I'd be a liar if I did not admit to my own hellish confusion. How has a purebred moderate like me -- the first black editorial writer for The Chicago Tribune -- turned into a hate-filled spewer of invective in such little time?
Even today, the vicious, psychotic events leading up to and following Harold Washington's election as the first black mayor of Chicago leave me torn as never before. I've become a two-headed, two-hearted creature. The sides are in continual conflict, by turns pitying, then vilifying the other, sometimes with little reason, never with tranquility.
In one day my mind has sped from the naive thought that everything would be all right in the world if people would just intermarry, to the naive thought that we should establish a black homeland where we would never have to see a white face again.
The campaign was a race war. So is the continuing feud between Harold Washington and the white aldermen usurping his authority. Even black and white secretaries in City Hall are not speaking to each other. But why am I so readily doubting and shutting out whites I thought of as friends?
I am not one of those, despite a comfortable life, who had forgotten my origins. It is just that I had not been so rudely reminded of them in so long.
Through 10 years working my way up to my present position at The Tribune, I have resided in a "gentrified," predominantly white, North Side lake-front liberal neighborhood where high rents are the chief social measure. In neither place have I forgotten the understood but unspoken fact of my "difference" -- my blackness.
Yet I have been unprepared for the silence with which my white colleagues greeted Washington's nomination. I've been crushed by their inability to share the excitement of one of "us" making it into power. I've built walls against whites who I once thought of as my lunch and vacation friends. And I've wrapped myself in rage as this sick, twisted city besieged the newspaper with letters wishing acts of filth by "black baboons" on the daughters of its employes. Just because it endorsed this black man.
An evilness still possesses this town and it continues to weigh down my heart. During my morning ritual in the bathroom mirror, my radio tuned to the news-talk station that is as much a part of my routine as shaping my eyebrows, I've heard the voice of this evil. In what would become a standard "bigot-on-the-street" interview, the voice was going on about "the blacks." "The blacks" this, "the blacks" that, "the blacks, the blacks, the blacks." My eyes fogged, but not from the bathtub steam.
"The blacks." It is the article that offends. The words are held out like a foul-smelling sock transported two-fingered at the end of an outstretched arm to the hamper while the nose is pinched shut.
"The blacks." It would make me feel like machine-gunning every white face on the bus. Why couldn't these people just say "blacks," letting it roll from the tongue?
"The blacks." These people were talking about me, as I stood in my bathroom mirror neatly outlining my lips, about to put on a dress-for-success suit and silk blouse. These were the people who dislike welfare recipients for fitting their stereotypes and who despise me because I do not. The users of "the blacks" make no distinction, unlike the liberals who in their weaker moments will say: "Well, I wouldn't mind having you next door. You're different, you know." Leanita McClain. "The black." Just another nigger.
The tears returned when Jane Byrne, soundly defeated in the primary, announced a write-in campaign to save the city from the brash black man and his opponent, the avuncular Jew. My editorial-writer colleagues were probably left in as much disbelief by the obscenity I spat at the television as by anything that little snow queen had just said. With my back to the closed door of my office, seemingly focused on my word processor, I cried in anger. My God, I implored. What do these white people want of us?
My transformation began the morning after Washington's primary victory. Everyone in Chicago stayed up until 2 a.m. when Washington claimed victory. Horrified white Chicago turned in for a fitful night. But no one black slept either, though there were never so many bright black eyes as there were the next morning. That morning black people had a step and a beat that was more than the old joked-about "natural rhythm." Smiles shown as brilliant as the blue Washington buttons that a white political editor astutely interpreted as "blue buttons of hope." Those buttons would become a badge of courage, of oneness. Even now many blacks continue to wear them.
Black strangers exchanged sly smiles on the streets. A jubilant scream went up, but it was a silent one, something like the high-pitched tones only animals can discern. The black man won! We did it! It rose to the stratosphere, crystalized and sprinkled every one of us like sugared rain. We had a feeling, and above all we had power.
No one in this town had talked about anything but the election for weeks. But suddenly the morning after the primary, whites could not find enough other things to talk about, if they talked at all. Not just the most bigoted of bigots, but all whites, even the more open-minded of my fellow journalists. Even the standard niceties took on a different quality. Their "good mornings" had the tenor of death rattles, not just the usual pre-coffee hoarseness. There was that forced quality, an awkwardness, an end to spontaneity, even fear in the eyes of people who had never thought about me one way or the other before.
So many whites unconsciously had never considered that blacks could do much of anything, least of all get a black candidate this close to being mayor of Chicago. My colleagues looked up and realized, perhaps for the first time, that I was one of "them." I was suddenly threatening. The difference that everybody had tried to cover up was there in the open. It leaked right out and stared at us and defied us to try and put it away. Whites were out of their wits with plain wet-your-pants fear. Happy black people can only mean unhappy white people in this town. (I never realized how far I had strayed).
I would begin that morning to build my defenses brick by brick, to shut out people I had cried with, people I had never felt more akin to than when we traveled to foreign lands, touting our shared Americanism. I would begin to discern the full frontal view of the evil. It is the evil that caused white coworkers to stop talking when blacks strolled by. It is the evil that led blacks to caucus and revert to the old days of talking about "whitey." It is the evil of protesters, their faces red hot with hate, at a Catholic church where former Vice President Walter Mondale and Washington were jeered.
The theme of these ensuing months was set and hardening. So intense and oppressive was the atmosphere here that black and white Tribune colleagues sought refuge in my office from the foulness. A white colleague came in to explain away why he could not vote for Harold Washington, as if what I thought of him was really important, as if my office were a confessional. One black female on the staff was thrown into a fit of anxiety one day, troubled by suddenly not even wanting to go to lunch with one of the white women on the staff with whom she is close.
The lone black Tribune reporter on the campaign trail, Monroe Anderson, was so beaten down by what he was seeing in the streets that he came into my office-turned- retreat, enfolded himself in a chair and just stared at the floor. Anderson is indisputably one of the most devil-may- care persons on the staff -- the one with the slightly bawdy joke, the one who keeps the party lively, the one with the quick line. His exceptional sense of humor keeps everyone going. But during this election it failed even him. As the hate campaign against Washington got meaner, I began to realize I had not been overreacting. I had been playing it safe, as each day up to the election would verify.
The Chicago Tribune endorsed Harold Washington in a long and eloquent Sunday editorial. It was intended to persuade the bigots. It would have caused any sensible person at least to think. It failed. The mail and calls besieged the staff. The middle range of letters had the words "LIES" and "NIGGER LOVERS" scratched across the editorial.
Hoping to shame these people, make them look at themselves, the newspaper printed a full page of these rantings. But when the mirror was presented to them, the bigots reveled before it. The page only gave them aid and comfort in knowing their numbers. That is what is wrong with this town: being a racist is as respectable and expected as going to church.
Filthy literature littered the city streets like the propaganda air blitzes of World War II. The subway would be renamed "Soul Train." The elevators in City Hall would be removed because blacks would prefer to change floors by swinging from the cables. (Anderson, temporarily regaining his jocularity, plastered the flyers like art posters all over his work cubicle. Most black staffers knew it was laughing to kee from crying. Whites grew more silent.) In the police stations, reports were whispered about fights between longtime black and white squad-car partners. Flyers proclaiming the new city of "Chicongo," with crossed drumsticks as the city seal, were tacked to police station bulletin boards. The schools actually formulated plans to deal with racial violence, just in case.
I brought the madness from the streets into work with me.
I dissected why some people had cultivated my friendship, why I was so quick to offer it unconditionally, straining as hard as they to prove a point -- to say, see how easy it is if we all just smile and pretend?
I had put so much effort into belonging, and the whites in my professional and social circles had put so much effort into making me feel as if I belonged, that we all deceived ourselves. There is always joking about "it" -- those matchings of suntans against black skin, or the exchange of dialect or finding common ground on the evils of racism. But none of us had ever dealt with the deeper inhibitions, myths and misperceptions that this society has force-fed us. The issue is there, no matter the social strata.
Now I know solving the racial problem will take more than living, marrying and going to school together and all of those other laudable but naive goals I defend. This episode made even these first steps seem so far from reach.
What is there, then, to believe in? Who was I to trust? How was I to know which whites were good and which were bad? How many of my coworkers wouldn't even want me next door? After all of these years of lunch dates and the familial togetherness that comes naturally from working next to someone 40 hours a week, how could I know who was on the level? If I was feeling this way, what were my brothers and sisters in the street feeling? Could this town be razed in a deranged moment?
What litmus test could I devise? I distanced myself from everyone white, watching, listening, for hints of latent prejudice. But there were no formulas to follow. Even an expression of support for Washington would not convince me, so certain was I of everyone's dissemblance. I drew up a mental list of those whites who could and could not be trusted. Revelation after revelation, doubt after doubt assaulted me.
First on the list was Kay -- bouncy, smiley Kay. (No real names are used.) How she had used me all of these years, like a black pet, to prove her liberalism. I was safe; she could show me off without ever having to deal with the real issue. The next time she came skipping in to show me the "neat" pair of shoes she had found during her lunch hour or to talk about the "neat" movie she had seen or the "neat" restaurant we should try, I would throledw my dictionary at her and advise her that having one black person -- me -- on her Christmas card list did not make her socially aware.
What about Clark? He always said the right things about race, viewed injustice with the proper alarm. But suddenly I questioned his sincerity. The next time he showed up at my office door, I would make him halt at the threshold. I would deny entry to my neighborhood on the ground that he was white. Then ask how it felt to be discriminated against to make the point that his talk was just that. What did he know? He had not lived in this skin.
What about Ken, kind-eyed, sensitive, cultured, thoughtful, cerebral Ken? No, he couldn't be a racist. Or could he?
What about Nan, with whom I had traveled? She headed the boards of church agencies in the poorest black neighborhoods. Now there was an exception. We had talked about race matters, about matters of the heart, about the differences that somehow did not alter those things that made us the same.
What about Lydia in Michigan, who had shared all my life's secrets? She, too, passed.
It would be so easy just to dismiss everyone white. Why was it so easy for whites to classify me -- "the blacks," or you exceptional blacks and the rest of "the blacks" -- but not so easy for me to classify them?
When white friends began to initiate conversation with, "Well, I'm no racist but -- ", I no longer had to worry about my test. Everyone was suspect.
Bitter am I? That is mild. This affair has cemented my journalist's acquired cynicism, robbing me of most of my innate black hope for true integration. It has made me sparkle as I reveled in the comradeship of blackness. It has banished me to nightmarish bouts of sullenness. It has made me weld on a mask, censor every word, rethink every thought. It has put a face on the evil that no one wants to acknowledge is within them. It has made me mistrust people, white and black. This battle has made me hate. And that hate does not discriminate.
I've abhorred the gaggles of smug, giggly little white kids, out spending daddy's money, who start life a thousand yards ahead of black kids. I've detested my colleagues at the Chicago Tribune, whose antiseptic suburban worlds are just as narrow, who pretend to have immense racial concerns and knowledge but who don't know blacks other than me and who haven't even come in touch with ordinary whites in decades.
I've been repulsed by the scruffy black kids with their shoeshine kits on glitzy Michigan Avenue, all too real a reminder of the station to which some would like to remand blacks and the limits that I've tried to overcome. I've detested the pin-striped white junior executives who make their contribution to race relations in the quarters they flick to these kids. (Fortunately, I've noticed no rubs of the kids' head for good luck.)
And of course, I've despised the bigots, the only group toward whom I do not continually have to re-examine my emotions.
The election has come and gone. Washington won, but to look at the battlefield, the rebuilding that must be done is defeating.
I have resumed lunching with some of the white colleagues I avoided for weeks, though the conversation will stay forever circumscribed. Some have fallen away, failures of my litmus test. New ones have been found. But no white will ever be trusted so readily again with the innermost me. It is difficult to have the same confidence in my judgment about whites that I used to have. It is difficult to say "friend."
Is that saying I have become a bigot? Let's just say I have returned to the fold, have become "integration shy." At least I tried once to extend my hand, which is more than most whites can say; they do not encounter enough blacks in their lifetime to try.
Why is Chicago this way? Why my beloved city, so vital, so prosperous, so exhilarating? I do not have an answer. I wish I did.
So here I am, blacker than I've ever been. But above all, human -- a condition I share with everyone of every hue. I feel. I mistrust. I cry. And I now know that I can hate. Copyright (c) 1983, Leanita McClain