IT WAS A SATURDAY on the farm in Virginia, 40 miles west of Washington, at an annual political shindig called the Atoka Country Supper that has become a tradition among the state's Republicans.
I was there doing some legwork for a story for the Sunday paper, providing some "color" for it, as it is called. I suppose I was providing some color of another sort as well. Of the more than 4,600 people who had gathered to catch a glimpse of or shake the hands of notables like Ronald Reagan and Elizabeth Taylor Warner, less than 20 of them were black like me.
Early in the afternoon, while a blue grass band played "She's My Sweet Georgia Rose," I inquired about telephones for reporters wishing to file their stories. A congenial worker at the press stand told me to go to a small log cabin on the other side of the podium where a telephone was available to the press. I walked to the cabin immediately, partially to make sure I knew what my editor wanted but also to check out the facilities.
At the entrance to the cabin, I asked the first person I saw where the telephone for reporters was. My Washington Post press card, and a five-inch press card supplied by Atoka officials for security purposes, were in plain sight, tied to the front of my shirt.
"Oh, yeah, the telephone," he said. "Yeah, we were going to have one set up, but something happened and we never got it. We don't have one here . . . but there's one at a filling station about three miles up the road that you could use."
I marched back up to the press stand, perturbed that no one had been able to set up at least one telephone at an event that was excellently organized by any other standard. I asked the worker at the stand whether she could have been mistaken about the location of the phone. She looked strange, and then annoyed. What had happened that no one had bothered to tell her about, she mumbled, walking back to the cabin with me. "There is a telephone for the press here, isn't there?" she asked the same gentleman who had previously denied it.
"Oh yeah, it's here," he said, smiling effusively. "Any reporter that comes back here with a committee worker can use it."
The worker left. A white reporter was already using the phone, motioning to me with his hand that he would be finished shortly. "Did he have to bring a worker here before he could use the telephone?" I asked. No one seemed to hear the question.
"How about a glass of water?" the man said. "I'll get you a cup." After I had finished my telephone call, he told me that "you don't bring a committee worker with you again next time. We . . . uh . . . know who you are now."
The next time that I needed to call the newsroom, I got in my car and drove the three miles to the black-owned filling station. I told the owner that I was a reporter and needed a telephone to file my story. He was obviously about to use the phone, too.
"Were you up at the Warners?" he asked. "Why did you come all the way back here?"
"They don't have a telephone up there," I told this Virginia black man, and then I winked. We laughed like old friends. "Take as much time as you need," he said.
I was born 24 years ago in Cleveland, which -- all jokes aside -- is still a major Midwest industrial center. It was that and more in 1967 -- I was little more than a runny-nosed kid -- when a group of black men and women, including my father, got together one night and decided that they could seat a black man in the mayor's office for one term. They didn't do that. They seated a black man named Carl B. Stokes for two mayoral terms.
My father was the law director during the city's first black administration -- the equivalent of a vice-mayor -- and when he grew weary of politics he went on to become a partner in Cleveland's second largest law firm.He was a city prosecutor and a judge who ran unopposed for office before that, and there is a fat paragraph under his name in Who's Who in American Law.
It was never something that I bragged about, but it was deeply important to me in one respect: it instilled in me the belief that there was nothing black people couldn't accomplish for themselves, provided they wanted it badly enough and never stopped short of their goal. I suppose that is what has made these past 26 months as a reporter in Virginia so paradoxical, and difficult, to accept.
It is a state where blacks have made no significant inroads into political or socioeconomic power, a place where blacks hold fewer elected offices and governmental jobs than almost any other southern state, where blacks on Virginia's Eastern Shore can still live in dilapidated tin shacks that would seem more natural for a poor, third world nation. Jack Gravely, Virginia state director of the NAACP, once told me in an interview that driving into Virginia "was like driving from the Jet Age into the Stone Age." A few decades would have been closer to the mark.
At the Warner's, I was not lambasted with racial slurs, and most guests greeted me cordially. There will be those who will read this piece and dismiss it, claiming that I have arrogantly overemphasized my Virginia experience. But I don't think so. I grew up in an atmosphere of Northern black activism, in a family that demanded the open confrontation of any affront to one's color or abilities. Coming to Virginia, I find the differences immense.
In my ignorance, I once vacillated between viewing Virgina blacks with unfair disdain, and alternately laying the civil rights problem solely at the foot of the state's conservative power structure. It's clear, however, that the "blame" lay in some flaw of association between the races, a flaw that tends only to reenforce the status quo, while both sides appear satisfied with blaming each other for the state of things in Virginia, bemoaning the dearth of what is needed to effect change, wringing their hands.
Oddly enough, I wouldn't trade what I have experienced as a black man living and working in Virginia -- the brick pitched through my car's window one night in Norfolk with the word "nigger" written on it, the white neighbors in Norfolk who set their dogs loose to keep me from jogging on their streets, the editor of my former newspaper who called me "boy" one time too often, and telephones that disappear and reappear as if by magic -- for anything that would have been easier to deal with. Easy things aren't good for you, a realtive once said; struggling makes you appreciate success.
In July of 1978, armed with two college degrees that had nothing to do with journalism, I drove south in an overburdened compact to a job as a beginning reporter with a Norfolk, Va., Virginian-Pilot newspaper. On the way I had stopped to see an old Williams College buddy who lived in Gerrardstown, W. Va., and had decided to continue the trip south on I-81. As my car labored along the highway, a semi-trailer rig with a Confederate flag taking the place of one of its license plates roared up behind me. I motioned with my arm for him to pass me, but he didn't, pulling within a few feet of my rear bumper. I pulled out into the passing lane and the truck roared past, but then it slowed down rapidly until I was directly behind it again. Now, I pulled out to pass him, and he promptly ran me off the road into the median strip. I drove on, hoping to see a sign for some town where I could stop and report the incident. The first one I saw was the now familiar bright blue logo, with its perky red cardinal, that read "Welcome to Virginia."
As the night police reporter for the Pilot, and later covering Northern Virginia for The Post, it was apparent that most people -- black and white -- assumed that I was white when they talked to me over the telephone. It was a situation that arose one night when a 19-year-old man hanged himself in the Virginia Beach jail, apparently unable to wait any longer for a trial date that kept getting continued. Detectives confided that the teenager had written no suicide note, but had written his grandfather extensively, as many as three letters a week.
Hoping to "scoop" the afternoon paper, I telephoned the grandfather, who freely offered his thoughts of his grandson's suicide.
"Those niggers had something to do with it," he said, claiming that black inmates had threatened to sexually abuse his grandson.
"Those niggers kept commandeering the television, too, to watch that "Roots II" s---. They had something to do with it sure as I'm sitting here."
I asked him if he could read some of his grandson's final letters over the telephone. He said that I could come by his home and read them as many as I liked, as long "as you don't send any black people over here." He said that it would be all right if I came, however.His face turned three shades of red when I arrived, and he let me read all of his grandson's letters, including the one he had written three days before his suicide.
"Hey," he said as I left. "I didn't really mean any of that stuff about black people."
Then there were the two Ocean View women who called the Pilot one summer night to complain that their home was being terrorized by a man who reportedly peaked into windows, although they had never seen him. The police, they said, were doing nothing to stop it. When I asked them to try to describe the man, one of the women responded, "Well, he's black." How did they know this, if they had never seen him? "Well, he would have to be black, wouldn't he?"
Earlier this summer I had covered the military trial of a Quantico Marine sergeant who was sentenced to 50 years at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan. for the strangulation murder of a female officer. On the day that the story ran, I received a telephone call from a man who, at first, appeared to be just an interested citizen."
"Tell me, has crime at Quantico gotten a lot worse?" he asked. I told him that I was there already working on a story that would attempt to answer his question. "I was a Marine at Quantico myself," he continued. "Course they didn't have as many black people when I was there, and crime wasn't a problem at all. Was the guy who did the strangling black?"
I asked him what significance there was in the fact the murderer might have been black. "Hell," he said, "your blacks are responsible for most of the murders that occur in this country," he surmised, "and they are responsible for the increase in the number of murdered white women."
Patience, although a virture, is seldom absolute. I wound up recounting the past decade's most prominent mass murderers to the caller, none of whom happened to be black.
"Son of Sam?" he respondend. "Well, now, I never heard of him."
A reporter's day generally runs anywhere from two to three hours later than the typical "nine to fiver," a fact that enables one to watch an interesting transition in the Fairfax County office building where I work. To the best of my knowledge, I am the only black who works in the building during the day, and at 5 p.m. the white lawyers, businessmen and women, and secretaries leave -- and the black janitors and maintenance workers arrive.
There is none of the more common interaction or greetings between people who normally see each other on a daily basis. Both groups pass each other with little acknowledgement of the other's existence, and what interaction does occur is frequently negative, even insulting.
I was bringing my typewriter back to the bureau office one day recently, having used it to file a story over the previous weekend. A white attorney was throwing on his jacket when he looked up to see me entering the building, and a piercing glance quickly became a smile.
"Oh, well, I guess you're not a thief," he said, smiling all the while. "Or you would be taking the typewriter out instead of bringing it back. . . ." "
The status quo is accepted without overt argument; so are the reasons why a man ends up pushing a mop on restroom floors at night instead of lugging home reams of legal briefs.
In Norfolk, a few blocks southeast of the Pilot newsroom, past a Red Cross blood doner center where too many black men sell their blood to earn some pocket money, sits a bookstore in the middle of Granby Mall. I was there two years ago to pick up a copy of The Boston Globe when I kept hearing the word "nigger" being used.
I turned to watch an old black man trying to shake the hand of the white man who kept calling him "nigger."
"I want you to mop the floor . . . . Now, you know I'll pay you for it," the white man said.
"You don't have to pay me for it," the black man replied, still groping for an unoffered handshake. "I'm your friend and you're my friend."
"Hell, you're a good nigger. I'll even get you a new mop," the white man said.I kept hoping that a cameraman would appear from behind the counter, and a director to freeze the action by yelling, "Cut! That's a take!" This really couldn't be happening, I remember thinking.
I never went in the store again, but I would frequently pass it to see the old black man dutifully mopping the floors. He was always whistling and singing. It was, after all, a new mop. Perhaps it is as a prominent black civil rights leader once said: Virginia blacks have had so little over the years that they don't know what real equality is.
At the aforementioned country supper, several songs were sung by the crowd, and they inevitably included that old song of Southern aristocracy and gentility, the one that the land of cotton and how those great old times won't soon be forgotten.
My first glimpse of the Old South, except for the engrossing tales of relatives, came through Don Gifford. He is a professor of English at Williams College who guided students through the writings of Faulkner, McCullers, Styron and others. One of the books I read at that time was called "The Mind of the South," written by a prominent Southern journalist named W. J. Cash.
Gifford called it "an iconoclastic history" that exploded the myths of the Old South, and which said that the South had invented legends about itself that were unsubstantiated by real history. On the day the book was published, Gifford told his students, Cash committed suicide.
Old times there are not forgotten? Everything else, it seems -- the blue laws; the lynchings and castrations; the back of the bus and "separate but equal;" the miscegenation, rape and slavery itself -- can be forgotten quite easily.