by Bud Finlayson
Prejudiced Stranger in a Strange Land
To our mild disappointment we discovered our game uniforms to be our practice attire, with the exception that they would be freshly washed. The white cotton, jerseys held no markings. Therefore, we were denied any self identity, the pride of possessing one's own label, and the satisfaction of being singled out by a certain number on a roster. Being seventh graders, we were hardly important enough to be identified as individuals, though. It was just a learning year.
Undaunted by our bland uniformness, we loaded on a school bus and headed towards Dogan Jr. High, deep into north Tyler. As the coach body bounced and rattled along the red brick streets, leading away from our school, we all sat quietly in thought about the game. There was more than football going through my head then; there was a fear of the unknown, for Dogan was an all Black school.
Besides my battle for a starting position, early that first year of jr. high, I was confronted through football to deal with a prejudice I had acquired by that age. With the ideas of unity and teamwork, necessary to a football squad, I was challenged to accept all team mates on an equal basis. The only problem I had at that time was Thomas Humphries, the only Black on the team. I don't think I held any blatant contempt for Blacks at that time, but my upbringing and environment had always suggested to the contrary about them. All around me, growing up in Tyler, I saw situations, that through the eyes of a child, suggested a clear cut difference between the Black-man and Us Whites.
They (the Blacks) all lived way over on the north side of town, and were hardly ever seen on our side of town, except for the Black maids, yard men, and garbage men, who came south for work. Their houses were small, unpainted, and dilapidated, with weed filled, mainly dirt yards, compared to our large, brick, air-conditioned homes with lush grassy lawns. They had always attended separate schools. That year, however, integration began taking place in Tyler public schools. It was gradual at first, with only one out of every fifty, or so, being black; enough for my Dad to react with a threat to move us to Mississippi to keep our education White. They stayed on the north side and went to different stores, and different restaurants. At the East Texas Fair, there were different restrooms, "Colored" and "White." And everybody knew not to go to the fair on Thursday night cause it was "Nigger Night".
So, up till the 7th grade I didn't really know or understand any Blacks, except for our maid Oly Faye Andrews, who just about raised me. Even then though, I knew her only in her role as our house keeper and not on an equal, personal, basis, except for a belt applied very personably, on occasions. She worked for our family for 17 years, including all of my 13 years in Tyler. I never saw any fault in her because of her race, and being a child I sought not to understand or care about her difference in color. She was simply Faye.
At the age of 13, my attitude towards Blacks was by no means indifferent. I had many sources of influence that steered me into a negative, bigoted direction. 'I knew a "Nigger" when I seen one', my eyes clearly saw the difference. Stray conversation drifting from a circle of chatter-ing grown-ups, into my green set of ears, always belittled the race. "Their brains are half our size, Don't get near 'em for fear the black'll rub off if you touch it, They aren't capable of abstract thought, Their too dumb to play football, They're lazy, shiftless, no-count, all on welfare; 'When the eagle flies on Friday, Saturday I go out to play.'"
In later years, my Dad would plead innocent at my charges of contempt on his part. He would only recall of "just joking" about Them, but he never warned me then that they were merely jokes. The 6:00 news offered many opportunities of enlightenment to me. My Dad's strong show of disagreement to the changing ways being reported on TV during the 1960's was nothing but sincere. On racial matters, he would verbally address the set, raving about the evils of the Black's movement for equality. JFK & LBJ were "Nigger lovers", and Martin Luther King was an adulterer, used as a communist plot to undermine our White society. (Of course, the Beatles were too)
The advent of "Black" shows with "Black" stars was a sign of the country's downfall, but he loved ole' Rochester and Amos n' Andy. Sweet Emma and Louis Armstrong were some of his favorite musicians, but my Mom's Mahalia Jackson record ended up shattered into a thousand pieces, from the blow of his hammer. And his respect was utmost for the late Jesse Owens, which he once had the privilege to meet in a hotel elevator.
My Mom was never as outspoken about her feelings towards Blacks, and I never heard the word "Nigger" ever come out of her mouth. She seemed to always treat Blacks as children, speaking to them in a funny little slow voice. Like a foreign language is necessary to communicate to a foreigner, she would lapse into it by pure instinct.
I didn't know what the John Birch Society was, but my dad seemed highly honored to call himself a "Birch-er." Nor did I know who did it or why, the letters K-K-K were spray-painted red on the faded gray asphalt of our driveway. But I did know that Black folk were always causing trouble or some sort of aggravation like: rioting, protesting, marching, or refusing a back seat and it wasn't a popular notion to side with them. So I learned to keep my distance.
The first time Thomas Humphries lined up opposite of me for a tackling drill, I was forced for the first time to bridge that carefully kept distance. I saw his dark forearms and face glistening and dripping with sweat, like wet black paint. Instinctively I held up, actually wary of staining myself, and met him with a life-less blow while pulling him down. As the coach cussed me for my weak performance, I quickly checked myself for black spots but could find none. 'But they always said ...?' I thought to myself, 'And in fact it doesn't.' That was my first experience that began to dispel some of my conditioned prejudice.
When I think of all the bigots I knew growing up in Tyler, I think of how poetically just it is that Earl Campbell emerged up out of the poverty of a three-room house in the rose fields of north Tyler to become one of the greatest football players the world has ever known. He was dubbed "The Tyler Rose," her most famous native son, loved and respected by all despite his color because he was a winner. When his fame put Tyler on the map, the same closed minded, old Tyler upper-crust that believed a Black's intelligence too low to play football, jumped wholeheartedly on his band-wagon, speaking fondly, "Earl... he's our boy!" Earl's greatness allowed him to soften a lot of hard hearts, because his humble integrity carried over beyond the football field, and he became a legendary symbol of virtue to all the classes and races.
We were venturing into unfa-miliar territory; assuredly unfriendly, too. As kids, we were warned by my Dad to roll up the windows and not to stare outside, whenever we passed through "niggertown," as he'd say. We didn't have to look out beyond the interior of the car, to tell when we got there though. Like a compass, my Dad supplied us with all the information to pinpoint our location. He would smile and lapse into his 'Black' self, mimicking his idea of the stereotype Black man, a droopy eyed, lazy, no-count, simple minded, East Texas back woods, country talking, Uncle Tom. Then he might frown, upset with something he saw, "What are those Niggs doing now?!" There was an exciting sense of danger for us young ones, whenever crossing the line, and we always burst out giggling and carrying on when our safety was evident.
That was inside the protec-tion of our family car, without a thought of stopping. Now we came "en masse", as intruders, with the specific intent of doing battle in their own back yard. We apparently neared, for along with the already more frequent run-down houses and downgraded neighbor-hoods, more and more Black school children walked the streets; their arms filled with books. They all stared, straight-faced, up into the bus windows at our, all but one, white faces. I don't know what Thomas Humphries felt that day. He might have felt as out of place as I did.
The bus maneuvered into the school's parking lot and circled around the gym, then down a slope, and stopped next to their practice field. The building, like most of the surroundings, suffered from abuse and neglect; broken windows, unscrubbed walls, weedy grounds and spray-painted graffiti. We were instructed, by our coach, to unload and keep our mouths shut; that we were there just to play football and nothing else. We knew what he meant. Most of us might have been reared anti-Black, and at that moment were thinking racially hostile thoughts, but like true, outspoken, bigots; we knew when to hold our tongues.
Hundreds of black faces observed our arrival, from their perch on a terrace that rose up on the opposite side of the field from us. They were not so much interested in football; they had amassed while waiting on their buses home, and naturally beheld the sight of us as a curiosity. We milled about gingerly in the unfamiliar setting. Like cautiously emerging from a space-craft on an alien planet, I visually tested the soil, the plant life, and the people. Those things all appeared to be enough like "Ours", except for the black skinned residents. The atmosphere seemed thick and suppres-sive, yet obviously contained oxygen, for I was not suffocating. I was amazed to discover all those similarities between "Our" world and "Theirs'." Never-the-less, when passing from one to another, I defi-nitely felt the invisible plane of a barrier, even though it was imaginary. We were all, to different degrees, taken back by our first experience at being the minority.
Our coach, noticing our shock, barked us to attention, "Hey Ya'll! We came here to play football! Am I gonna' have to light a fire under ya'll's butts! Lets show a little life. Now, line up for calisthenics!" We rallied together, inspired by his words, and started with side-straddle-hop as always. A wild cheer erupted from atop the far hill-side, drowning out our exercise counting. We never stopped, but the startling spun our helmeted heads around to witness the commotion, and we got pathetically out of unison. Then our coach erupted, and we got quickly back in step, but had plenty of time to see the green-shirted Dogan players appearance onto the field. As we continued our warm up, we snuck observances at every opportunity.
The girls in the bus-stop crowd became cheerleaders, but behaved unlike "Ours." After freeing themselves of their books and shoes they went to reeling and rocking. They danced in lines, circles, and with nobody at all; while exalting their team with sing-song chants, not regimented cheers. The players responded cockily, waving back and smiling. They strutted proud, showing their stuff to the excited dancers. Some couldn't hold back from on top of that slope and came racing down to plant a good-luck kiss on an admired player. The most kisses went to an able looking guy that would later play quarterback. His head was near shaved, and he stood tall, but he seemed awkward. His shoulder pads sloshed loosely around his narrow neck and dangling out of his roomy pants were a pair of pitifully skinny black, calves.
The rest of his teammates were mixed in size, a variety of different extremes. One lineman had to weigh close to three hundred pounds, an easily spotted round figure, constantly tugging upward on his pants to keep his sagging gut from forcing them down. Another man stood two heads taller than anybody on the field. Their line came out terribly lop-sided and ill proportioned in appearance. They seemed confident and relaxed though, obviously comfortable on their own turf.
We continued to drill and go through our plays as instructed by our coach. The butterflies were fluttering violently in my stomach. We'd never played in a real situation as a team and I didn't know what to expect, especially from a team of Blacks. For all I knew, they might have brass knuckles or knives concealed in their pads, to help their cause. We warded off their intimidating show by encouraging ourselves of our ability and by sparking up our team spirit in allegiance to our school, Hogg Jr. High. Finally, it was time to play, and for me to face my fears, but first the coach called us together.
He commenced his pep talk by reassuring us that our opponents were no different than us. He stressed that we could hold our own against them, if we would just lay all the crap aside and play the football that we were capable of. Then, after a few more lines of warning how hard they would be coming after us, and that we'd better be ready, or they'd tear our heads off; he told us to bow them in silence. I was glad to have a word with God then. It's always good to know He's there when you need him. I asked immediately for help and strength, but mostly that we win the scrimmage, with his help.
We broke out of our group, strapped on our pots, and hit the field, due to run offense first. We would run twenty plays, starting at the 20 yard line. If we failed to make a first down in 3 plays, then the ball would be brought back to the 20 yard line, and we'd start all over again. Otherwise, the ball would continue; to advance, and hopefully cross the far goal line. Our team huddled up about 10 yards behind the ball, and received the play from our coach who accompanied us. We bounded out of the huddle and I got my first close inspection of our mysterious foe.
They definitely outsized us, and their dark faces from inside the white helmets appeared older than those of seventh graders. Most supported curly black whiskers, although not thickly. I could only suspect that the Blacks supposed deficiency for learning had hindered some of these fellows and caused them to repeat a year or two.
In front of me stood a lanky linebacker. His dark eyes scanned over my head, with ease, into our backfield; then he lowered them into mine. They showed determination as he gnawed his mouthpiece and I returned his stare with as much ferocity as I could muster.
Our quarterback began his signal calling and our team responded, going down set, then "HUT-HUT"; and we fired out. The play was directed wide, away from me, so when I hit my man he slid off toward the flow . He was too late to get in on the tackle, and we made a couple of yards. To my surprise, I was unblemished by any knife cuts or other illegal, hidden weapons. He and I continued to lock horns on each succeeding play. We fought hard and he stung me a couple of times, but he didn't totally dominate me. I got my licks in with equal authority to his.
Those first twenty plays we failed to score, but did tally up 3 first downs. Now it was our job to stop them. We handed the ball over to them grudgingly. Now that we had exchanged blows with them and sweated a little; the earlier intimidation felt from being in such unfamiliar company had rubbed off. Even the excited, dancing, rooters had caught their busses home, and the hillside lay vacant and cheerless. It was just us and them, head up together on the neutrality of a football field.
They broke their huddle and lined up facing me, where I waited opposite the ball. The center had me by a good 5 inches in height, but he couldn't have outweighed me with his lean build. The remaining linemen emitted no great fear except that the right tackle spot was occupied by the three hundred pound "Big Boy", and he made more than two of me. He moved slower than molasses, but was impossible to budge. Hopefully I wouldn't have to contend with him. The quarterback, as I said, was the skinny legged player that received most of the good luck kisses. He called the line set, and on movement of the pigskin, I charged.
The flow swept to their left and we strung it out to the sideline, making the ball carrier cut up field. He didn't go far, but stubborn-ly refused to fall, even though being swarmed on by four of my fellow defenders. I got there just as they were pulling him down and with my head lowered, I dove into the pile of bodies. We pulled ourselves up, pleased that we had stopped him, but amazed at the number of us it took to do so. We kept holding them with gang tackles on the first five or six attempted runs, then they threw a pass. It surprised us and they picked up 10 yards for an easy first down.
The next play proved even more of a shock. "Skinny Legs" grabbed the snap and headed, without hesitation, around their right end. He got a lot of help from "Big Boy" on that side. The giant contained the pursuit of our whole line, by simply being in the way and being so large. The quick footed quarterback put a shuck and jive step on the last defender, then he turned on his speed and scooted down the sideline with his head thrown back and his black arms and legs flying. He reached the end zone untouched by our chasing safety man and the score stood: one touchdown to none.
We felt despair at that moment but kept on battling. I tended no longer to care about our opponents having black skin or being "niggers". They were beating us, and that angered me more than them being Black. Our comeback attempt was futile, though. Their speed and size was too much for us. At the end of it all, they bested us three touchdowns to one. My uniform sagged wearily as did I, when it was all over.
We were instructed, as a show of good sportsmanship, to congratulate the victors. I simply wandered about the mixed group, out on the field, looking blankly into the strange, dark, happy, faces. I refused to offer them any spoken compliments, so I just went through the motions. It stayed quiet on the bus, as we returned back to our side of town, but it was not a disgraceful silence. I was grateful to have come away from there unscathed by any lethal injuries, having dared venture that deep into "Nigger Town." On top of that we even scored against them. So, we held our heads up, despite the loss.
That night in bed, I remembered having request-ed of God that he let us win, but we did not. I felt that God had failed me, but I didn't know why. Another thought troubled and confused me. We got beat by a Black team, but my White race is superior. Did I let my people down? Am I still worthy of being White? They do excel in athletics, but even the quarterback was Black and he had the unheard-of ability to call and remember the plays. Maybe they used some sort of trick, being dishonest like they are, for I knew some of their players were two or three years older than us from their appearance, and that was clearly against the rules. Yep, They had to cheat in order to beat us.
End of Chapter 4
CHAPTERS 1 2 3 4
5 6 7
8 9 10
11 12 13
14 15 16
17 18 19
20 21 22