When my parents first began searching in the area, real estate brokers only wanted to show them homes in Plainfield or on the redlined black sides of town. They said families like ours tended to prefer things this way, but my father, whom we call Pappy in a nod to his Southern roots, had led a childhood that was boxed in by formal segregation in Texas, and no longer could stand to be told where to live. Out of principle he said to the brokers thank you but no thank you, and insisted on seeing all listings. Reluctantly, they caved and the four of us settled into a three-bedroom ranch on Fanwoods decidedly white side.
It was a neighborhood of well-kept homes with yards that were flaired-up with inflatable ITS A BOY! lawn signs, lighted holiday displays, and the occasional life-size Virgin Mary shrine. There were two main downtown areas in either direction of our house, with more pizzerias than banks or dry cleaners and, to Pappys lament, without a single bookstore between them. Our neighbors were what my parents called ethnic whites, and they tended to grow up, buy homes, have children, and die within a twenty-mile radius of where they had been borna fact that always seemed to strike Mom and Pappy as bizarre. As a family, we did not fit in with these people, who often didnt know what to make of us. Once when I was a very young boy, I was at the grocery store with my mother, misbehaving as little children do, when an older white woman walked by and said, Ugh, it must be so tough adopting those kids from the ghetto.
Despite my mothers being white, we were a black and not an interracial family. Both of my parents stressed this distinction and the result was that, growing up, race was not so complicated an issue in our household. My brother and I were black, period. My parents adhered to a strict and unified philosophy of race, the contents of which boil down to the following: There is no such thing as being half-white, for black, they explained, is less a biological category than a social one. It is a condition of the mind that is loosely linked to certain physical features, but more than anything it is a culture, a challenge, and a discipline. We were taught from the moment we could understand spoken words that we would be treated by whites as though we were black whether we liked it or not, and so we needed to know how to move in the world as black men. And that was that.
Questions of the soul were less clear. My mother is Protestant, the daughter of an evangelical Baptist minister. My father is what he calls a Geopolitical-Existentialist-Secularist-Humanist-Realist, which really is just his way of saying he doesnt put much stock in organized religion. Nevertheless, after very nearly being homeschooled, Clarence and I were enrolled in private Catholic schools for what my father described as the superior levels of discipline they offered in relation to the public schools nearby.
Another factor in the decision was the day Clarence came home from School One, about a half-block away from our front door, dazed and unable to speak. He was in the second grade and my father had given him an oxblood leather briefcase. Apparently, this made him stand out among the other boys. So did his suntanned skin, which after the long hot summer was the color of maple honey; and his hair, which was styled in a large spherical Afro and which in his childhood was light brown with strands of blond and something like sherry in it: beautiful. My mother and sometimes my father would comb my brothers Afro in the mornings with an orange tin can of Murrays dressing grease and a black plastic pick. You look distinguished now, son, Pappy would say, and smile when he was finished with him, distinguished being the rarest and highest compliment in his vocabulary.
Excerpted from Losing My Cool by Thomas Chatterton Williams. Copyright © 2010 by Thomas Chatterton Williams. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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