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1761 words
SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

Race & Place 1968

by Steve Davenport

Race and place developed slowly for me as themes. I grew up in spaces or towns that were white, not sundown towns but white, by which I mean the visible or total absence of black bodies. A sundown town would attempt to reschedule a high school football game, make the Friday night tradition a Saturday noon event, if it meant black folks would be on the field or in the stands. My high school didn’t do that. Of course, our daily lives are filled with things, large and small, we don’t see and, if we do, don’t remember. The things we do remember get distorted as they move into story. That said, here’s a story that may tell you something of worth about me, race, and place.

It’s Friday, April 5, 1968. I’m fourteen years old, twenty-two days past my birthday. I don’t remember many of my birthdays, but I remember that one. That evening, March 14, I watched the last episode of my favorite TV show, Batman, out back of our corner store (family house attached) in the privacy of Grandma Lucy’s tiny house. Batman, Robin, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, Joker, Catwoman. Pow! Boff! Thwack! I don’t remember dreaming at all of moving to Gotham City from Bethalto, Illinois, the small town we moved to, just up and off the Bottom, when I was a toddler, though years later if I was home from University of Illinois, where I was working on a PhD, and my dad was watching a movie and there happened to be a scene in a deli, he would yell, “Charlie, come here. Look. I can see you there. In a place like that. In New York.” Why he called me Charlie is another story, which is what stories do: they advertise the form like we’re all Scheherazade, abandoning one story for another to maintain interest, when we should get back to the point of the one we’re telling and finish it with no fear of death at the Sultan’s hands.

It’s Friday, April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. is shot dead in Memphis. It’s the last day of the week, and my little white town, just a few miles down Route 140 from Alton (birth place and home town of James Earl Ray, captured two months later in London at Heathrow Airport), is bursting at its pale seams with fear. I wouldn’t know a thing about it except parents are showing up at Wilbur Trimpe, my junior high, to remove their kids from school. Word eventually circulates among desks and in the halls that our classmates are being taken home because blacks from Alton are marching, or are assembling to march, in our direction, down Route 140 to make a violent statement in Bethalto. Never mind that they could more easily find all the white folks they want right there in Alton or march down Broadway to East Alton and Wood River and maybe hook a right to Hartford and right to my old neighborhood, the northeast quadrant (AKA Gasoline Lake in my writing). No one knows at this point that James Earl Ray is from Alton, but we’re white and some of us are gripped by race hysteria, collective Negrophobia, call it what you will. I call it some dumb-ass shit.

So does my mother, though she wouldn’t use that language. It’s Friday, April 5, 1968, and my mother’s working in our family grocery store, which tells me that Grandma Lucy—my father’s mother, transplanted from southeast Missouri to spend most of her adult life working at the International Shoe Tannery situated between my birth home (Hartford) and the refineries that polluted my old neighborhood (personally mythologized as Gasoline Lake) before joining us at the store when the tannery shut down—must have had the day off, which is good considering the racism she would most likely have brought to any conversation in the store that morning. Grandma Lucy doesn’t like dagos either, as she calls them one day within my hearing, which means by now my memory, because she doesn’t like the smell of their food at lunch. Garlic offends. Dagos, she says. (I loved my grandma, but this is the woman I watched pick up the store phone and call the mother of a woman her youngest son was about to marry and say before, as was her custom, hanging up, “Hi, this is Lucy Wintjen. I hear my boy is marrying your daughter. We’ve never had a Catholic in the family before, but I guess it’s okay this time.” Click. Not good-bye. Click. Memory. Story.)

It’s April 5, the morning after Martin Luther King Jr. has been reported shot and declared dead. The occasional customer comes into our little grocery store, known as The Little Store, with talk of angry blacks coming our way, marching with ill and violent intent. My mother’s response, probably kept to herself? Nonsense. Absolute nonsense. But all alone, with my father working down on the Bottom a mile east of our old Hartford neighborhood at Shell Oil, with Grandma Lucy gone, my mother finds herself caught up in the race hysteria. From mid-morning to early afternoon she declares nonsense, absolute nonsense, then closes the blinds, turns off the lights, locks the front door, retreats into the house, redeclares nonsense, absolute nonsense, comes back out to the store, turns the lights on, opens the blinds, unlocks the door, waits on a customer, repeats.

Me, I’m at Wilbur Trimpe, watching other kids leave, sitting at my desk near Floyd, a greaser who declares more than once with a show of brass knuckles he pulls from his black leather jacket, which he may or not be wearing, which I may be including because they fit the story, that he has something for those “n—s” if they’re stupid enough to mess with him, at which point his mother knocks on the classroom door, asks for her little Floyd, he hops up, hustles to the door, and they leave together. Me, I’m at my desk until the end of the school day, at which point I walk home. My mom does not come get me early. My mom is too busy being ashamed of herself for locking/unlocking/locking/ unlocking the door and giving in to group-think, to race-think, to something nearing communal hysteria, which involves a neighbor woman bringing my three younger sisters home early from grade school without asking my mother, without the school asking for a parent’s signature.

Fourteen-year-old me, I walk home. It’s not far, and my all-white town is remarkably free of angry, marching Negroes. I use “Negro” because that’s the nicest, best word they received in those days in my town. More typical was Floyd’s descriptor, which Grandma Lucy used one night during the evening news when she was watching Blacks riot in some city somewhere. I used to think it was Watts, but she probably wasn’t in the little house behind The Little Store by then. Although I’d heard her complain about the “dagos” that one time (the time I remember), I’d never heard her cuss (that I remembered). So when I heard her say with considerable heat as she moved from her chair and TV to her kitchen, a distance of maybe nine feet, “goddamn n—s,” I was shocked. The N word was shocking, but it was the cuss word and the heat she lit it with that mostly got me. I was used to sporadic, usually casual or dismissive declarations of that word around town.

I have in fact a very specific memory of using it myself around that time. It would be a tidy, sense-making story if the three events happened in the order I used to remember them: MLK assassination, Grandma Lucy’s “goddamn,” and then my use of the N word (influenced specifically by her use). I loved my grandma. I spent many a week and weekend with her in Hartford before she moved to Bethalto. She was a tough woman, who might have, like your grandma, vacuumed her floor in a bathing suit and high heels if she owned them and her man wanted the show. In fact, while doing a little post-research for Murder on Gasoline Lake I was told on the phone by someone I’d never met, someone older than me, that Grandma Lucy was, in his words, “a whore.” That, of course, is another story that had to do with a man leaving his wife and children to marry her. (Scheherazade! Pow! Swack!) This story, the one I’m finishing now (finally!), ends in southern California. I’m in the back of a camper with a couple of cousins I haven’t seen since we were toddlers, brothers, one a year older, one a year younger. My uncle and Grandma Lucy have left the truck to go into a store, and I see through a window slit that an elderly black man is getting out of a car behind us. I suppose to impress my cousins, I yell the N word out the window. The man looks around. We duck down, even though he couldn’t have seen inside the camper. My older cousin is horrified or maybe just angry because we might get in trouble, and I immediately know I’ve done a thing so bad I’ll never do again.

I’m pretty sure this trip happened the summer before the spring in which Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and no African Americans marched to Bethalto to make a point about racism in America. I have for the last ten years or more been making a point about that point, racism in America, losing some friends along the way, folks who don’t like what I have to say. I have transformed that moment in that camper and put it in my Black Guy Bald Guy series, in the same story in fact (“Where the Water Runs Uphill”) that features an unsanitized, relocated version of the creek we now call Lick. A tidy telling of these events from the latter half of the Sixties would have me yelling the N word a couple of months after hearing my grandma yell it, but I doubt that’s the order of things. Even if it were, the word was part of the way we talked and thought back then about people we had never met. Race in an all-white town, especially in an all-white town, is part of growing up, and I’d be a less honest writer if I didn’t address it.


—A version of this essay was previously published within “Talk from the Middle East to the Middle West: A Conversation on Place, Race, Gender and Poetry with Steve Davenport,” by Lea Graham in Atticus Review (January 20th, 2015); republished here by author’s permission.


SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

Steve Davenport

Photo of Steve Davenport

Author of the poetry collections, Overpass and Uncontainable Noise; and two chapbooks, Murder on Gasoline Lake (originally published in Black Warrior Review and listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2007), and Nine Poems and Three Fictions (available in The Literary Review’s Summer 2008 chapbook issue).

A story in The Southern Review earned him a Special Mention in Pushcart Prizes 2011. In June 2012, Massachusetts Review published three installments from his “Black Guy Bald Guy” series of fictions.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury