Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Negro History Week: Chauncey DeVega’s Pre-History

I believe that history is as much about forgetting as it is about remembering. This is especially true for black Americans, and other members of the Diaspora, who had so much of their history torn asunder from them and forced into re-imagining what we cannot reclaim. For my first installment I talked to my mom and also reflected on some of my father's stories. As will be made clear by my future posts on this subject, history is as much about getting in the way of things, as of knowing when to get the hell out of the way. Ultimately, I think history has necessitated an ironic sense of humor among black folks because we have to laugh to keep from crying--I guess that may be true of Jews as well (and maybe the Irish, Native Americans, and a few others). Moreover, race and racism messes people up and is so absurd in how it impacts people that these stories, and how we tell them, speak volumes for how people negotiate power.

My people are from North Carolina, Boston and Rhode Island. From these experiences, we (meaning my parents and their 2 branches, had 2 mottoes. The first was, "we don't run from poor white trash." The second was, "we come from Boston and North Carolina and we ain't no Africans because those Africans sold us into slavery!" Now, if you know me and my people in real life there are some facts which complicate that story. But, as a fiction it was simultaneously a truth which helped structure my life. In the following stories that fact becomes quite evident:

Did You Know that Chauncey’s father…

...Was much older than his mother and played semi-pro football with questionably "white"people during the 1930s and 1940s. These good white ethnics included the Irish, Italians, and Greeks. These "white" people liked my father because he was really fast and had great hands so they wanted to draft him. As pops would say, "I was a shorter version of Randy Moss, and if pro-football drafted black people he would have tried out and and made it."My dad was a hell of a bullshit artist, but when he was serious he was serious, and this story was verified by many different people so I take it to be true. Before I shattered my wrist, I too was damn good with that pigskin. I remember having a shoulder cast on my arm for six months and pops told me how it was a good thing I couldn't play football anymore. I asked him, "why?" He said that when he played football he ran fast because the Irish, Greeks, and Italians would yell, "get that nigger!" My dad was tall and sort of mean so I wouldn't have wanted to cross him, but he said it made him run really really fast because these white guys would tackle him and try to hit him in the groin. To add insult to injury, in the pile after the tackle they would whisper in his ear that the next time he put his "nigger hands" on the football they were going to kill him. I said, "dad, is that true?" He replied, "damn right...that is why I ran so fast!"

...Ex-wife put voodoo on him. My mom and I would tell him this was non-sense. But, he stood by it and wouldn't be budged. Apparently, when pops was leaving his ex she would heckle him. My dad being a playboy tried to shrug it off. At some point he went back to their/his house to pick up his old records and clothes and his ex-wife appeared in the doorway with 2 voodoo dolls. One doll was my father and the other his ex. The ex-wife had placed pins in the doll and said "this doll is you" and you will never leave me. The next day my father was deathly ill with food poisoning and explosive diarrhea. He swore it was voodoo. My mom (and I) disagreed. My mom told him it was some bad undercooked goat that he ate the day before...pops didn't believe her and swore it was the dark arts. Till the day he died, my father believed voodoo and not food poisoning put him on his death bed.

...Had fictive kin relationships because our families were broken and recreated by 400 years of slavery and we sort of had to make family where we could find it. My father's two best friends were my "uncles." This was strictly enforced. I could ask them anything and if anything happened to my parents they would have fought to take care of me. One of my uncles was/is a very talented musician who played with James Brown all over Africa during his tours there:

This uncle is very dear to me but is a bit of a pot head. I mean for a 70ish year old man he smokes too much weed and has had his share of young women. He apparently, while high or sober, mastered the art of driving across the East Coast with my father and peeing in beer bottles and soda cans. Yes, my uncle would drive his expensive car, smoke weed, and pee in bottles...this was his gift.

...Had a second "brother," my other," who loved to travel all over the world and spoke a bunch of languages. He smoked hashish on the Nile, fought Afrikaners in a bar in South Africa (true story), and in his later years would go to the Dominican Republican and sleep with prostitutes. The uncle in the above reflection looked liked Grady from Sanford and Son. This uncle looked like Bubba. Before my 2nd uncle would fly to the Dominican Republic he would watch the Home Shopping Network and QVC and buy cheap trinkets for the women there. He was a rich skinflint and traveled with either my father's luggage or with garbage bags. In these receptacles he would put all his trinkets and share them with those poor prostitutes. Yes, this is sad as he was fat and old and rich, but they were poor and had no choice. This uncle also hated his wife and kept 2 different refrigerators in his house. One was his wife's. The second was my uncle's which he would keep padlocked and chained shut lest his wife eat his food. Yes, he was a bit odd.

...And my second uncle were fascinated by women's vaginas...especially foreign women's vaginas. You see I used to date a Chinese woman while in college and afterwards before finding my black queen. My uncle called up one day and said he had a question. I said, "what do you want to know?" He replied, "me and your dad were wondering what Asian women's parts look like? Are they sideways?" I laughed and said, "No, women's plumbing is all generally the same." Yes, I felt dirty but wanted to satisfy the curiosity of 2 old black men--we are the fruit of the Civil Rights Movement after all and they couldn't have imagined that their kids would get to sleep with an Asian woman.

...Fought in World War 2. He could sort of "pass," but he had to wear a stocking cap to hide his nappy head when he woke up in the morning. He was also a Sergeant and couldn't stand, as he put it, "lazy negroes and white trash:"

...Was stationed abroad all the white guys knew he was black, but they were from his neighborhood (that is how the draft worked) and conspired to hide the fact he was black. They were his friends and wanted him to stay safe, but they didn't like black folks too much. Apparently, these white folk would wake him up before the sun came out and tell him to, "take off his stocking cap and comb his kinky nigger head" lest the officers find out he was really black and send him home.

...And his friend would get drunk while off duty in the Army. One day they resented having to sit in the black part of the movie theater--what was then called the buzzard's nest--it wasn't because they were black, but because they really wanted to see the movie, the screen was blocked, the seats were dirty, and my dad and his friend reasoned it wasn't fair that they would have to sit there and still pay the same amount of money as white people. Dad and his friend decided to pull out their pistols and shoot up the movie screen as an act of protest against the white theater owners. They never did get to see another movie at that theater.

...And his unit were tasked with bringing prisoners to Leavenworth military prison. Some of these prisoners were Germans and were being brought to work camps throughout the Midwest. My dad had nothing but praise for these soldiers. At length he would describe how well read these Nazis were, how they had good hygiene, weren't racist against black people, and were very well behaved. In fact, they would let these Germans out of their handcuffs for the long ride and would talk about history, politics, philosophy and such. The American GI's would even let these Germans use the toilet (as opposed to peeing and pooping on themselves) during the train ride from Texas. By comparison, my father and his unit had to guard prisoners and detainees going to the prison at Leavenworth. Many of these men were white and resented having black troops guard them. Apparently, these good ol'boys would curse black people and use all variety of racist profanities. Generally, they would just gag these idiots and ignore them. But on one occasion, there was (as my dad described him), "a cracker" from the South who wouldn't shut up. My father and the men under his command beat the hell out of this man. As my father relayed, they would beat him into unconsciousness and this white guy would just keep talking. They would knock him out and he would wake up and keep going. My father concluded that they could have killed him and gotten away with it, but it wasn't worth the trouble. They decided to just marvel at how hardheaded those white Southerners were as they beat this knucklehead into unconsciousness over and over and over again.

Wednesday: Some reflections from Chauncey's mother


Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Wow, those are some fascinating stories. Just a sidenote on the POW things. My gramps had fought in WWII, got wounded in Alaska, and then discharged. When he went back to the farm in Nebraska some of these German POWs were furloughed out to work for him, and since his father had been a German immigrant, gramps knew German and spoke German with them, and even had them eat in the kitchen instead of outside. Although the humanity towards others is nice, sadly it sounds like these German prisoners could expect better treatment than a lot of American soldiers.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

And at the end of that last comment I was not referring to those dumbass rednecks, who got what was coming to them.