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.

Category: Uncategorized 8 comments »

8 Responses to “oh. my. oh. bama.”

  1. Cathy

    Wow! I grew up with those words too! Faygala instead of faggot, but the same tribal/survival thinking that marginalized those that were “different” and manifested itself in peculiar ways. I was scared of the schvartzas too, until I made my own connections in my integrated school and my own judgements. My parents even had a business in a schvartza neighborhood. Our housekeeper was a schvartza (and we loved her) until she retired, now the shiksa cleans the house. I hid my first love, a black boyfriend from my parents. Seems so strange when the oppressed become the oppressors too. Great post Amy!

  2. Laurie Baker

    Oh my, this brings back memories of my grandmother. I knew that there were lots of schvartzas living near her in Jersey City and they were ‘down the street,’ not near as we played around as kids. I didn’t think about them one way or another.

    When my grandma and grandpa came to California to visit us in the 1960s we took a walk one day and passed a black maid pushing a stroller near our house. Grandma didn’t skip a beat, didn’t seem nervous, but after we’d passed this lady she whispered to me, “My, the schvartzas here are so CLEAN!” That was the first time I realized that she might have had some prejudice against them, but that they had been redeemed in the milk and honey of Southern California.

  3. Lori Landau

    really, I just LOVE this story. I think we came from similar backgrounds….same geographical area, same “vocabulary” sprinkled liberally into conversation. but you had me (so to speak) in the elevator. In fact, I think I was in that elevator. But I wish I’d been there when you came up with that incredible line. turns out, you just never know who your neighbors are….I often wonder what made me question & object to the prejudices I was hearing…..don’t you?

  4. Debra DeAngelo

    FABULOUS COLUMN!!!! God, I love you!!!!!

  5. arno

    I’m always grateful for your fearlessness Amy, which is what it takes to re-live and share an experience where fear got the best of you

  6. Norbie Kumagai

    Goddess Amy… You always manage to take my breath away!!!

    I may have mentioned this before… our Dad, Lindy Kumagai M.D. was the author of The Special Admissions Program which Alan Bakke took to Court (Bakke v. U.C. Board of Regents, 1978) when he was denied admission (twice) to The U.C. Davis School of Medicine.

    Our Dad also chaired The Admissions Committee the two times Alan Bakke applied.

    As our Dad was in the final weeks of his illness, there was a remote possibility that he could cast an absentee ballot in The California Democratic Primary (February’08).

    In California, absentee ballots would be available just after The New Year’s Day holiday.

    When I asked who our Dad would be supporting (Clinton or Obama), he simply replied “Obama, Because It’s All About Race”.

    Sadly, our Dad passed away on Thanksgiving Weekend’07 and never had a chance to vote for President Obama. Every time I had an opportunity to vote (four times) for Barack Obama, I proudly did so in our Dad’s memory.

    Love You!!! xoxoxo.

  7. Carla

    Wonderful blog! I admired your honesty Amy.

  8. marthakate czeszynski

    thank you. Oh, thank you for writing my heart. What relief I feel to have my buried and denied fears loosen their hold with every word. I am a woman who prides herself on our multi ethnic family. I cherish friendships formed across religious, culutural lines. Yet I find myself unexpectedly wondering if the Arabic voices drifting from the neighbors get together should be worrisome. As I wait for my son, I fret, shall I lock my car door as that man of color prepares to enter the one parked next to me? My mothers voice and mind set can be buried but can not be stilled.

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