My dad and I speak nearly every day. Often our conversations turn to his memories. I initiate. I want to know how he got where he got.
So much of his life’s experiences are anachronisms, memories of a time that’s passed. There was no phone in the house growing up. They lived above Fox’s Trimmings, where my grandparents sold everything having to do with cloth, thread, yarn, buttons, snaps, etc. Peddlers drove horse drawn wagons through the neighborhood selling their wares.
That Williamsburg is desirable today surprises my father. My dad grew up in a slum later torn down to build a city housing project.
“I was scared of black people,” he said today. “If I saw black people walking in my direction, I’d walk across the street.”
I’d not heard this before. He said it with regret in his voice and concern I could see on his face. We were talking about our divided nation today and pre-World War II America.
“I didn’t know. We didn’t know. That’s how I was brought up.”
Even as a kid I remember our family referring to black people by a derogatory Yiddish word. In retrospect our bigotry kept us from seeing what was real. We stayed in our own prefab fog.
My dad looks back on those days with regret. You can’t undo the past. But you can learn from it.
It was easier to marginalize minorities in the 30s and 40s. They were invisible in the movies and in print. Much of America was segregated, openly or defacto.
But how can anyone hold these attitudes today? That’s what we wondered as we Facetimed. My father was sheltered from the world outside Brooklyn. Today it’s impossible not to see how wrong he was.
As we finished tonight I asked if it was OK to write about. He said, “yYes,” without hesitation.