Common Ground

Excerpt from “Winning Was Never the Only Thing…”

“There is a long hair that doesn’t like the short hair
For being’ such a rich one, that will not help the poor one
Different strokes for different folks
And so on and so on and Scooby dooby doo-bee
Oh, shasha, we got to live together”
“Everyday People”-Sly and the Family Stone

I was not a happy camper. As I returned from my early Sunday morning run I had gotten a text from former player and student Jamie Bennett. He was preaching at his childhood church, Gethsemane National Baptist Church. Jamie would be described, according to my religious upbringing, as a Lay Minister. He does not have a divinity degree and is not ordained in a traditional sense although within his own church he has been ordained. Jamie is also a very good preacher and a true man of God. So why was I not a happy camper? After all it had been my intention to go to church after completing my run this Father’s Day. It was because he is a BLACK man of God. What do I have against black men of God? Nothing except that they attend black churches whose services tend to run very, very long . . . and then some. I knew my wife was not going to let me out of this one. Well to be honest, my conscience was not going to let me out of it either. Being invited meant a lot to me and going was more important than an early lunch and an afternoon sitting in the sun. I just hoped my stomach would agree with me.

Both Jamie and his brother Boo, or Carolus as he is now known, played for me at Riverside. Both were pitchers, both were outfielders and they both had their struggles hitting pitches that bent. During the late Seventies and early Eighties I had taught with Jamie’s and Carolus’s mother Carol Ann. My wife knew them and the rest of the family, which is quite large and if not extended, tightly intertwined. Linda Gail had taught most of the Bennett-Brooks clan elementary physical education. Linda Gail and mother Carol Ann developed a bond that gradually expanded to include both sides of the Bennett-Brooks family: grand parents, dads, sister, brothers, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and many cousins, who were, in some cases, many generations removed. This is a huge family. They rent motels and cordon off city blocks when they have their family reunions and it seems Linda Gail taught them all. More importantly, they are tight. Mess with one and you find yourself messin’ with them all, especially the sisters and sisters-in-law. By the time younger brother Carolus had come along, Linda and Carol Ann’s bond had strengthened to the point of a sisterhood of sorts. So in honesty, my relationship with the family expanded when I came along for the ride as Linda became Grandmother Chancey’s adopted daughter.

Okay, I was wrong. I cannot totally come back to Jamie and his family until I give you some personal history and further confessions. This story really has less to do with religion but has everything to do with cultural differences which involve religion and a gazillion other diverse variances between the races. It is called diversity, right?
I was a child in the fifties and a teen in the sixties and am a product of all the prejudices that were taught to me during that period. Even though my family was one of the least prejudiced that I knew of, I do not say that with pride because they were still prejudiced. I recognized that there was a separation between the races in addition to cultural differences even if I didn’t quite understand them. Watching the nightly news I saw buses burned, church bombings and fire hoses along with German Shepherds turned loose on masses of black people while I attempted to enjoy my Birdseye TV dinner. It did not make me particularly proud to be a white person whether I understood the dynamics or not. Now that I understand the dynamics, I have spent the better part of fifty years trying to both get over and to atone for my prejudices. Most of the time I have been successful although there have been times that I have reverted back to the prejudiced hick I don’t want to be. The good news is that unlike a lot of the other prejudiced hicks, I feel bad about it when it happens, pray for forgiveness, and thankfully, my prejudices rear their ugly heads less and less as time marches on.
Much of my racial understanding is as conflicted as is my racial make up, which I am certain, is made up of all recognized races except Oriental – and who knows, I do have a love of Chinese food.

Nannie’s best fishing friend in addition to being part time hired help, Maggie Cureton, was “colored” and in my mind’s eye I can still see them both sitting under a shade tree gutting and scaling their catch, joking, laughing and enjoying each other’s company. It was the same when there was ironing or wash to be done. They had a lot in common. Both had lived hard before and during the Great Depression and had lost their husbands earlier than they would have liked. Before and during the depression, Nannie and Pawpaw had farmed “on the lien” while Miss Maggie and family were sharecroppers. Either way their lot was a hard way to make a living. While Nannie treated Miss Maggie as if she were white, I was once taken to task over referring to black brick mason Pepsi Cola Mobley, which was probably not his real name, as Mr. Mobley. Nannie informed me that you didn’t refer to “coloreds” as Mister. Miss Maggie, Mr. Mobley, Confliction! Maybe I should have called him Mister Pepsi Cola.

It is hard to understand and easy to fear what you have never interacted with. I had little interaction with other races during my pre-teaching years. Occasionally I played with the Cureton grandchildren but it was rare, and it certainly did not increase when I went off to primary school. Despite the Brown vs. Board of Education court ruling, blacks and whites did not attend school together. Here in South Carolina and in most of the Deep South, when our state governments heard “with all deliberate speed” we focused upon deliberate rather than speed. So, as I entered the first grade in 1956, my class was “lily white.” The Cureton grandchildren were bused eighteen miles away to an all black school. It was still that way when I entered junior high school and high school and did not change until my senior year when “token” integration was forced upon the state by that “Yankee” government in Washington. The eighth grade Springs twins, Charles and Leroy, became our “tokens.” Nothing changed when I went off to college either. Newberry College was so white it would blind you in bright sunlight. I did work with a few African Americans but even in the cotton mill in the sixties and seventies, African Americans were few and far between and all were older adults. Even as I developed friendships in my teaching career, I felt that there was always a wall of distrust that kept friendships from developing as deeply as they might have. Thankfully by the time I had gotten to the end of my career that had changed. There I developed deep friendships with people of many races; most that I hope will survive for the rest of my life.

Jamie was not the first African American that I coached nor was younger brother Carolus the last. I have been lucky to coach many fine young men, some who just happened to be black. Because of Linda’s relationship with Carol Ann, Carolus and Jamie became the first that I developed a relationship and understanding with that went deeper than the classroom or athletic field. With most of my players, white, black or in between, I keep up with those that I can, enjoy the interaction when we cross paths and consider them all to be special, but basically they have their lives and I have mine. That is not the case with Jamie and Carolus. They are a part of my life and I am proud of what they have accomplished. It has also led to understanding. When I say black now, it is simply an easy way to describe who I am talking about. You know, “The black kid that pitched for me back in the early nineties that gave up that gonzo shot to Chad Roper” or the black kid who was an All State singer, church goer, and outstanding student, diligent son to his sick and dying father and a rock of strength to his mother. In other words, the great kid who just happens to be black.

The same thing could be said about Carolus although our understanding may have taken longer and it was not my fault. Carolus lived on my route home so it was inevitable that, by mutual agreement between Linda Gail and Carol Ann, I would be enlisted to become a taxi and would drop him off from practices. What ensued was a very long, silent and for me uncomfortable five mile drive. Carolus would not speak unless spoken to and then would only answer in the shortest possible manner. The only Carolus-initiated communication was the “Thank you” that I got when he exited my truck, and I got one every time I dropped him off. I should point out that I am quite sure that listening to Willie Nelson and George Jones while riding around in a big Ford four by four made for an uncomfortable trip for a young black male as well. With adulthood, all of that has changed except for his thank yous.

These drives were not quite as uncomfortable as I remember the first Bennett Fourth of July party my wife and I attended. It was a lesson on what it is like to be in a minority and the way that I am sure a lot of my black friends and acquaintances felt when they showed up for parties hosted and attended mostly by whites. It did not help that I knew maybe ten of the fifty plus people there and the only person that I would guess to be more uncomfortable would be the “lady of ill repute sitting on the front pew at church.” I don’t think that I imagined the stares and silence that greeted us as we came through the door. I am sure there were a few questions like “Who are they and why are they here?” running through some people’s minds. With introductions and explanations this changed, but that wall I talked about earlier was still firmly in place. Over the years, the party has become much more comfortable. I am sure that the walls of distrust still exist but believe that many holes have been opened up in it. As I sat and gorged myself on pulled pork and ribs along with some of the best potato salad of all time, I became involved in conversation with Uncle Butch, a member of my generation. It did not take long to realize that we did not grow up much differently despite our skin color. Our roots were stuck firmly in the soil and the textiles that were produced from it. The only difference was the color of our skin and the distrust fostered by slavery, Jim Crow and the racism that is still evident today. Funny odd, now, twenty years or so later, if we are unable to attend the party for some reason, our absence is a source of concern.

Today I look at racial diversity as a smorgasbord of delights. I believe we should just focus on how diversely different people party. How can you be distrustful of people who produce such wonderful food? My life without Latin, Soul, Oriental and Cajun foods would not be life ending but life would not be as joyous, especially without a Belgian or German beer or maybe some Tennessee whiskey to go with it. Someone might as well play some Blues, Reggae or a little Zydeco to help the atmosphere along. It is just as easy to focus on the positives about diversity as it is the negatives and again with knowledge comes understanding. I thank the Bennett’s friendship for that.

Incidentally, the service that Jamie preached was wonderful and thought provoking. Brother Carolus sang, large portions of the Brooks-Bennett family were in attendance and the service was uplifting and motivating in every way. I think every person there shook my hand and wished me a happy Fathers Day. Their pastor gave me a huge bear hug and has been in contact twice since the service. Truthfully, we did “make a joyful noise unto the Lord” and because of that I don’t remember it being a longer service than normal. In fact, it might not have been long enough.
“Winning…” may be purchased through Amazon using the link: http://goo.gl/Saivuu

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