My Dad And I Speak

My dad grew up in a slum. “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.

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. 

Williamsburg is in the borough of Brooklyn (Kings County) in New York City.

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. 

5 thoughts on “My Dad And I Speak”

  1. Yes,Geoff- out of sight, out of the mind. That is what the 30s and 40s were like. My grandparents migrated from a North Carolina town of 500 to Stamford, CT. There was a factory opportunity, yet a different type of racism and exclusion. Though a deeply pained, traumatized people; we are resilient. I can only imagine what has in store for our blessings.

    Happy New Year

  2. Having grown up in Bridgeport, Ct., I see the parallels in your father’s words and my parents and grandparents. Both your grandparents and mine probably came from Eastern Europe and had very little knowledge of people of color. It is simply amazing how ignorant we were and still are.
    Nice to here from you again. Good health and a very prosperous New Year

  3. Good job Geoff and your Dad…..these things do need to be out in the open and
    talked about so we can stop them from in the future!

  4. Hi Geoff. I remember a black person who worked in my parents business and my mother giving him a cup of coffee. As soon as he left she threw the cup and saucer in the trash. I got upset and said that wasn’t nice…and that he was human too. Of course I didn’t let it go at that and ended up with a slap on the side of my head. I grew up without prejudice despite their prejudices. I guess that was the way it was when they grew up.

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