The Big Boy is now an Indian restaurant in my little town.
I went back to that town where I spent most of my childhood last week. It’s a stone’s throw north of Cincinnati, practically on the Mason-Dixon Line. I lived there between 1964 and 1969. I was dumb as a goat back then, a loose-limbed, wide-eyed, skinny kid who learned to read and write and do some arithmetic in those days. Oh yeah, I learned one other thing — seeing that Big Boy-turned-Indian restaurant reminded me of it. I learned how to be a racist there.
It was in the humor: I can still see and hear Doug the Barber, standing with clippers in hand, regaling his patrons in his Kentucky drawl with the story about how he tried to get Virgil, the Chief of Police, to ride shotgun with him into the Cincinnati ghetto one night to put “Wallace for President” bumper stickers on cars. That was a knee slapper.
It was in the fear: My dad asked Tom, who ran the Gulf station, why he had a rifle propped up in the corner of his gas station and Tom said, “In case any of those Negroes crawl up out of the city and try to take what’s mine.” Except he didn’t say “Negroes.” You know what word he used.
It was in the putdowns: I was walking home from school one afternoon with Linda West, the first girl I ever had a crush on, when some knuckleheaded goof named Billy invited himself to our private party. Like me, Billy had a thing for Linda and her cute little cowgirl boots, and as we passed an African-American man who was covered in sweat and dirt from working in a yard, Billy said, “How are you doing, Mr. Munroe?” Linda giggled. I had no comeback and my pre-adolescent love life was sunk. Mercifully, a few months later, we moved 300 miles up I-75 to Michigan. I have not seen Linda or her malevolent suitor since.
My father worked for one of the big three automakers, and he told me a couple of years ago that when he was originally transferred, the factory had a realtor on retainer who was instructed to make sure junior managers coming into Southern Ohio bought a house in the “right” neighborhood. When I naively asked what the definition of right was, my father shook his head and said, “Right meant White.”
And indeed there weren’t any black or brown-skinned kids in my classes. That’s not to say they weren’t in my school. There was a Special Education class in the basement and there were black kids in there. My best hope is they were bused in from another school because my school was able to accommodate them. My worst fear is that something else was happening. Did my school automatically put black kids into Special Ed? That can’t be true, can it? Anyway, as far as rubbing elbows on a day-to-day normal life basis with kids ethnically or culturally different than me — that didn’t happen.
I blamed my town for being racist and have blamed the fears and irrational thoughts inside of me on that town. I don’t know what I was expecting to find when I went there the other day, but, starting with the old Big Boy being an Indian restaurant, I saw a multi-cultural world. There were people from every tribe and nation on the streets and in the shops. I guess I somehow imagined it would still be under a rock. It wasn’t. My town today is no different than anyplace else. What I came to realize last week was that my town wasn’t any different from the rest of America in the 1960’s, either. It wasn’t my town that had a racial problem. It was our country.
Oh, the terrible and sad power of the fear of the different.
The other day I heard a commentator say that we now live in a post-racial society. I want that to be true, but doubt it is. As the George Zimmerman trial in the Trayvon Martin shooting case begins, I doubt we are post-racial. More that than, I doubt we are post-racial because I know the thoughts that swirl around inside my own head. But I want it to be true. I want it to be true for my children and their children. To the extent the Big Boy-turned-Indian restaurant is a sign of that, I am hopeful. I have seen what’s happened in my little town in Southern Ohio. We still have a long way to go, but we aren’t where we used to be. Thank God for that.