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— Derrick Bell, author of Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth
"In the same carefully wrought prose that attended his magnum opus, [Black Rage], Cobbs dissects his odyssey, probing the facts of his life as though he was the patient. His examined life is not only worth living, it's worth telling."
— Herb Boyd, author of We Shall Overcome and Pound for Pound: A Biography of Sugar Ray Robinson
"[A] help, an inspiration, and a joy."
— Jay Harris, President and Publisher of Mother Jones
"A nuanced portrait of mid-twentieth-century racial consciousness."
— Publishers Weekly
Doctor Boswell's first words to my mother, Rosa, after she delivered me, her third child, were "that boy looks just like a bishop." I was born at home, 1531 East Forty-ninth Street in Los Angeles, California, on November 2, 1928. And as I took what no doubt was a noisy first breath, Dr. Boswell's humorous, well-intended depiction of me resonated deeply in some part of my mother's soul. She herself had long-term standing as a leader of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, of which the good doctor was also a member. Indeed, back in Birmingham, my mother's father and two brothers had been prominent members of the church and later her brother ran for bishop, which, in the CME Church, is an elected position. My uncle lost that election. But that did not interfere with my mother's certainty that I indeed had the appearance of intelligence, probity, and righteousness that could help me on the path to great expectations. My looking like a bishop was good news to her and fitting as well.
My father, Peter Price Cobbs, would have been pleased too. He wasn't as devoted to the church as my mother, but he attended regularly and appreciated the social and political aspects of being a member of the church community. A thoughtful man of action, he was in 1928 one of the very first black physicians to practice in Los Angeles. He knew that if his newborn son Price truly fit such a description, he was already exhibiting qualities that would serve him well in a world that even my father, "PP" as a few close friends called him, could only imagine was coming. So as I was laid in my mother's arms for the first time that day, I was welcomed with joy to the family of Doctor and Mrs. Peter Price Cobbs, my brother, Prince, and my sister, Marcelyn.
I don't remember the ride, of course, but a few days after my birth, my mother and father drove me in their late-model Reo from our little house on Forty-ninth Street between Hooper and Central Avenue for a ride down Central Avenue. He later only drove either a Dodge or a Chrysler.
In 1928 there were about twenty thousand black people in Los Angeles, and most of them could be found in the neighborhood of Central Avenue, in a corridor several blocks wide and thirty blocks long, just south of downtown. This was, of course, a segregated Los Angeles in which black people were severely restricted in where they could live. Real estate land covenants forbidding the sale of property to black people in most sections of L.A. were part and parcel of the law itself and had been legitimized by a California Supreme Court ruling in 1919. That judgment, which legalized segregation in housing, stood until well after the end of World War II.
The covenants did not stop people from coming, though. There was money in Los Angeles, lots of it, and many black immigrants from the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas felt that some portion of it could be theirs. Especially in comparison to wages in the South, those in L.A. were high, even for menial jobs. A black janitor in L.A., for example, could make three times what he'd earn working a farm in Georgia, Alabama, or Mississippi. Also, despite the restrictive covenants, there was the important and wonderful possibility of even having a home of your own, although its location may be restricted to a certain section of the city. In 1930, one-third of the black people in L.A. owned their homes, a much higher percentage than in any other city in the United States.
Most of the blacks immigrating to Los Angeles in those days were upwardly mobile people seeking education and good jobs who had the intention of improving their lot financially and every other way. There was also a steady trickle of black professionals like my parents. My father had a thriving practice he had built over the years in Montgomery, Alabama, so the move to Los Angeles was thoughtfully considered.
Something important was apparently missing in Montgomery, and he was looking for a place where he could improve his position. One day when I was in junior high school and riding with my father to his office he mentioned he found Montgomery "too confining." He never explained and I didn't ask whether this meant he wanted to build a larger medical practice or to participate more fully in the political life of a city. He considered Tallahassee, Florida, where he had applied for a position as the infirmary physician at Florida A and M. While he was visiting there though he was treated with all of the rough, backward truculence that the white South reserved for blacks, no matter their talents. Refusals of service. Insults. Degrading indifference or outright hostility. Nothing even in Montgomery had prepared him for this. Life for blacks in Tallahassee was not good.
My father came away from the experience shaken by the way he was treated except, of course, among the students and staff of the college. After living in both Tuskegee Institute and Montgomery, Alabama, the racial hostility of the Deep South was certainly not a new experience for him. Maybe being a part of the medical community in those places cushioned some of the blows. Whatever it was, the sheer intensity of Tallahassee was undoubtedly different. The few days he spent there in 1924 remained symbolic to him for the rest of his life of what the South intended for people like him, my mother, and their family to come. Indeed his description of this visit was one of the few occasions when my father actually uttered the word racist, a word that we seldom used in those days. We talked more about "prejudice" when I was a child. But my father said that Tallahassee was one of the most racist places he had ever visited, and I think that experience is what pushed him to go far away, way out west, to the new promised land of California and Los Angeles.
Leaving the South and migrating west was a common theme with a great many of the kids that I grew up with -- whether their parents had brought them to L.A. in the 1920s and 1930s or had arrived there before the kids themselves were born. The idea was to move to a safer place with a better social and racial climate -- but in reality conditions weren't all that great in L.A. You were, after all, still black, still in America, and change was still a long way off....There was in L.A. a certain "cautiousness" that you had to maintain, a wariness, a constant vigilance. There was the sense that something dangerous was always out there lurking somewhere. It was not the more rigid, precisely defined South where everyone, especially black folks, knew their place. There was capriciousness. This was L.A. where racism was often insidious, not nearly as blatant and outright as it was in the South.
In Los Angeles, you never knew when something might occur that made folks generate their own unique brand of regional prejudice and western-style discrimination. For example, other than one or two downtown cafeterias, most restaurants were reserved for. While there were no Whites Only signs posted in the window, a father or mother knew the family wouldn't be served, so why go in and have the children humiliated. At an early age you discovered which neighborhood places to avoid, be they the five-and-dime around the corner, a nearby cleaners, or even a small candy store. If you forgot and wandered in, you were either ignored, stared at, or told, sometimes even politely, that the establishment didn't cater to "colored people." Many public places were off-limits. As a neighborhood turned increasingly black, a swimming pool and park would become available for use. Yet several blocks away in a white area the same black people trying to use similar facilities were chased away. But it was worse elsewhere. Often much worse. So these people came to L.A. because they could not tolerate the raw, naked racism of the South. Or -- and justifiably -- it frightened them.
Boldness, though, accompanied the fear and caution that came west with these southern blacks. These people were pioneers. They had the courage to pull up their roots and travel far from their families and everything that had been familiar to them. They didn't let the obstacles of continued legal and unyielding segregation stop them from taking what freedom and opportunity there was to make a better place for themselves and their families. With no guarantees of employment, no special prospects in sight, and in most cases very little or no money, these courageous immigrants set forth to make a new life in a New World.
So as they looked at their baby bishop in his home on a November afternoon in 1928, each of my parents had a view of me tempered by their own experiences as black Americans in a society that still bore a heavy burden of racial inequity and enmity. My father no less than my mother.
Peter Price Cobbs was born in Barboursville, Virginia. He was the oldest child, and it's interesting to consider how cultured, well educated, and politically developed a man my father became, coming from a place like Barboursville that was not even a town, barely a village. Once he could, he left. His brothers and sisters left too. They moved to New York; North Carolina; Washington, D.C.
He attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., both as an undergraduate and through medical school, graduating in 1919. Through hard work, intelligence, and determination, he had become a physician, a middle-class profession that was one of the few available for blacks at that time. There was the ministry, of course. Dentistry. Teaching. But medicine was one of the most important professions, and my father was indeed an important man, highly regarded and respected in the community, by virtue of his work and his personality.
My father did not project self-importance. Underneath his self-confident bearing, humility, and lack of pretension, though, my father had an edge, a subtle undercurrent of anger leaking out. Rage bubbling dangerously just beneath the surface. It was this edge that became for me, later, the most important part of his personality. It found much of its expression, when I was a teenager, in his increasing involvement in progressive politics. But at the time of my birth he was not yet expressively political or left-wing. I know just the same that even then, when we were little kids, he had a political viewpoint, because he helped all of us grow up with one of our own. His motivation for moving to L.A. and going into practice there would have been part of it. He wasn't going to tolerate bringing up his kids in the blatant racism of the old South, and we knew that.
L.A.'s version of racial segregation was the development of our Central Avenue neighborhood as a thriving center of black business, culture, and above all, family. The street itself had the same invigorated atmosphere as other such streets in the United States, including 125th Street in Harlem in New York City, Beale Street in Memphis, or "Sweet" Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, Georgia.
Among the many attractions of Central Avenue during that period was the music. Los Angeles was either a significant stopping-off place or a home to many notable black musicians who were able to find work in the new Hollywood talkies as well as the clubs. Jelly Roll Morton regularly played at a club called Wayside Park in nearby Watts in the early 1920s, and he introduced King Oliver to the L.A. audience at that same club in 1922. Morton was so successful at Wayside Park that after a few years there he was able to open his own club near the corner of Twelfth and Central. Buck Clayton arrived in Los Angeles in 1929 and played for years in Central Avenue clubs. He played the trumpet and later became a leading soloist and arranger for the Count Basie Orchestra. Nat King Cole formed his first trio at a Central Avenue club, and in later years, Dexter Gordon, another Los Angeleno (whose father, incidentally, was also a physician), found his first fame on the Avenue. Dexter became a seminal tenor saxophonist of the bebop era and in 1986 was nominated for an Oscar for his role in the film Round Midnight. There were hundreds of musicians who were fueling the innovative explosion in jazz in L.A. during that period.
And Central Avenue had some pretty grand buildings too. The same year I was born, a black dentist named John Somerville built The Somerville Hotel on Central Avenue at Forty-first Street, thirteen blocks from where we lived. Four stories high with one hundred rooms, The Somerville opened in time to provide shelter and services to W. E. B. DuBois and James Weldon Johnson, who had come to L.A. to attend the NAACP convention that year. Descriptions of the hotel point out that it contained a barbershop, a beauty parlor, a florist, a thriving restaurant, and other such establishments. It was one of the finest hotels for black people in the country.
The stock market crash in 1929 forced Doctor Somerville to sell the hotel to a group that renamed it The Dunbar Hotel, after the famous Paul Laurence Dunbar, a black American poet born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1872. Dunbar's work was internationally known during his own lifetime. He was praised and personally helped in his career by James Whitcomb Riley, William Dean Howells, and none other than Orville and Wilbur Wright, with whom he attended high school. The Dunbar Hotel remains today at the same address.
Black people lived and worked on Central Avenue, strolled up and down its length, shopped, visited, or simply hung out in its many diners and cafes, on its stoops and corners, nearly twenty-four hours a day. There were barbershops, funeral parlors, insurance offices, movie theaters, billiard parlors, restaurants, beauty parlors, bookstores...in short, every kind of activity going on day and night. Central Avenue was the place to be, the center of the community.
Despite all this opportunity for growth and relative freedom, none of the people who lived in my neighborhood were ever emotionally far from the South, and none of them could ever forget the legacy of slavery, the one legacy that all of them shared equally. Like immigrants from Ireland or Italy, my parents and many others referred to the place they left as the "old country," and like every other black person in 1928, whether they were living in Los Angeles, Tuscaloosa, New York, Dallas, or wherever, they knew people in their own families who'd been born slaves or had parents who had been slaves. This was only sixty-five years after Emancipation and even less time since the bad old days of Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan, and the continuing abuse of legalized Jim Crow segregation and murderous racism.
Lynchings were still a common event. Between 1882 and 1950 there were more than 3,400 documented lynchings of black people in the United States, according to a study by Tuskegee Institute. The most immediate of these that we knew about took place in August 1935, when a black man named Clyde Johnson was lynched in Yreka, California, for allegedly killing a white man. I was six years old at the time. As sad and grisly as this event was, it is important to remember as an example of the extreme action that could be taken against any black person for any perceived crime.
Although my family was not personally affected in so violent a way, we were certainly aware of what was happening and our lives were still mightily influenced by the legacy of slavery. One's very appearance, for instance, was assessed by values passed down from the slave experience. In the antebellum South, color had been crucial. Field slaves were usually darker, and the more favored house servants commonly used as objects of sexual gratification were usually lighter, since they were often the offspring of white masters. This differentiation went on after Emancipation, and black people's culture and society still continues to be sullied by the influence of a hierarchy based on the subtle gradations of skin color.
My mother, Rosa Mashaw Cobbs, was from a large family in Birmingham, Alabama. Her father was a minister, a presiding elder, of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, the CME church, which was the fourth or fifth largest black denomination in the country. So her family was proud to be a member of the small but struggling middle-class black community.
When she was growing up, blacks were the craftsmen of Birmingham: electricians, plumbers, building contractors, and so on. Most of the labor in these professions was black as well. That changed in her lifetime, she recalled, with the introduction of unions. As people began to make more money in those crafts, the crafts themselves became less black. But when she was a girl, there were many such crafts, and also the steel mills, where Birmingham blacks had the opportunity to find good jobs. Nonetheless, my mother described a harsh existence in that city for blacks when she was a child. And there, as everywhere else in black America of the time, color was a powerful factor in how well one did in the struggle for survival.
I'm not speaking of color just as a factor in the relationship between blacks and whites, although that's a central issue, to be sure. I'm also speaking of the issue of skin color among blacks themselves, and the influence it has always had on where you fit within black society.
In Los Angeles, I met several of my mother's friends from Birmingham, several who looked almost white. My mother told me that there had been many light-skinned people in her circle at home, and some of those who came to California quickly discovered that they could now pass as something other than colored or Negro. They could disappear in a crowd. For some, their lives as colored people ended and they were reborn as Greeks, Italians, or some other swarthy skin citizen of the Mediterranean. My guess is that my mother knew of only a few such people, although she often spoke as though there were dozens.
My mother herself was a beautiful darker skin woman, who was shrewd and tough-minded. My father was much lighter. When Dr. Boswell described me as looking like a bishop, it was my complexion that also projected that image. Part of what also pleased her was that like my brother, Prince, I was not "too dark." She knew that lighter skin African Americans always had an easier time in white society, and were also -- sad to say -- more valued among her own black community. My sister's skin was even lighter than mine. My mother would have wanted all of us to be light, but above all she wanted her daughter to have light skin, since this was a mark of real beauty.
My mother developed an elaborate vocabulary to define different shades of color among black people, and the words she used were not mulatto, quadroon, or any of the other formal-sounding terms. Those were not really part of the black vocabulary anyway, but rather a literary sort of terminology or, to be more succinct, a white terminology. My mother used words such as mariney. However the word might be officially spelled and pronounced, my mother would always draw out the "a" sound: maaariney -- which was a light brown skin with undertones of red. Or almond, ebony, ashy, high yellow, redboned, blue black. Vivid words that would enable me to see, on a scale of one to ten, white to black, exactly where some particular individual belonged in my mother's skin-color consciousness.
My mother was more outspoken and very early in life I knew that both my parents' views about skin color and hair were complex and often conflicting. As a young kid, it seemed these matters just hung in the air like the smell of roast beef cooking in the oven, neither questioned nor debated, just commented on. Most black adults and even kids shared such confusion. From my earliest recollections, embedded somewhere in many conversations, was something called "race talk." Sometimes implied and guarded, at other times open and direct, such talk covered much more than skin color and hair. It might include how certain black people looked and talked, or how others might dress, smell, and act with one another and around white people.
In our neighborhood, we were free to walk up and down the block, play in the street, and even venture around the corner. That was safe, well-known territory. But whenever I roamed too far beyond the safety of Trinity Street, I was bombarded by furtive glances, outright stares, or barely heard comments. These were times of early, uneasy integration, and walking in a strange neighborhood, particularly several blocks west of Main Street, presented a certain danger of the unknown. At these times, I forced myself to act as if I were oblivious to whatever was going on around me, a survival technique practiced from time immemorial by most black folks. At that time I didn't know I was practicing what is called "being cool."
In my childhood, black kids faced monumental psychological challenges, and over seventy years later, the task remains ever formidable. In order to remain healthy through the many stages of development from infancy to childhood and later into adolescence, these kids must learn how to select what to keep or discard, listen to or ignore, of the many messages they receive about themselves. I learned quite early that the society in which I lived considered people like me lazy and dumb, loud and violent, irresponsible and dishonest. Such notions seemed to come from everywhere. My parents and other black adults assured us that all these negative things were what white people said about us. While I had no reason to dispute this, I knew such opinions were also a part of the first street-corner conversations I heard among young black boys and the first jokes I tried to understand. At about age five the first joke I remember was told by a kid about seven or eight years old: "Niggers and flies I do despise and the more I see Niggers, the more I like flies."
Although stated differently, such ideas were always lurking somewhere in the booming sermons delivered each week by our pastor Reverend Cleaves as he admonished the congregation to prove white (and black) folks wrong. And what was supposed to be proved wrong was always spelled out in some new and often funny homily about a wayward brother who exhibited all or most of these racially undesirable characteristics. Even in the Saturday movies seen in the theater around the corner, usually in the second or the B picture, the same unspoken themes were expressed in the occasional black face. Whatever the role, male or female, the black character had to walk slowly, roll their eyes, and somehow display the stereotypic characteristics whites wanted to see. My parents thought that it was the lifelong responsibility of kids like me to dispel these notions and be the opposite. With heroic help from them and others, I learned early on the importance of knowing lies from the truth and to note down to the smallest detail the inaccuracy of the sometimes seductive stereotypes being promoted.
This meant I was engaged in an emotional balancing act of examining, deflecting, or ignoring a constant level of background noise. At times this noise was hidden in the punch line of a funny story told by a Sunday visitor who dropped by the house after church. While the story obviously did not mention "Niggers and flies," it would usually end describing a particular foible of a "stupid Negro." I learned early that black people are storytellers. Since many of my parents' friends were from the South, there were other stories that described how a black person bested someone white by getting out of town, being more clever, or simply surviving. Rather than a story about a "stupid Negro," these were depictions of us outsmarting the white man. In my young mind white people and what they thought of us were a constant unseen presence whenever black people gathered. For me, it meant that there was always something else to discard and I had to be ever ready to identify yet another undiscovered falsehood about people like me.
Whether shopping for groceries or walking in the neighborhood together, my mother was quick to describe in expansive terms the people we saw. She immediately described, in words she frequently used, who "had class" -- who she thought was pretty or handsome, who had a certain style or walked or talked in a particular way. She also did not hesitate to make ready determinations about the intellectual capabilities of people making appearances in our small world. When we had a visiting minister, she might whisper to me about "big preachers" and "little preachers" and I learned early that these descriptions had nothing to do with physical size. They were her way of signaling to me who she thought properly used "the king's English" or in a fiery sermon, who "split verbs." After all, only a refined and proper-speaking preacher was capable of ministering to a congregation such as ours at Phillips Temple CME Church.
Mother always described in vivid detail how a person looked, whether the nose was flat or aquiline, what the color of a shirt or a dress might be, and how well the person looked in that particular color. She would describe "good" posture and "bad" posture, and how to move or sit down. Whether I was in my usual seat next to her in church or attending an event at one of her several women's clubs, on the way home she would talk about someone she thought particularly beautiful.
Like most black people of the time, my mother made immediate and fine distinctions about the hair of black folks. If you had straight hair like a white person's, as Cab Calloway -- a singer and band leader popular at the time -- did, hair that you could flip back away from your eyes, do things with, move around...that was good hair. If you had kinky hair, commonly called nappy, that was bad hair. She took great pains to improve the texture of her own hair with an army of brushes and combs. It never grew quite long enough for her liking but instead would break when it reached a certain length. I accompanied my mother to the beauty parlor many times and overheard countless conversations she had with Mrs. Mortenson or Miss Florence or whoever it was who owned the shop, about what she could do to get her hair to glisten and be straighter.
Mrs. Underwood, who came by the house periodically and cooked catfish for us, also worked hard so that her hair glistened. My mother described her as "stunning," and as I grew older and came to appreciate such things, I knew what she meant and agreed wholeheartedly with her conclusion. In this instance the lady she was describing was "ebony" in my mother's lexicon of colors. As mother talked about other friends and acquaintances, I sensed at a young age that she was trapped in many of the intolerant beliefs and outright prejudices that prevailed in that post-Victorian time. After all, she was born just thirty-nine years after the end of slavery. She made snap judgments about people based on bits and pieces of information about them -- a piece of clothing worn, a particular word used (or misused), or a choice about which hymn to sing in Sunday school. Her judgments were swift, decisive, and often negative. Above all one had to be respectable, and that was a constantly moving definition. While I would never describe her as stuffy, mother only let down her guard in the privacy of her own home.
When I grew up and became more aware of what motivated these things, I realized the terrible irony in thinking that being closer to white would bring you closer to beauty. Freud wrote about how victims will sometimes identify with the aggressor, how in ways both conscious and unconscious we identify with aspects of the aggressor's being, yet come nonetheless to hate those things when they appear in ourselves. However much many blacks think progress has been made in this regard, this is one of the false and seductive notions that continues to fragment many of our psyches. Black people to this day maintain a painful ambivalence about skin color.
A business acquaintance told me a story once about a woman who had consulted with her firm. The consultant was a light-skin black woman -- politically aware, an intellectual, and very much in touch with contemporary black thinking. She was an astute observer of the cultural scene and never hesitant to voice her opinions about the treatment of blacks in this country. In my work I would describe her as "super black," ever militant and outspoken about all matters of race. On many occasions she lamented to my friend what she called "the goddamned slave owners" who raped her great-great-grandmother. "Why do you think I look the way I do?" she asked. I frequently encounter very light-skin blacks, men as well as women, who are supermilitant in this way. Their very skin color drives them to constantly prove that they are authentically black.
This same woman called my friend on one occasion to ask to reschedule a meeting because she had just made plans to attend a reunion of the descendants of Sally Hemings. She made a point of the fact that she is descended from Thomas Jefferson. So on the one hand, as my friend observed, she hated what happened to the women of her family, raped by slave owners and their ilk, while on the other hand she made sure that others understood that being a descendant of Thomas Jefferson put her a step above everybody else. The act that she was talking about was the same act in both instances, and she voiced both hatred and acceptance, even pride, in the same breath.
My mother conveyed to the world that she would not be pushed around or taken advantage of by anybody. She made sure, in those days, that everything she, her husband, and her three children did was prepared for and accomplished with exquisite care. This was the case for many of my peers as well, and such care for the children may be interpreted as simply proper concern on the part of good parents.
For example, the "exquisite care" with which they prepared us -- and themselves -- to go shopping, to go to a movie, to go for a Sunday drive...much of that was intended for protection. This was especially true if we were going anywhere outside those parts of the city that we knew for certain to be safe for blacks. My parents would somehow have scouted that place out or at least learned from others what kind of treatment could be expected there. Otherwise, we would not go. Sometimes the advance information would be wrong, and we'd learn that their practice was to not "serve colored here." But usually my parents knew what to expect whenever they took us somewhere, and it was my mother who would have done the prior research to make sure it was all right for us.
Our parents spent a good deal of time protecting us.
The period when I was growing up in Los Angeles was relatively benign. I did not suffer from the kinds of overt racist hostility that have been so well chronicled by blacks raised in places like Mississippi, Alabama, or Georgia. We were not treated as Clyde Johnson had been treated in Yreka. I did not have to jump off the sidewalk if a white man or woman were coming in the opposite direction, as friends of mine who were raised in the South have told me they had to do. But make no mistake, from our earliest years there were thousand of ways, direct and indirect, in which we were informed about how "Negroes" were regarded.
Whenever my mother advised or warned us about anything concerning the world outside of Central Avenue, she spoke of "The Other Group." And there was never any doubt in my mind, when she used the term, that she was alluding to white people. She would lower her voice on these occasions as if a secret was being shared. "Honey, you have to be careful how you talk around the other group."..."Your father can't go to the medical society dinner at the Biltmore; it's a place where only the other group goes."...Etc.
Referring to white people as "The Other Group" made it possible for us children to use a term that we could use in mixed company. My mother's words were never spoken with rancor or hostility. They were merely terms of description aimed at pointing out a very important difference between them and us. We believed that to ignore the difference was to invite trouble. The term also served, maybe unwittingly, to define the way in which the treatment of black people by whites so often took on a faceless but nonetheless powerful implacability. Bank loans would not get approved. Attempts to buy a house would go unheeded. Common goods and services would, for some reason, be unavailable. Police would either not come at all or would take much, much longer to respond. Any number of bureaucratic devices were used to restrict blacks, and usually there was no particular reason given. Or the reason was a pleasantly expressed, Kafka-like, featureless lie: "I'm so sorry. The hotel is full."
Opportunities for blacks were very limited when I grew up. If a job involved more than manual labor, it was called a profession. And there was euphemistic language intended to elaborate on those professions in a way, to make them sound more important than they were. For example, most women who worked were house servants. A white person for whom you worked might refer to you as a "maid" or a "cook." But as far as you and the black community were concerned, you were "in service," a fine distinction. If you cooked for someone, you were a "caterer," or a "chef." The guy who cleaned up was a "custodian." A driver was a "chauffeur." If you had been in the military, you were thereafter known by your last, highest rank. Sergeant Brown. Corporal Lewis. Titles were all-important.
But the words connoted more than importance. They were used to preserve one's dignity and place in the world, particularly the black world. They were used to convey to one's family and children, to the people in the church and community, that the job involved was more than just being a servant of some white family in Beverly Hills or West Los Angeles.
So, to their friends and associates my father was always Doctor Cobbs. My mother was always Mrs. Cobbs. At church, in deference to her status, she was sometimes Mrs. Doctor Cobbs. This was also the result of simple post-Victorian politesse. But like the phrase The Other Group, these polite euphemisms also served to remind us of the differences between us and The Other Group itself.
My father always made a quick reading of who was friendly and who was not. He could make the subtlest distinctions about just who might be hostile or who might show the slightest signs of friendship. He understood the legacy of slavery and was acutely sensitive to its manifestations, explicit or subtle, wherever he was. His reaction, to be sure, was always muted, always oblique, and usually nonconfrontational, especially in a situation where it might be dangerous to himself or his family. No doubt that control, that bottled rage, was the source of his edge.
As we got older, my father became close to several of the few black politicians in L.A., such as Augustus F. "Gus" Hawkins. Hawkins was a member of the California State Assembly from 1935 to 1962 and elected as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1963. He remained active in the House until his retirement in 1991. He gained international fame as the coauthor of the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978, the Humphrey-Hawkins Bill, that sought to establish goals of full employment and production plus increased real income, balanced growth, a balanced federal budget, and reasonable price stability. Mr. Hawkins and his wife rented a home from my parents at one time because he wanted to have a house in the district he represented.
I became aware at an early age that, because of this kind of connection, my father had a broader view of what was happening beyond L.A., whether it was a cultural issue or something taking place in city government or in L.A.'s dealings with Sacramento or Washington, D.C. He always gave us a personal view of his involvement in and understanding of political issues that was borne out by our own personal experience.
He would explain to us, for instance, that one of the reasons the Los Angeles Police Department treated black people so harshly was that many of the white officers had been recruited from the South. I never knew this to be true or untrue, never saw any documentation to corroborate it. But many years later my wife and I were traveling by car in Alabama. We stopped in Auburn, Alabama, to get gas, and the man pumping the gas was elderly and white. When I explained that we were from California, a big smile broke out on his face and he said, "California? Sure, I know California. I used to be a cop in L.A.!"
Though the religious fires did not burn as hot in my father as they did in my mother, he was nevertheless a churchgoing man. He enjoyed the community that church and its related activities provided. For us the church was the center of an organized, self-respecting, and thoughtful cultural milieu that was also peopled by those who were groundbreaking. The first black physicians in L.A. The first black dentists. Plumbers. Politicians. Business owners. Store managers. My family moved easily within this milieu. We were by no means wealthy the year I was born. If most blacks were either poor or one step from poverty, my parents and their friends were a step and a half away, maybe two. But they were accomplished and were churchgoing.
It would be in such a milieu that my father would meet people like W. E. B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, or a visiting CME bishop. On Sundays after church, Dr. and Mrs. Bledsoe, for example, would have a tea in their home. Churchgoers would go to the Bledsoes', the men and boys still dressed in coat and tie, the women and their daughters in beautiful dresses. In fact, my father would be wearing clothing that had been made by a Los Angeles tailor named Mr. Glover who was a member, as was my father, of the Tuskegee Club, the alumni association of Tuskegee Institute.
One summer something happened in the Glover family that was both a personal tragedy and a lesson to me of how much people respected my father. The Glovers had three sons who were approximately the same ages as my siblings and I. Their youngest, Carl, at about the age of ten, developed a case of acute appendicitis. In those days, which were of course preantibiotic, appendicitis was a much more dangerous issue than it is now and could worsen very quickly. In this case, the boy's appendix burst over the weekend, and he developed peritonitis from which he subsequently died a few days later. This was the first death I was to experience among friends my age, and I remember the profound sadness we all felt with the passing of a boy who was both a close friend and so young.
We spent our summers at Lake Elsinore, a resort area about seventy miles from L.A., and my father would come up to the lake on weekends. For many years after, Mr. Glover would say that if only Doctor Cobbs had been in L.A. that weekend, his son would still be alive. The comment was both a sad-hearted lamentation for his lost boy, and also a statement of Mr. and Mrs. Glover's high regard for my father as a physician.
It was a mark of my family's position in the church and community to have been invited to the Sunday teas. Often there was entertainment offered by some of the guests of the tea. People would read poetry by Paul Laurence Dunbar, read a speech by Frederick Douglass, or read the Twenty-third Psalm. The speaking styles of the presenters were always dramatic. People would show off their oratorical skills, slowing down and then speeding up their cadence and modulation, mimicking the style of the minister of whatever church they attended. If they caught fire and touched the holy spirit of one of the adults, then the recitation would be interrupted by numerous loud "amens" and shouted hosannas. While the CME Church to which we belonged was not a foot-washing-and-speaking-in-tongues kind of place (my mother wouldn't have belonged to such a "primitive" church), the joint could sometimes rock with the precious noise of Jesus being discovered. Even when in later years I was reciting a poem or speaking in church, I was one for whom there was always a lot of amens. After all, "that boy looks just like a bishop."
My father was noted for his singing voice. I remember one afternoon when we children were playing outside and the entertainment had begun. We hurried to put on our own little jackets and made sure our shirts were still clean, pressed, and tucked in, and our ties properly straight and quietly went in and listened. Dressed as always in his tailor-made suit, white shirt, and tie, he stood at the piano, accompanied by someone, and sounded out:
"Oh promise me that someday you and I
Will take our love together to some sky..."
His gestures while he sung, the way he formed the words and delivered them, the very stage presence that he had and the warm applause he received, impressed me greatly that afternoon.
"Where we can be alone and faith renew
And find the hollows where those flowers grew.
And on many such afternoons."
In retrospect I was a very lucky little black boy in the early 1930s. I had a wonderful childhood. My parents' "exquisite care" included their preparation of me, my brother and sister, for most of the things that adolescence and adulthood would bring to us. We were being prepared to deal with the issues that would come because of our blackness. Certainly they could not possibly prepare us for everything; the world was too complex and fast moving for that to occur. Yet they offered us every shred of their memories and experiences in order to help us grow up and survive in a world they knew would not always make us feel welcome. We were taught the lessons of caution as well as those of boldness. In a world in which there were few privileges, I knew that I had some of them. I had been given them by my parents and came to understand this through what my mother said and what my father did.
We were never allowed, though, to forget that the Civil War had ended just a short time earlier, and that the residual effects of slavery and all that it meant still existed. On one occasion, in which my mother could not possibly have explored the terrain beforehand, we found out how true that was.
My father was a "Chrysler man," meaning he bought automobiles only from that manufacturer. There were frequent discussions among the men at church or at the barbershop about others, such as Mr. Smith being a "General Motors man" or Mr. Pillors a "Ford man." These arguments were serious but included all kinds of jokes and ribbing about which cars were better and why. Someone would always be able to come up with an obscure -- and often hilarious -- automotive reason why one brand was better than the other.
"Man, how come you bought that Chevy? Can't get no pickup with a Chevy!" "I saw you drivin' that 'Bewrick'." The mispronouncing of the word Buick of course was essential to the disrespect you were showing to the car. "When you gonna turn it in for a good car like my Packard?" This was classically male competition among car owners, with a black cultural slant. The serious aspect of the competition was rooted in real issues, especially when the discussion turned to which auto company had first hired blacks, for example.
When I was five, my father owned a 1932 Dodge four-door sedan. It was a dark color, as were all our cars, and he kept it up meticulously. We were all very proud of it and enjoyed going on excursions every chance we could.
One weekend we went to visit a friend of my father's, a man we called Uncle Will. He lived in the Temple district of L.A., about seven miles from our home. He was a veteran of World War I and must not have attained any rank because we just called him Uncle Will. I believe he had once come to my father for medical advice, but as a veteran, he undoubtedly almost always went to the nearest V.A. hospital. He was more my father's friend than my mother's. She disapproved of his habit of always having a glass of water at his side, from which he frequently took a sip. At least it looked like water to me. I didn't understand her attitude until later when I found out that the water was actually gin.
My father liked him, though, and they were longtime friends who enjoyed conversing with each other.
On our way back home from Uncle Will's that Sunday, we came to an intersection where there were several cars approaching in all directions. It was seven o'clock in the evening in winter and raining. Visibility was poor. The other cars appeared like wet, rounded boxes, one after the other waiting for the light to change. My father's hands were on the wheel and his shoulders hunched as he surveyed the traffic ahead. My mother was seated in the front with him, while we three children were in back. All of us were dressed as though we had been to church. We were a family enjoying the outing but looking forward to getting home out of the storm. When the light changed, my father let the clutch out, and we moved ahead.
We heard a loud horn, then the ugly screech of braking tires, then a quick, very loud crack of noise as another car hit us. All of us were tossed around, and there was a good deal of shouting and screaming among us children. My father got out of the car to see what had happened. He was then confronted by a quickly gathering group of onlookers and witnesses, all of whom were white. The other car had run the red light, but both cars were damaged.
My mother gently, but firmly, got us children out of the car and over to the sidewalk, to make sure we were out of any possible danger from the cars themselves. Fortunately, none of us was hurt, just shaken up. After a moment, a white man and woman got out of the car that had hit us. From the wobbly and unbalanced manner in which they walked, it was obvious that they had been drinking. Even I as a child was aware that we as a family looked far better off than this fellow and his companion. They were not dressed well. The man started to survey the damage to his car, and when he looked up finally and saw us, he turned to the woman with him and said, "We don't have to worry, Helen. They're just niggers."
The moment was surreal for us, standing in the rain, hearing this man's words above the sounds of traffic and the murmurs of the growing crowd. We were the only blacks in sight. I imagine that the man got some comfort from this, and that the composition of the crowd made it easy for him to say what he said. He probably felt that, if trouble were to come because of his remark, he would have plenty of help from the others. They were the dominant group, in this particular scene and in every other social respect as well. These were the kind of people who had owned slaves or refused rooms to people like us. The managers of and the beneficiaries of all those rules and laws that had been set up to keep us from competing with them. In short, even I as a child could tell that we were now surrounded by The Other Group.
The man who had hit us broadside while running a red light was acting upon the prevailing notion of the time, a clear legacy of slavery itself, that if you are white and the other person is black, you can act with impunity and you will be absolved. He chose the one word that could put him in a position of power over us, the one implacable idea that had so informed the history of this country. He chose the word nigger and assumed that he was right to do so and that the surrounding witnesses would back him up.
My mother was fearless in such situations. She was always the more vocal of my parents on occasions like this. I never thought of my father as hiding behind her in any way because I too often saw him do things, say things, and act in ways that I knew required courage. My father's very stoicism in this moment was a heroic response. There was no muscle flexing, no shouting, nothing that could have put him or his family in danger. And I know that the heroism was in the restraint that he showed. But my mother spoke out.
"Shut up!" she said to the white drunk. "Who do you think you are?"
There was silence for a moment, then a woman finally spoke from the crowd, addressing the rest of the onlookers, and gesturing toward the man who had hit us.
"That guy may be white, but his heart's as black as tar."
Many years later, I thought about such occurrences when Bill Grier and I were writing our book Black Rage. Listening to the story of a patient, talking with a Civil Rights leader visiting San Francisco, or interviewing someone about a confrontation brought back memories of a little boy's anger that had been submerged and forgotten.
We wrote in that book: "The problem [of the Negro family today] is a latter-day version of the problem faced by the slave family. How does one build a family, make it strong, and breed from it strong men and women when the institutional structures of the nation make it impossible for the family to serve its primary purpose -- the protection of its members?"
My parents were facing that problem. That car collision and its aftermath formed an iconic moment that has influenced a great deal of my life and work ever since. I've thought of my parents' bravery in that moment and the protection they gave our family. I've thought of the power that The Other Group had over us then and now in varying degrees. The power they still have, if we let them, especially when we have not exorcised the demons. I've thought as well about the white person in that crowd who understood the situation in its entirety and refused to agree that in this case The Other Group should prevail.
There was agreement from others in the crowd, by the way. So by the time the police came, the white man had backed off, and he was cited. My parents behaved with great care combined with the edge that comes from slavery and its legacy. I think this combination speaks to a good deal of what I've tried to do with my own life.
I've always tried to pay keen attention to the situation around me and to understand what it truly is about. Then I try changing that situation if change is warranted, as it so often has been. It's like standing on the ledge of a high building. You have a clear view, but the view can hold dangers. The ledge I stood on, of course, was wider than the ledge upon which my parents stood. But I owe my position on that ledge in many respects to them.
Anxiety, fear, and rage are all legacies of slavery. There was no closure on them when I was six and we were being insulted in that intersection. There is no closure on them now. Given the changes with regard to laws, land covenants, basic civil rights, representation in government and business and even simple behavior, I think black people can move beyond the emotional remnants of slavery. We can make a psychological transformation from rage to entitlement.
Copyright © Price T. Cobbs
Posted October 25, 2010