Monday, August 20, 2012

Color Fear

I watched an old interview of Jimmy Breslin on C-Span over the weekend, originally aired in 1991.

I just loved what he said, and decided to quote the last segment of the interview in its entirety.

It's as true now, as it was in 1991... as it was in the time he is describing, the 50s.

[C-Span CEO Brian] LAMB: You said earlier that you can't go a day without writing about and thinking about race in New York City.

[Jimmy] BRESLIN: Well, it hits you in the face in New York City. It's all there is.

LAMB: OK. Is the problem -- and I don't know whether you call it a problem or not -- but will the problem be solved?

BRESLIN: It's a very new problem, and we've got a long way to go with it.

LAMB: Why is it new?

BRESLIN: Well, it didn't start until -- when did it start in New York City? I told you a movie was made in 1950 that only had two blacks in it -- shoeshine people -- and now we're in 1991 and we're beginning to see how many are there. I found in doing the research for this book, the John Deere Company in Iowa gave me their company newspaper and a lot of old press releases from the largest train ever to carry farm equipment in the United States in whatever the year was then. It left Des Moines with 141 flatcars filled with the John Deere 99 cotton picker, and it went to the South, to Atlanta, where there was a huge civic celebration there, and it went all across the South depositing these 99 -- the first shipment, largest in the history of the nation. Each machine did the work of 90 field hands, and they went all across the South. Now, and here it came, into New York they came, these sad-faced women with their arms leaden from carrying babies and a long ride.

Day coaches from Jacksonville, buses from Spartanburg; they came from Durham, in the tidewater area of Virginia. Into New York they came and they changed the city. We were unprepared for them, the city was unprepared. The city didn't even know what was happening. Congressional people on agriculture committees didn't know what was happening. Nobody knew what was happening. It was a huge movement, and it happened without any public notice. Into New York they came.

Where else would you go if you were chased off a farm? Where else would you go -- to Knoxville or to Atlanta or to Boise, Idaho, or Casper, Wyoming? You'd go to New York! Where else would you come? And they came.

This was a city that had a reputation of feeding and clothing anybody who couldn't make his own way, but it never was prepared for this. Then at the same time you had into New York from San Juan, they came on the so-called chicory lights. It came in late night flights from San Juan, loaded to the gunwales. They landed -- the airport then was called Idlewild, not even Kennedy. The cold wind would blow across the tarmac from the Atlantic Ocean across Jamaica Bay, whip across them as they came out of these planes dressed in short-sleeved sport shirts and flowered summer dresses, the women. Somebody from the Bronx would run up and throw a coat around them. I remember there was the fellow mentioned here -- Jimmy Cannon, wrote that they were 'summer people in winter clothes,' coming into New York.

These two from San Juan and from the South together formed the greatest number of people to enter the city of New York that we ever had at one time -- greater than anything from Ireland or Eastern Europe or Southern Italy, much greater. All here, and we didn't know what to do with them because they weren't white. You could take a whole load of Jewish people from Eastern Europe who couldn't speak the language and dressed strangely with their beards and hats, and you could take them and put a statue and have songs and poems and pictures -- dramatic things. Extol them forever. You could take the Italians from Calabria and from Naples -- great. Couldn't speak English -- who cared? They were great. Any Polish that came in, great.

Here came Americans but they weren't white -- wow, here we go.

Now, that isn't that long ago that the real numbers started coming in. They were coming up in the late '40s and into the '50s, but when those trains with this farm equipment really started to come, now it was a crush and we got hit with it. Now we're in something that nobody has ever done before. We're trying to somehow survive and have economic and share economic and political power. We're not asking people to love each other. I don't think you're ever going to get anyone to love anybody anyway. Forget that. Let's just live together and see what happens. That's 100 years. When you say that's 50, 75 years easy, nothing can be done. It's going to be a long, long, long thing.

LAMB: Why do the whites and the blacks, when they don't get along, why don't they get along? What is the reason?

BRESLIN: Color fear on the part of the whites.

LAMB: Color fear?

BRESLIN: That's where it starts. Also stubborn refusal on that word "color fear" to realize it's one other thing to admit it and to do something about it.

You can tell a guy if he has a job just by looking at him. The guy walking up the street, if he's working, forget it. You can tell by a look. A glance tells you a working man, and a working man doesn't do anything but go home from his job. There's no crime if people are working. Unheard of. Nobody working at a job with any chance in life goes out and does anything wrong. They don't do it. It just doesn't happen. If they would have this color fear, if they would begin to put it in their minds that hey, you don't have to be afraid if the guy is working. The whole word is jobs. You know that. What am I telling you? You sit here every night and know it. What, am I telling you something new? That's the only political word worth discussing is jobs.

LAMB: We've only got a minute or so. If Damon Runyon were living today, would he have trouble writing?

BRESLIN: No, not at all. How could you have trouble with what's going on today? And also his style of writing going right down to the street, you'd come up with the same one word.

If the guy ain't got a job, he's not going to behave. If the guy doesn't have bread, he's going to steal it. Now, let's face it. He was writing about people who came in from Texas. Miss Temple Texas gets off a bus on a Friday, meets a guy and comes around on Monday morning with a brand-new mink coat and says, "Look what I found in the subway." Well, they were coming in from out of town and making it. Now, all you need is somebody coming in from the south end of Brooklyn, or his family that followed him, who gets ahead -- gets some bread and gets ahead in the world. There's no trouble. Jobs. He would understand that. If the guy is working, everything's all right.

I'm confident in that.