Monday, Miss Schreckengost Reads Us Little Black Sambo

We three boys, in the third-grade playground,
one skinny (that’s me), one short, and the fat one,
horn-rimmed glasses all, schoolbooks and lunches
in hand-me-down, important-looking briefcases.
We are the serious scholars, the brainiacs —
we know what the ominous Sputnik is beeping
and even why it’s there and doesn’t fall —
just ask us! We are no good at sports,
try not to be noticed amid the yelling,
the bigger boys’ heave and toss of baseball,
football, basketball, whatever ball
it is the season for. We trade our comics,
Superman, Batman, The Flash, Green Lantern,
and offer furtive glances at the forbidden ones,
brain-rotting horror comics some Congressman
has warned our parents to confiscate and burn.
We’re saving up to buy sulfuric acid;
a long list of chemistry projects depends
on the pharmacist, Mr. Hoffmann, dispenser
of potions, acids, saltpeter and horehound drops.
“Now, boys,” he’d warn us, winking,
“don’t go mixing saltpeter with sulfur,
’cause that plus a little charcoal is gunpowder.
Don’t get yourselves in trouble, okay?”
Oh, no, Mr. Hoffmann, we promise,
we’d never do that, Scouts’ honor.
Not one of us is a Boy Scout.

The sun-drenched playground, dark
in the hulking late-day shadow
of the brick schoolhouse, knows fear:
the monthly air-raid sirens, the file
of all of us quickly-quickly-quickly-now
to the basement shelter, the practice
of “duck and cover” in the event of a flash,
a boom and a mushroom cloud
obliterating Pittsburgh on the horizon.
Russkies and Gerries, Japs and Fascists,
Jack-in-the-box Communists
beneath the bedsprings, enemies everywhere.

Monday, Miss Schreckengost, sometime
between geography and “Our Friend the Atom,”
reads an old book to us — you’ll like this,
she tells us — it’s Little Black Sambo.
It even has pictures.      The tall boy,
the altogether too tall boy in the front row
sinks into his seat.  All eyes are on Ritchie,
the Negro boy, held back a year, two years
from the looks of him, too broad of shoulder
to even consider playing with us.
He sits all day where the teacher can mind him.

The story unfolds. Proud little Sambo,
in his new red coat, his beautiful blue trousers,
is ambushed by tigers who want to eat him.
He bribes one with his jacket, one with
his beautiful trousers, runs home
stark naked to his mother and father,
Black Mumbo and Black Jumbo.

Black Mumbo, who looks like Aunt Jemima,
celebrates the boy’s escape with a pancake dinner.
As the book is held up to show its cover
someone calls out, “Hey, that’s Ritchie!”
Laughs roil the air like veldt heat.

On Tuesday we add Ritchie Barton
to the list of things to be afraid of.
The downhill road to Caruso’s market
becomes a gauntlet run — the price
of a candy bar was meeting Ritchie’s fists.
The older boys, untouchable, catch on,
yell Sambo! Look out for tigers!
from the schoolhouse windows.
Your mama’s name is Black Mumbo!
Your pappy’s name is Black Jumbo!
One day the fifth-grade bullies,
to our slight relief,
are knocked to the ground before us.

Words thunder                                      AIN’T
     punctuate the blows                         NO
     as he pounds Timmy                         TIGERS
     to the pavement                                 IN AFRICA!

Smaller boys run,                                 MY MA’S NAME
     take the long way home                  IS ABIGAIL!
     as he pummels Anthony                  MY PA’S NAME
     against a fencepost                            IS SAMUEL!

Fist-crack, nose-break,
tooth-snap, Ritchie’s
near-baritone shouts
haunt our dreaming.

Miss Schreckengost makes seat assignments
for our field-trip to the hydroelectric dam.
“Forty of us,” she counts, “and forty seats.”
A kind of chill comes over the classroom.
“Of course we’ll draw lots for seat-mates.
You will stay with your seat-mate for the whole trip.”

David, the Polish boy, the smallest in class,
is told he will sit next to Ritchie Barton.
At recess, he bursts into tears in the playground.
“I can’t sit next to him. I just can’t do it.”
And I say to Dave, “You’re prejudiced.
You’re only saying that because he’s a Negro.”
That ends the conversation.
The one thing no one wants is to be prejudiced.
That’s worse than being a Nazi or a Communist.
Dave says, his back to all of us,
“I just don’t want to get beat up.”

The day of the trip to Confluence Dam,
the Polish mother keeps her son at home.
Ritchie sprawls across two seats, feet up,
a clenched right fist slapping an open left palm.
We walk a double-line with seat-mates,
Richie alone and trailing far behind,
Miss Shreckengost flamingo-tall ahead of us,
arms pointing at engineering wonders and waterfalls.

I sit in the seat behind Ritchie; Gertrude,
a girl reputed to have head lice,
sits next to me, red pigtails flying.
I have a headache, some dark thing troubling me.
If I’m not prejudiced, I think, then I should sit
in that empty spot beside Ritchie, whose fist and palm
keep time to the road rhythms. All I can see
are noses, teeth, crutches and splints.
I do not want to be beaten, either.

I am not prejudiced.

One day, I would read in Homer:
More hateful to me than all the gates of Hell
is that man who, holding one thing in his heart,
says another, as I would learn the word hypocrite.
Whatever that thing was that I had uttered,
and could not undo, I was ashamed of it.
I vowed never to do it again.

Years later, new town, step-fathered,
we take a family road-trip to Washington.
The parks are filled with picnickers,
families in Sunday whites, blankets and baskets,
matrons with parasols, young couples courting.
They are dressed better than we are,
and there is not one white face among them.
Our angry car passes them, windows up,
doors locked, from Washington Monument
to Lincoln Memorial, a cursory nod
to two Presidents, then off we go
to stepfather’s cousin in Maryland.

I remember a handsome, ranch-style home.
I was sent to the living room, turned on
an expensive stereo, where I listened to
the Glazounov Concerto, played by Heifetz.
These must be nice people, I thought.
I went to the kitchen door, listening:

Never seen so many in one place, you say?
They own the city. No decent white folk
will even go there. In a couple weeks
they’re gonna have a Civil Rights March,
a half a million niggers all together,
and that Commie Martin Luther King.
Wish I could get to a rooftop
with this here rifle —

and I know how to use it, too —
wish I could pick him off
and take as many of them with him
as I could, along with those Jew lawyers

I tip-toe back to Russian Glazounov,
          to Jewish Heifetz.

College, and freedom:
“You’ll do it with me?” he said, incredulous.
He thought I was joking. I wasn’t.
Once I had said yes, I had to do it.
I’d done it by then,
with artists, frat boys and athletes,
my notoriety a sure ticket
to never having to ask: they asked me.
But no one black had ever asked me.

His basketball arms and legs,
     impossibly long,
     thrust out of his clothes at impossible angles.
An African prince,
     he could snap me in two easily.

“You know what they say about us?”
he asks, teasingly, shirt sliding off.
     I nod.
“It’s true. You’ll see. No turning back.”
His lithe and supple body presses me,
each second more of him
hot against me. I’m shaking.
He pushes me downward,
my hands on his chest
exploring the statue-lines
smooth as marble.
We end up in bed, I’m gasping
against his spent repose. He lets
me examine the palm of his hand,
yes it is lighter there. One rivulet
of pearl-white fluid remains
upon his dark brown forearm.
He puts my mouth there.

I am afraid to pull away.
It is too quiet. I start to shiver.
I am waiting for the rage-burst,
counting how fast I might make it
to the door and out.

 “I’m not going to hurt you,”
he assures me. “That was good.
We’ll do it again sometime.”
He stays a while. I ask
a torrent of questions,
want to know his feelings,
the truth beneath
the hard and proud exterior.

“You want to know
that no one will rent me a room
in this town? Or about the girl,
the white girl who’ll only see me
under the bridge at midnight?
Or what they’d do to me
if anyone found out?
Or where I’d be
if I didn’t play basketball?”

Just as he’s leaving, I say,
“Oh, what’s your name?
I’m sorry I didn’t ask it.”

“Ritchie,” he says.
“My name is Ritchie.”


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