Dad discovered the Pratt Family. Eula came to work in white uniform as a domestic Monday through Friday, 8 to 5. Ezzie and JD came around once a week to mow the lawn and do landscaping. Joe or Elsie would drop Eula and pick her up. Sometimes Ralph would ride along, or Melvin — Melvin was a girl, just a little older than me.

Mom from the outset decided Eula’s name was Beulah, and that’s how Mom introduced her to us kids. Eula never corrected her, and the younger ones never really knew. She never insisted on being called Mrs Pratt.

Then again, Eula would slip and call Mom Mrs Sturgis decades after Mom divorced Dad and changed all our names to Kelly.

Eula was a tender loving woman of perpetual patience and immeasurable kindness whose soulful guidance nurtured me and my siblings through the most volatile time of our family, and even if our various outcomes haven’t always turned out lucky, things could only have turned out worse except for the soul and emotional intelligence of Eula Pratt.

Some people are gifted that way, I guess. She just happened to be Black.

Once in a while she would bring her son Raymond and he and I would hang out. Ray and I were the same age. I had a spare mitt my dad rarely used and Ray and I would play catch at the St Simon ball field across the street. We would walk around the neighborhood, climb trees at the Academy of Angels convent, hike around Augsburg Park or go to the library. Or play with stuff in my room. Listen to records. I don’t remember any specific conversations, only a mutual confidence tied to his beloved mom. I likely did most of the talking — I was a chatty young fella and Ray was the quiet type. I didn’t manage to introduce him to my neighborhood friends. All the times showing Ray around my world nobody came out to join up with us. Personally I didn’t mind, Ray was my friend and I almost preferred to keep him to myself, especially if nobody else seemed to care what was going on. I never brought him around to call on anybody.

Maybe I was too proud. Almost vain that I had a Black friend. Of Beulah. Nobody ever razzed me about the Pratts except one of my best pals, Micmac Murphy. “Sturgis has slaves!.” I didn’t answer. Gave him the silent hairy eyeball. He never apologized or mentioned the Pratts again. Nobody else asked about them.

I probably could have spoken up about the things I knew. My Grandma Mary, paternal, taught me about Jack Robinson. I saw the dogs, cops and firehoses on the Pettus Bridge at Selma on TV. I read the evening Star. I knew the Pratts were poor and came north for freedom and opportunity. I knew God created all men equal but some men uncreated other men unequal. And women. Ray and I never talked about any of that as if we were past it. And there was a respect for his privacy why I didn’t ask him personal questions. What he observed from me I hope was a sincere guy trying to be a real friend. Elementary respect. Later in life when we meet we center on asking if each other were doing alright.

Mr Pratt, Ezra, let us call him Ezzie. He mowed our lawn and tended Mom’s flower gardens and bushes and kept the white picket fence painted. His Mississippi drawl, thick as the river south of Memphis, sounded to my ears like he spoke in tongues. He’d say something or ask me something, like for a glass of water, and I’d ask him to repeat and repeat. “Pardon me?” He must have thought I was the dumbest kid he ever met.

The beauty of the Pratt family rests on an organic moral compass that guides their path through life making good of what they got. They wasted not.

A crass example of their success, nobody in the family got shot, and nobody went to jail.

Elder son Joe drove taxi and racked the Star and Tribune for several years. He became a circulation department legend as a territory manager for coin op paper racks. Son JD missed farming and hot weather and returned to Mississippi. Elder daughter Elsie also worked a career at the newspapers, first as VP managing the billing and collections department then the whole of circulation and customer service. She served on several boards, including the YWCA. Melvin had a career in HR, first with Honeywell and then as a recruiter for Medtronics. Ray also moved back south and made a career as Atlanta Fire and Rescue. Ralph the youngest took up computer science and last heard had a pension building up at IBM.

Eula left our family’s employ after about five years. My parents’ divorce shredded our household finances and we could no longer afford her services. She was ready to serve notice. She said she would love to stay on but she needed to separate from us for our own good, especially the youngest ones who seemed to think of her as their mother. So true we depended on her. She taught me and Leenie, Bernie and Molly how to cook stuff using canned goods and eggs, goulash, pancakes and pork chops. How to clean and do laundry. We already had experience changing diapers and shepherding toddlers but she taught us tenderness. As our mother came undone over Eula’s years with us Eula taught us kids independence and resilience as we clung to her to keep our family somewhat whole. Eula raised us to do the right thing. She said she would always check up on us as long as she was On This Earth.

She went on to the hospitality industry in housekeeping at the Leamington and Hilton hotels downtown. She was chosen as main maid when the King and Queen of Sweden visited Minnesota. Ezzie meanwhile made a reputation for himself as a personal landscape gardener and made a good living servicing rich properties. Together almost from the get-go in Minneapolis the Pratts pooled together and bought a house just the hairline above redlining in south Minneapolis. A young adult Elsie bought a house around the corner. Eventually they bought some land back home in Mississippi, where son JD lived and farmed. Melvin eventually assumed the original residence when Eula and Ezzie retired to their place in Grenada, Mississippi, coming back each year in the summer. My family kept in touch, as Eula promised. Through our mom we organized big family picnics at Minnehaha Falls when Eula and Ezzie were in town. Met the grandkids. Once in a while Ray made it back from Atlanta — man he grew up to be a sturdy guy.

My very first experience of the Deep South I was in my early forties and drove down I55 from Illinois to visit Eula at Grenada, when she was in her 80s. It was a February, after Ezzie passed away. I was unable to attend his funeral. Almost by impulse, almost a compulsion I took off solo in our old Oldsmobile at an opportune time for a few days visiting Eula where she actually grew up and started her family. Saw JD, met his wife Janice and Eula’s two surviving sisters. Ate catfish, cornbread and sweet potato pie. Shrimp. She baked me a loaf of her shortbread, the most delicious yellowcake recipe on the planet, which she knew I loved. We talked in her kitchen a lot, though I tried not to wear out my welcome. Her family seemed to be doing well. We watched basketball. She offered me assurances to feel more tenderness and compassion for my mom. She put in a good word for my dad, Mr Sturgis. Said he loved my mom, maybe too much. He had a good heart. I reminded her of him. It was a personal visit not a sociological expedition. Dad had been dead two or three years and I’d almost forgotten how well she probably knew him. My mom. Me.

Janice took us to the Piggly Wiggly and showed me downtown. It was a nostalgic antebellum town square with columns, oaks, grass and statue, hauntingly desolate, storefronts empty. Not the poster picture for the Go Go Clinton economy, though the month was February. Black History Month. Never gave it a thought until March, reflecting back.

Eula and I connected a few more times when Elsie or Melvin or JD would chauffeur her up I55 to I90 in Ezzie’s luxe vintage Lincoln to visit Minneapolis. She never seemed to get old, though she seemed more tired. She’d had both hips replaced, and we all know hips don’t lie. She’d paid her dues in life and as much as anyone deserved a comfortable retirement and golden years. Still she honored me every time with fresh made yellow shortbread cake.

When she passed away I went down to the funeral with my mom and sister Murray, the sibling most likely the one Eula referred to when she spoke about my youngest sisters believing she was their mother. Murray always referred to Beulah as being her Mama. (Not in front of our mother of course.) We stayed at the same hotel as most of the out of town Pratt families so we mixed a lot. Got to join the Electric Slide in the party and event room. Invited to go clubbing with Ray and JD. (Mur and I did, but Mom not.) The funeral service was held at a big church and packed to standing room. We were the only whites in the crowd. Whenever we went with the Pratts we were the only whites. Wherever we went where there were whites there seemed to be few if any Blacks. At the funeral none of us Kellys gave testimony, unless you count Mom getting in a couple respectful Amens during the sermon of eulogy. As if the singing didn’t move me more.

The procession to the cemetery was long and the route convoluted deep into the tangled countryside past scraggly cottonfields of late August. The graveyard itself was a gravel muddy trek among spooky, gnarly woods and Spanish moss. Most of the markers were little wooden crosses and tiny flat stones. Mere ribbons. Some upright gravestones. Ezra and Eula’s gravestone stood up like a monument in this poor and pathetic, shabby Black cemetery. When all was said and done we did not linger to be left behind. We’d rented a car at the Memphis airport and drove on our own. The atmosphere in the Mississippi countryside did not beckon as a place to delight in getting lost, so I gunned it a little to keep up with the car ahead, make correct turns to get back to town. The sight that the couple from the Twin Cities motoring on the backroads found of the Pratt kids seemed clear to imagine that day in Mississippi.

At the church supper afterwards we met cousins and aunts and uncles. The food richly sumptuous. Hospitality exquisite. Murray engaged one of the elder uncles and asked him straight up what it was like back in the day. “You don’t really want to know,” he replied.

In American history class we were taught about Jamestown and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. We never heard about the first slaves brought to Virginia Colony in 1619 or Juneteenth, not even at St Simon of Cyrene. Didn’t know about the Greenwood Massacre of Tulsa until last year. The murder of George Floyd kneed to death by a cop during a misdemeanor arrest in my home town, recorded in detail for just under ten minutes by Darnella Frazier, a high school kid with an iPhone, exposed me with shock to the realization that learning about racism never stops, it can come at me anew at any time. Time and again in my life I complacently allow myself to believe racism is solved and Blacks at last freely enjoy lives that matter just like us whites. Then something happens. Bad shit that can be traced back to slavery.

I read recently a theory there is no such thing as race. What gets attributed to race is merely a linguistic categorization of people by skin. A very popular categorization it seems. People like organizing things by categories. They recognize differences and like them defined. Somebody defined humans in groups by skin and after that came general attributions. Myths. Tropes. Stereotypes. Blocs. Monoliths. Pseudosciences. Slavery. All tracing back to a simple denial of subdermal commonalities among the human race.

Old as time, you say. Who keeps time? Forgive me for my naive optimism as a baby boom liberal to seek evidence racism is dead. Dead at last. Where else can it go, I ask myself. I imagine back in time when the European kingdoms explored the oceans, and then the lands which led to indigenous exploitation. Old Country colonization, the conquest of lands on the planet not in any way previously contiguous to the Old Country, the subjugation of its peoples and establishment of international boundaries, set the eventual table for subsequent armed political strife that continues through the modern day across Africa, where Black people originated in America. Slavery and colonization. My ancestors from my Old Country poached their ancestors from their Old Country and eventually dumped their population in a ditch with barely a clue what to do next. Never taught, never shared education. It is worth noting Haiti got no leg up towards utopia from originating as a slave uprising against a colonial power.

What makes me so sad about being re-woke and re-woked again is it seems to require the people who have lived the nightmare to live it again and again to keep people like me woke up. Once upon a time we sang We Shall Overcome but we never promised when, just One Day.

How soon can we start over? Never. Always something there to remind us. Always another wrong to remedy. One more sorry. Same sorries over again. History sometimes rhymes, repeats and is often redundant.

Race is a phony categorization of people. It will suit historians as a fabricated means to study past behavior but it has no future. Under rule of law alone it is programmed for extinction. Another hundred years and the international diaspora will undermine whatever remains of the privileges of skin. Heritages will be so mixed the dermal qualities that describe people will be irrelevant to social strata and gross demographics. Right here in the right now we got pending issues. The time is obvious. The syllabus is set before us. The dialogue is in progress. There’s no hypothetical debate. Accountability is inevitable. This is the age when the whole wide world sees a Black man die a slow death under the knee of a white policeman on real time video. In my part of town. In my precinct. Let’s lay it all out. If not now, when?

I don’t mean to suggest the Pratt family escaped any form of pain or oppression. (One could suggest working for my family was pain and oppression, or claim just living in my family was painfully oppressive.) It’s not for me to appropriate their family story. I only know them for their family loyalty and reliance and loving responsibility. What I see and admire in them looks like success to me in the kind of normal world I expected to live in when I was young and believed racial bigotry was on its way out the door. The Pratts aren’t the only ones, just the ones I know best, Black whose lives matter to me.

People whom I implore the world to consider in light of the obvious opportunities for reconciliation of society since we all been woke up. The Lost Year of ZOZO included riots that raged and trashed a perfectly nice commercial district and seemed to set off a crime wave of relentless gunfire gone unchallenged and unapprehended. As shots in the arm bring our society out of the covid-19 pandemic, gunshots in the city perpetuate the pandemic of urban armed conflict. No thanks to Derek Chauvin the police powers in the city are being interpreted as neutralized by the armed criminal element. The political movement to defund — defrock, doxy, deconstruct, dismantle — the police department demands a suspension of belief in violent criminality. Beyond reconciliation with the public, reformation of police standards and removing officers unfit to serve, the leaders of this movement imply the police are the cause of crime. As if police cause racism, poverty, ignorance and disregard for civility and human life. They ask you to presume that without police all the criminals would lay down their guns and stop robbing and killing and peace will prevail as citizens duly woke will practice model civic behavior and enforce the rule of law by policing themselves, an honor system backed by folk militia.

Sorry to put a downer on such a beautiful but wild and crazy dream. Anarchy seems so elegant sometimes. It’s made up of so many minute details it’s enticing to ignore all that granular texture and nuance and let it all crash and see what happens. We got a rare glimpse of what happens last January 6.

In Minneapolis we lived through an urban apocalypse last summer when thousands of peaceful protesters could not restrain the impulses of rioters, looters, arsonists and mob fiends who destroyed whole blocks of shops, stores and services at key corridors of the city, including East Lake Street where I live. Some critics say the mayor and the governor dropped the ball being unprepared to deal with the public reaction to the murder of George Floyd, as seen on TV. To think that way you have to back up because nobody in or out of government, in either party, was prepared with any kind of contingency plan what to do in case Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. It turned out, predictably enough, crowds assembled. Social media broadcast the times and places. From my house I watched them trek to the 3rd Precinct. It was on all the news. Cameras from helicopters. Hundreds. Thousands. A lot of them masked and sort of standing apart but all assembling on East Lake Street, in the shopping center parking lot, the avenues around 3rd Precinct police station, which was soon under siege. Speechmakers with mics and amps clearly denounced the police, the precinct, the whole stinking racist department, and what they had for evidence was an almost ten minute video from Facebook proving cops are wanton killers — the speechmakers, make no mistake, articulated deep and abiding loathing for the police. Still the rallies remained peaceful. Some of the crowds pressed close against the fence around the precinct and the cops in riot gear held them off along with the insults and chants.

At this point things could have gone either way. At about sundown, around nine o’clock most of the protesters, demonstrators and rally attendees dispersed back to their homes and cars they parked in the neighborhood. It was the governor’s expressed expectation that all vigils for George Floyd and related demonstrations would be conducted peacefully and there would be no need to jack up the police presence when in fact the police were the subject of all the grief. The governor and the mayor made decisions to minimize police confrontation, let the mob walk all over them to a point just to keep the peace and avoid an explosive situation whereby the police would potentially initiate a violent situation that could result in significant casualties to demonstrators resulting in escalation to mass insurrection. In such a case it is well known the police always win. The governor and the mayor trusted that the peace would hold, that the citizens would help police each other and good Minnesotans would behave responsibly and assemble peaceably.

Then everything went to hell. The insurrectionists took over and broke all the windows, stole anything perceived of value, doused the premises with gasoline and lit the place on fire. All up and down Lake Street, Broadway, the Midway. Chaos. The fire department was overwhelmed and blocked from the scenes. Orders were given to abandon the 3rd Precinct, a bitter defeat to the cops who served there and a blow to morale of all precincts, but they obeyed. The city chose to abandon a police station building than defend it from attack and probably kill some civilians to get it done. Rather than defend the stores and markets and shops and offices of private property by force and probably incur more civilian casualties they fell back and let it burn.

The governor and the mayor bet wrong on trusting the peaceable character of Minnesota citizens not to riot and to restrain those who would. Demonstrators continued to rally, but in the light of day the authorities called in the National Guard, the citizen soldiers, to enforce curfews and maintain order, along with the Park Police, Highway Patrol, the county sheriff, Department of Corrections, federal advisors and suburban law enforcement agencies until the threats at night died down and the city cops regained composure and established equilibrium, if not order.

The aftermath of George Floyd keeps coming around and around, as it always will in some vision or another. As the past is never really passed. Yesterday the uncle of Darnella Frazier, the teenager who recorded the last nine-odd minutes of George Floyd’s life, was killed in a car crash with a city police car engaged in hot pursuit of a felony suspect through a residential neighborhood. Cop t-boned the uncle’s car. If Darnella feels singled out by fate no one would blame her. I hope she and Amanda Gorman correspond.

If this unending feud between Blacks and cops could solve the race card and get on solving the crimes of poverty and ignorance that metaphorically enslave people today and populate the penitentiaries. The racial disparities in Minneapolis have been recognized publicly and fretted about in every way from education to real estate ownership for decades in whispers, so once again it comes out during the pandemic in hi-fi stereo streaming from everywhere and as a culture we are fools if we let this moment of opportunity slip away without reconciliation.

When I look for hopeful signs sometimes I see them. Maybe it’s just apophenia. Or pareidolia. Looking around at video and seeing the demonstrators passing through the neighborhood and minimal personal mingling with masked crowds surveying damage to Midtown, I noticed a lot of the mostly young people — younger than me — were white. Asian, Black and Brown too of course, and Native. White carrying Black Lives Matter signs. I acknowledge it could be racist to look at it this way, but that’s part of the process, recognizing self-consciousness. I want to believe I am not alone in this universe.

BK