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avatar Oh. My. Oh. Bama.

(a blog worth repeating)

I had just moved into my new apartment on the upper Westside. It was my first grown-up apartment.

It was January 15th, 1990.

I walked into my building, got into the elevator, and before the doors closed, two huge black men got into the elevator with me.

All I thought was, “Oh my god, I’m gonna be raped.”

I grew up in a family where the word schvartza was sprinkled about as frequently and as often as salt and pepper on steak. If there was an abandoned car on the side of the L.I.E with all tires stripped, my mother would casually say, “Schvartzas.” If there was a robbery or a break-in in our all white neighbor, it was the “schvartzas” who would be blamed. Anything unattractive, unappealing, it was always, undoubtedbly, the schvartza.

Schvartza, goy, faggot… not uncommon words used in my house. And these words were passed down generation to generation. Rumor has it that when a black person got up from their seat on a bus, my grandmother would take her cotton handkerchief and wipe it down. And yet, I can’t say that my parents were hateful or prejudice. My parents were friends with gay people, non-jewish people, “colored/non-white” people. All races, all walks of life. I think the truth is there was an underlying unease, feelings of superiority and unconscious (or not) fear that seeped out without any thought what so ever. Both my brother and I, on more than one occasion, were mortified at what came out of our mother’s and father’s mouth. An off color joke here, a nasty remark there, a vile dig here, and a loud rant there. My mother often said that if I dated a black man she would disown me, and I would often respond, joke, ask … “what about sleeping with one?” She would laugh and smile. I had then, and have now, many friends who are black.

BUT… I grew up with the word schvartza embedded – like a chip – in my soul, and I would wager I’m not sharing anything new, however, it is not something I have ever admitted.

Back to the elevator.

There I was standing in the back of the elevator, convinced that these two men – both at least 6’7” – were going to hurt me. Rape me. Kill me. I heard the word schvartza playing over and over and over in my head. I heard my mother saying it, I heard my grandmother saying it. Schvartza. I knew I was afraid. I knew I was petrified.

I also knew it was the night of the Cooney/Forman fight, a big night in boxing. One of the guys asked me, “You like boxing?” I said, “Yeah, oh, yeah.” “Really?” he asked, “who you betting on to win?” Without blinking, I said, “I’m betting on the Black guy.”

They both laughed.

It turned out one of the guys lived in my building, in the penthouse. He was a professional basketball player. He played for the Nets. He was throwing a party that night – a Cooney/Forman party – and right there in the elevator, invited me to come, as his guest.

I asked if there would be any food.

“Yeah,” he said, “We’re roastin’ the white guy.”

I lost every bit of color I had regained. He looked at me, and saw how scared I was.

“Hey,” he said, “I’m jokin’. Really. Cooney’s gonna lose, Forman’s gonna knock him out in the first round. Please, come on up… we’re ordering Chinese. You like Chinese?”

“Yes, I like Chinese,” I said.

I was the only white person in a sea of black people watching Forman punch the shit out of Cooney in the second round.

At the end of the evening, my new friend made sure I got home safe and sound – two floors below him – and thanked me for coming to his party. He was gracious and kind, and he and I remained good friends until he moved out of the building a few years later. He was traded and moved to a different city.

As I think about what’s happening in this country, and the tapes that play over and over and over again in someone’s head – the words that are embedded, the phrases that stick, the stories repeated, the hatred circulating, the ugly, the nasty … the nigger, the faggot, the homo, the goy, the kike, the jew, the queer…

I think about that night, in that elevator, and that bet that I made … and I never, ever thought years later I would say, “I’m betting on the black guy,” out of complete love and respect, and not one ounce of fear.

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Category: Uncategorized 9 comments »

9 Responses to “Oh. My. Oh. Bama.”

  1. avatar
    Miriam

    Amy. Powerful story. We peel it away generation by generation.

  2. avatar
    Madge Woods

    I also heard that expression, not often at all but enough to never say it. I just knew it was not nice. It was not my parents as it was aging grandparents.

    I have dated a black man on and off for 10 years and only once did I say something that was an affront to him and it was so natural for me that I was shocked he was concerned enough to make a comment. We were going to an all black restaurant in the hood and we pulled up to a valet and all the cars were very fancy, much more than mine and I uttered that “rich white people” have found this restaurant and I am not happy. Of course my boyfriend turned to me and said “what only white people drive these kinds of cars”. I tried to get out of it as that was not my intention but of course when we went into the restaurant I was the only white person in it. From that innocent comment I learned a valuable lesson and it was sometimes it is so a part of how we think that I actually really thought white people had found this fabulous spot and it wasn’t going to be a soul restaurant for long. How wrong I was. Thanks for this important message.

  3. avatar
    Katherine Jenkins

    Hi Amy-I grew up liberal in Seattle where we all hug trees and love everyone. I remember when my mother hired a Lesbian babysitter to take care of us for two weeks while she went on vacation. I didn’t know what that word meant. My mother said, matter-of-factly, “Well, it means instead of having a boyfriend, she has a girlfriend.” I still didn’t really get it because I had girlfriends too, but she was an awesome babysitter and let us eat candy and stay up late. Anyway, no family is perfect and fortunately we get to carve out our own lives once we are older. But yeah, sometimes I hear my mom or sister’s voice in me. I think that’s only natural. But we can replace those tapes with new ones. Sounds like you are doing just that!!

  4. avatar
    georgette scarpato

    Amy, that was beautifully profound. Just want to share a cute little story of my own:

    Back in the early eighties, we were having a family reunion. My sister and her husband, a black man, had just arrived and stepped out of the car at the end of the driveway. My daughter (who had not met him as of yet), about 6 at the time, had spoken to “Uncle Eddie” on the phone previously, but we never had a discussion about his race, as I didn’t feel it was necessary. Upon hearing that her aunt and uncle had arrived, my daughter went happily running down the driveway to greet them and when she got close enough to see and realize that it was them, she stopped dead in her tracks and looked at Uncle Eddie with such a natural look of surprise and stated “Oh, hi Uncle Eddie….I didn’t know you were black, when did that happen?”….well you can imagine the laughter!!! It turned out to be a truly magical family reunion and to this day, Uncle Eddie, in his 60’s now, is still one of my daughter’s favorite family members ♥

  5. avatar
    Hollye Dexter

    I just adore you. I love that my family in Texas is sharing this blog.
    And here you were telling me you had writer’s block.
    !!!

  6. avatar
    Barbara@TheMiddleAges

    A gentle reminder that we are so much a product of our circles (nurture) that we need only to see past them to see the truth (beautiful nature). Love this, Amy. Love your vision.
    xo

  7. avatar
    barbara

    I am from Amsterdam. When I was 17 I too got in the elevator of the place where I was staying, in Sydney Australia, and with me entered a group of extremely tall/big black men. I was not scared. At all. I wondered who they were and why they were there, they joked around, made me laugh and they too invited me to a party at their penthouse. Turned out they were the Harlem Globe Trotters. I could not go because I was literally held captive by a rich white man (who owned the hotel) and took advantage of the fact that I and two other models were stranded in Australia because our employer had gone bust and skipped town. Only afterwards did I realize that the tall black men could probably have helped me out of there… but I’d been too scared of the white man to even consider asking for their help.
    Go figure…

  8. avatar
    Linda tears

    There was only one black family in East Meadow – the dad was in the air force – Mitchell Air Force Base – Black people probably avoided living in a town that spawned a serial killer and a maniacal magician…

    Proving we’re on the same mental highway – my next blog is about anti-semitism……………….LOVING YOU BIG TIME!!!!!!

  9. avatar
    Andy F

    Gorgeous.


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