The Back of the White Privilege Bus
Like all fathers, mine occasionally embarrassed me. One of the sources of that embarrassment was his pronunciation of the letter “h,” which he always pronounced as “haitch” rather than “aitch” as his more learned son was taught in school. Long after I had made my peace with that embarrassment, I came upon the PBS production of The Story of English, and this excerpt pricked up my ears:
“It is said that Protestants and Catholics still use language against each other, and that pronunciation of the letter h (“aitch” for Protestants; “haitch” for Roman Catholics) has been used by both the IRA and the UDR to determine the fate of their captives.”
Well, what do you know? Dear old dad wasn’t speaking out of ignorance; he was making a political statement. And it fit, too. Though my father never articulated that his mispronunciation was a conscious act against the crown, he was vocal about his contempt for the British — their movies, their monarchy, and their triumphant march over most of the indefensible world, especially that little piece of it that lay just beyond the Irish Sea.
I’d guess that an introduction to bigotry in some form or another is a sad part of every family upbringing. If that is the case, then I’m forever grateful that the bigotry I was exposed to was directed upward and not downward. When your bigotry is aimed at a civilization that has always been too full of itself by half, that bleeds into a healthy animosity toward pomp and circumstance. Though I believe that all bigotry is bad and parents owe it to their children to be raised free of it (even at the betrayal of the parents’ own precious bigotry), if I had to choose between being saddled with a bigotry against my betters and one against those less fortunate, I’d choose the one aimed high. It seems to me there can really be nothing more disgraceful than joining in a pile-on against those God, nature, and circumstance have already managed to handicap.
So on this Father’s Day, I thank Dad — wherever in the cosmos he may be quaffing a cold one — for gifting me an anti-authoritarian streak that has served me for both good and ill, but mostly good, for most of my life. It is that gift that allows me to confront certain truths about life — that power corrupts, that greed begets greed, and that the working classes of the world constantly must fight for theirs or settle for being fodder for the ruling classes. Oh, yes, and this too: there’s nothing any man — rich or poor, boss or slave — fears more than emasculation.
Yet, my father was never a radical — and surely didn’t immerse himself in radicalism. The newspapers that came into our house were the New York Post, The New York Daily News, and the local Springfield papers. The New York Times never passed by our doorstep; Marx and Engels were total strangers; Drew Pearson was as lefty as it got. His take on the workings of the world came from personal experience. He had been crippled by polio as a child, and told me that when his older brothers would take him out to play baseball, they would make him third base — literally. They sat him down where the bag would otherwise be and whenever runners reached third, they would signify by touching his head. I was reminded of that story years later when I heard George H. W Bush described as a man who was born on third base and thought he hit a triple. The really fortunate son is the one plopped down to get a more grounded view of life than the delusional one who believes that entitlement is his birthright.
When World War II came my father enlisted, but the aftereffects of his childhood illness got him sent home from boot camp. Thus he watched the war from the sidelines while his two older brothers, 6 of my mom’s 9 brothers, and all his brothers-in-law went off to fight. Once again he had to settle for just being third base.
My man Norman O. Brown liked his Freud, and Freud liked his Oedipus complex, and I’ve witnessed firsthand the destructiveness of unresolved daddy issues. But I never had to battle my father for a seat at the table. On the contrary, he was all too proud to give up his seat at the head of the table to me. Thus I was able to assume my place without the guilt or scars or lingering resentment that usually accompanies the transition from son to father. I thank my dad for that too.
He was more my willing student in that transition than my adversary. Our hometown was quite bereft in the area of racial diversity, with the notable exception of Paul Robeson, the renowned black singer, actor, and All-American athlete who lived in one of the finest houses in town (thus, even if our family prejudice had been directed at one of bigotry’s more traditional targets — African Americans — we still would have had to aim high). My father was no more enlightened about race relations in America than any other blue-collar worker. And he didn’t have much stake in getting more enlightened except for how it applied to our relationship. Still he sat with me one night and listened attentively to a concert performance of black activist Dick Gregory as Gregory passionately expounded upon his themes: property rights vs. human rights; white racist institutions; the link between black history, black attitudes and urban unrest. It was more history than this high school drop-out had ever had to consume in one sitting — and he consumed it with gusto. And it wasn’t even his history.
Or was it? Years after his death, the raucous Irish film The Commitments came out with the great Roddy Doyle line, “The Irish are the niggers of Europe.” My father embodied just enough of that truth to get what Dick Gregory was talking about that night. I sometimes fear that political correctness is going to rob us of the profound historical power and meaning of that word. So I also thank my father for imparting enough sense of it to me so I don’t stand here on third base — as I do — and think I’m entitled to it.