Tuesday, 13 August 2013
When Greg sent me his book, I assumed it was going to be about racism and the causes of the Detroit Riot in 1967. During that time I was teaching in an all black school of 800 in San Bernardino, California, and I knew full well how the tentacles of racism were choking the life from my students.
I was somewhat correct that it was about racism, but seen through the eyes of an eighteen year old white boy (Jake) who had never even been close to a black person. It is much more than that, it is a wonderful story about two young men, one white and one black who transcend their backgrounds and group prejudice to see one another as - human beings. The ending brought tears of joy and pride in what could be accomplished when we can erase what we’ve been taught and see one another freshly and fairly as uniquely human.
The long section that describes his time on Zug Island was interesting and terrifying. It reminded me of when I read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. My uncle had told me when he had worked in a meat packing plant in the Thirties he had been standing on a large piece of meat. When his shift was over he threw it into the garbage.
The foreman saw him and ordered him to put it on the conveyor line to process. My uncle refused and was fired. That was minor compared to the horrors the children and poor immigrants endured in losing limbs and lives without insurance or medical treatment in the factories.
Zug Island was a living Hell. The furnaces were insatiable and the heat was unbearable, the smoke and dust were destroying their lungs, and the physical work only a man desperate for a job would take. 99% of the laborers were poor blacks, mostly from the deep South. Jake stood out as one of the few whites. It was the fact that his grandfather and father had worked there and were respected that he was given the chance to prove himself. That he did.
Theo, a young married black who worked to make enough to hopefully get out of there and move his family back home, became Jake’s mentor and friend. Through Theo and the others, Jake saw a side of America he had no idea existed. The overwhelming frustrations from lack of a decent education, the fact that last hired, first fired was a reality that black men dealt with by taking it out on each other. Attacking any of the causes or any white person meant facing a justice system that they knew was unjust for them.
It didn’t make sense to most people why during the 1967 Detroit Riots, and other such outbreaks, that blacks destroyed their own neighborhoods. It was a build-up of intense anger from the reality of their helplessness against so many societal institutions that were keeping them down.
As teachers, Greg and I taught minority students and found ways to overcome their helplessness by building trust and caring relationships. Changing their negative mindsets through activities proved to them that they could be academically and socially successful and responsible for their actions.
Unfortunately, despite all the money poured into the minority schools and the pathetic attempts at real integration, and the fact that many lives did improve, the sense of inferiority and helplessness is the reality for millions today.
Greg’s book with his emphasis on the possibilities of real friendship between different races is proof that it can happen. It is a feel good book that you won’t want to put down until the end.