"I reckon I had better black my face, for in these Eastern States niggers are considerably better than white people."
— Mark Twain letter home at seventeen (1853)
"Let's go throw some eggs at niggers."
— Cal Pritner's Kansas City teenage friend (1953)
We were cruising, three high school seniors and one junior, in a primer-coated ‘47 Chevy sedan, two in back, two in front. Rich, the fifth and final pickup, leapt from his front porch, yanked the car door open, tumbled into the back seat beside me, reached across to a six-pack sitting by the hump, snatched and popped a Schlitz, lifted it to his lips for what seemed thirty seconds, and, when he had no breath left, ended the gulp, filled his lungs with a chest-swelling breath and yelled out: "Lets go throw some eggs at niggers." As soon as the words were out, he reached between his legs into a brown paper bag he'd toted from home, and displayed three creamy white eggs. Laughter filled the sedan.
Dave, a junior, weeks older than I and far more streetwise, wheeled onto Leavenworth Road and headed east toward the river and the black section of Kansas City, Kansas. Conversation dodged aimlessly from "niggers," to girls, to cars, to sports, and to jobs. Girls were important to me, but I obsessed almost as much about baseball, which I was good at: All-City in Kansas City and recruited for a semi-pro team managed by a former minor-leaguer who was a Yankee "bird dog" (a scout who wasn't on salary but who maintained a relationship with the Yankee talent-scouting system). And I'd quickly fit in with the high school crowd after transferring from small-town Hartford, one hundred miles away, in the middle of my junior year.
Only a moment after we turned off Leavenworth Road onto Seventh Street, Leo, riding shotgun up front, spotted an old black man walking south, parallel to our path along Seventh. Dave eased close to the curb and slowed to the old man's pace. As we neared the ambling pedestrian, Leo leaned out the window, cocked his right arm and hurled a pair of eggs in an awkward motion unworthy of the steady infielder he was. As the eggs left his hand, he gave out a whoop and the old man glanced hurriedly to his left to see where the sound came from, then stumbled forward, touching his right hand to the side-walk, and in a single motion rose and scrambled forward. The eggs splattered harmlessly on the sidewalk, five or six feet from the old man who had regained balance. Dave floor-boarded the Chevy, made a sharp right turn at the next corner and sped away. The carload of us laughed while looking over our shoulders to be certain we weren't being tailed.
That's part of who I was as a high school senior in 1953.
Was I a racist? Yes, to the extent my racism was the face of white racism that I believe typified America in the 1950s; a racism that I'd learned from my father in Los Angeles, from his father in Kansas , and from my maternal grandfather who, on an Oklahoma summer day on his dairy farm, asked me about "the niggers in Kansas City;" the same maternal grandfather who hated FDR's integrationist wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, so much that he referred to a trip to the privy for a bowel movement as going to "Eleanor's house."
Mine was a racism that I learned from the white families and white schools and white neighborhoods that were all I'd grown up knowing. Mine was a white superiority I'd learned from the racially demeaning jokes I'd grown up laughing at and repeating, a white superiority I'd learned from everyday references to “Kikes” and “Spics,” “Greasers” and “Dagos,” “Chinks” and “Krauts,” and of course to “Japs.”
Mine was a racism I'd learned from reading the Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Times, daily newspapers that reported crimes as committed by "Robert Smith (Negro)" but never by "John Doe (White)"; a racism I'd learned from my high school history teacher who explained to us that "separate but equal" was a system that the American people and the Supreme Court had decided was good and fair.
All this lifted me to a state of righteous conviction that white people were the best people—a state of believing we were superior and we deserved it. We deserved to have the best clothes, to live in the biggest and nicest houses, and to have the best jobs that paid the most money. It was right for mayors and governors and senators and presidents to be white men. We whites were supposed to run the world.
So, is it any wonder that I can readily visualize another moment with another black man: it was my first day on the job as a laborer, repairing track for the Santa Fe Railroad just outside Kansas City. By eight-thirty the sun was scorching, and the foreman announced our first break after an hour-and-a-half's work. My companions, black and white, laid their shovels in place and stepped down the slope from track level toward a ten-gallon container, beside which sat a bucket and dipper. The black man who had been teaching me how to tamp gravel and dirt under wooden ties was the first to reach the container and bucket; he poured water into the bucket, lifted a dipper-full to his mouth and drank, after which he dipped again and turned, offering it to me. After more than fifty years, the memory of that dipper being proffered—the muscle memory of my hesitation—my near-fear, and my momentous decision to accept the man's dipper and drink, return as readily as remembering the same summer's sight of a walk-off line drive base hit off a lefthander who'd struck me out three times that night.
What I can't remember, though, is whether I felt any concern for, or connection with, the man who offered me the dipper on that blazing summer morning. I remember the dipper, the fear, the uncertainty and confusion. But I remember nothing about the man except his color. I believe that's because to me he was black and therefore unimportant. That's another part of who I was as a seventeen-year-old in 1953.
One hundred years before that, in 1853, the boy who was to become Mark Twain left his Hannibal, Missouri, home to see the world. He found work as a printer's apprentice in Philadelphia, and subsequently in New York City from which he wrote his mother, "I reckon I had better black my face, for in these Eastern States niggers are considerably better than white people."
Was this simply an isolated bit of tasteless humor? No. Days later he wrote her,
Of all the commodities, manufactures— or whatever you please to call it—in New York, trundle-bed trash—children I mean—take the lead. Why, from Cliff street, up Frankfort to Nassau street, six or seven squares—my road to dinner—I think I could count two hundred brats. Niggers, Mulattoes, quadroons, Chinese, and some the Lord no doubt originally intended to be white, but the dirt on whose faces leaves one uncertain as to the fact, block up the little, narrow street; and to wade through this mass of human vermin, would raise the ire of the most patient person that ever lived.
Was Sam Clemens—our Mark Twain—a racist? When he was seventeen, yes. When he died at seventy-four? No, at least not by the standards of his day. He'd changed. To some degree he'd unlearned his racism.
However, if those weren't the words of a 17-year-old racist they certainly were those of a young man who was writing at a time in American history when slavery was legal and ethnic minorities could be dismissed with casual disdain. Terrell Dempsey, in his Searching for Jim: Slavery in Sam Clemens's World, cites compelling evidence that the newspaper Sam and his brother together had been editing was absolutely pro-slavery, as were the other newspapers in Hannibal. So, we can say with some level of certainty that at seventeen he was a racist.
Mark Twain unlearned his racism as an adult, for reasons we can analyze and hypothesize about, but that we can never declare with certainty. Similarly, I'm sure I began unlearning my racism, like Twain, as an adult; but, because I'm aware that my memory plays tricks on me, I can only hypothesize with greater specificity, albeit without absolute confidence. In other words, neither Twain’s texts nor my memory are complete.
Which, of course, leads to an important question concerning this book: Why mingle the stories of Mark Twain and me unlearning racism? Why not write a scholarly volume focusing on Twain’s racism? Or why not just write my own memoir and leave it at that?
There are plenty of reasons: Because racism still pervades American life more than a century after Twain's death in 1910. Because he was one of our greatest authors, and the story of his unlearning racism is both complex and compelling.
But why me? Because I grew up 100 years later in an America that still tolerated lynchings, cross burnings, job discrimination, segregated schools, and redlined housing. Because I am convinced that young people must be made aware of the past if they are to understand the present. And because the truth of America's racial past is a story that went mostly untold for a century after the Civil War, and is still being revealed only in bits and pieces. Finally, because old white guys like me have a chance to make a difference by analyzing and reporting how we taught ourselves to change. In fact, it is crucial that we do so.
I'm fascinated by Twain, by his genius, by his lifetime of self-examination, by his egotism and his greed, by his successes and his failures as a writer, husband, father, and friend, and especially by the way studying his life and work has inspired me to examine layers of my racial experience. Let's face it: I'm the hero of my own little soap opera. In my seventh decade, I'm still unlearning my racism, and I fear I'll be unlearning it until they slide me into the crematory. Despite the fact that I'm in an interracial marriage that has succeeded since 1984; that I have a grandson with an Hispanic surname; that I live in a mostly Dominican—at least ninety per cent "brown"—neighborhood; that by some people's standards, I may be thought of as being racially enlightened—despite all that, vestigial pockets of my racism still surprise, shock, and embarrass me. I'm still un-learning my racism.
In addition, my story's important if you believe, as I do, that American racism hasn’t been eradicated but that it's been weed-whacked—cut off at the surface, not at the root. My experience is important if a culture's elders must remember with honesty, and admit truthfully, who we have been. Parts of my story are embarrassing, but the shameful parts are central to the justification for telling it.
I'll tell neither Twain's story nor mine in careful biographical detail; rather, I'll weave between him and me, examining key incidents in each of our stories of unlearning racism. After all, even Twain believed his autobiography, mostly dictated in his last decade, should be relatively formless. He advised:
Start at no particular time of your life; wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the things which interest you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime.
This story of Mark Twain and me unlearning our racism will follow a middle path, pursuing a mostly chronological sequence, focusing on key racially oriented incidents, and using footnotes mostly when it seems important to confirm that citations are accurate.
Let me begin with a story from my own life that might illustrate why these stories, Twain’s and mine, might need to be told at this point in our nation’s history.
A Semester at Sea
My wife and I taught our way around the world in 1991 as Semester At Sea (SAS) faculty. The 110-day voyage’s first emergency came when President George H. W. Bush attacked Iran and Saddam Hussein in Operation Desert Shield. Our original itinerary would have taken us through the Suez Canal, but given international events, it became clear that 500 American college students floating through the Gulf might be a tempting target. So, the SAS administration improvised: rather than sailing east from Nassau, Bahamas, to Morocco and on through the Suez, we diverted south from Nassau to Caracas, Venezuela; then to Salvador, Brazil; and finally, we were to sail across the Atlantic to South Africa.
Four nights out of Nassau, we docked on a starlit night at La Guira, Caracas's port city, which greeted us with a romantic mountainside view dotted with scores of lights. Morning revealed the hillside’s reality: it was stacked with favelas, flimsy family shacks, many without running water, home to the poorest of Venezuela's poor, and our voyage's introduction to third-world poverty. Caracas, in preparation for Carnival, was on holiday from days of stormy political demonstrations that preceded our arrival.
Next: Salvador, Bahia—Brazil's blackest city, the port where Portuguese slave traders brought their African captives. Salvador is just below the Equator; it's hot there in January, very hot.
Our U.S. Department of State greeter warned our 500 students of the dangers facing them if they left the ship and ventured into the city: sexual license, drunkenness, huge trio-electrico trucks blaring samba music, groups of men dressed as women, and women in string bikinis. Naturally, within hours our students were in the midst of the samba and sex that the State Department representative had warned them away from.
After five nights and days of Carnival in Salvador, we left behind the sweat, the sex, the strong beer, and the sidewalk-shaking music. But we soon learned that we were sailing south-west into a new emergency.
The Academic Dean gathered the faculty and explained our dilemma: the voyage's African specialist, the head of the University of Pittsburgh's Black Studies Program, couldn't join us at our next scheduled port, Cape Town, South Africa. Absent a specialist who could address the complications of South African politics and race relations, the administration had determined we would sail around the Cape of Good Hope and up the east coast of Africa to Mombassa, Kenya. The essence of the rationale: Kenya was a settled African nation, a long-term democracy with a hospitable government, and Kenya offered us an opportunity to experience safari.
After explaining the new plan, the Dean turned to our two black faculty members, my wife, Evamarii Johnson, a theatre faculty member, and Kesho Scott, a professor of American Studies and Sociology. Looking at the two black professors, he explained that we (terms like "shipboard community" and "faculty community" were employed) would have to depend on Kesho and Evamarii to prepare our students to visit Africa.
Heads swiveled toward the two; both were surprised, mildly shocked. Kesho spoke first: "I understand that we're in a difficult time. We have to pull together and support each other. Like you said, 'community.' But you need to understand that I'm here because I want to visit places I haven't been. I want to learn about the world. I've visited West Africa for a few days, once, but I definitely don't know the history of Africa. I'm not an historian. I'm not a political scientist. My training is in Sociology and in American Studies. I'm not prepared to teach anybody about Africa. I barely have time to prepare to teach three courses that are totally new preparations for me."
In near-unison the whole faculty ducked their heads, look-ing away, beginning the first awkward silence of the meeting. The Dean seemed surprised. What had he expected?
Then he turned to Evamarii, who paused, surveyed the room, then locked eyes with her colleagues: "Like Kesho, I'm here because I want to visit new places and have new experiences. My Ph.D. is in theatre history and dramatic crit-icism. I'm teaching one African play, it was written by a Nigerian, Wole Soyinka, and I've prepared to teach my students about him and his theatre. I'm not prepared to introduce five hundred American students to a continent I've never visited. You want Kesho and me to teach about Africa and colonialism and persecution and segregation and apartheid, and about South American and North American black folks who were brought from Africa." She paused for several seconds, then continued: "I don't teach white folks about black folks any more. I've learned they don't want to hear it from me. If they're going to hear about race, and racial history, and about how things are and how they got that way, and how things should be, they need to hear it from you, from white folks, from their fathers, their uncles and aunts, and from their white professors. If I tell the story, they'll just hear me as one more angry black woman."
Momentarily I joined my colleagues in awkward self-consciousness, but in the time it took to draw my next breath I knew she was right, and that realization serves as the impulse for this book: white guys like me must tell these stories, the good and the bad, the positive and negative. If Americans are to understand our four-century history of racism, if we're to ever make an attempt to unlearn our racism, part of the experience must involve hearing well-intentioned white guys like me, guys who were raised in an America that had been doing the wrong thing about race for centuries, guys like me who sometimes had done the wrong thing, guys like me who thought ugly thoughts, but guys who learned and changed, and are still learning and changing, trying to figure out what the right thing is and how to do it.
When we returned from sailing around the world, confronting race and racism in every country we visited in a semester's voyage, I began to read Mark Twain, first because he was a world traveler; later because he was a man who spent a lifetime wrestling with race, mostly in America, but also in Europe, in Africa, in Asia, in New Zealand and Australia, and in Ceylon and India. Reading Twain and reading biographies of him has inspired questions about my relationship to race that I would never have confronted otherwise.
In the book that follows, I'll weave in and out of Mark Twain's and my stories, focusing on our experiences of race and of unlearning racism. Twain complicates our understanding of his life by telling multiple and sometimes conflicting versions of his life story. After all, he insisted his autobiography could be published only after he was dead, because he believed we humans can tell the truth about ourselves only when we're dead. In fact, we don't know that Twain ever addressed directly the question I'm posing about him: How did he unlearn his racism? He never said: "This is how I did it." In fact, the best we can do is identify and interpret pieces of scattered evidence.
And that is true of my own story as well as Twain’s.
Letter to Jane Lampton Clemens, 24 August 1853, New York, NY. Reprinted in Mark Twain's Letters.
Ed. Edgar Marquess, Michael B. Frank, and Kenneth M. Sanderson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1897), p. 4.
Mark Twain. Mark Twain's Autobiography.
ed. Albert Bigelow Paine (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1924), I, xi.