blackbirdonline journalSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
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back LARRY I. PALMER

On Learning to Love the Sea

“You must be uncomfortable being the only black person here.” I turn my head toward the voice coming from my left, seeing a white stranger’s profile in the corner of my eye. Four other guests, seated around a coffee table, mute their rambling conversations in this moment of social awkwardness. It’s 1979; I’m at a Christmas party in Ithaca, New York.

Without directly looking at him, I break the icy silence. “No, I hadn’t noticed until you pointed it out to me.” I am hoping my comeback would allow him to say something to heal the social unease he created for our liberal audience, most of whom have some affiliation with Cornell University. Instead, he ignores my response.

“Is that white woman standing over there near the couch your wife?”

His presumptuousness signals that any attempt I make at conversation will unlikely enhance my enjoyment of the party. Yet, I realize he has perhaps achieved his objective. I feel uneasy sitting next to him. I get up, walk towards the galley kitchen, and join a group discussing the Iran hostage crisis.

A few minutes later, my interrogator and a woman who introduces herself as his wife appear at the entrance of the kitchen. She apologizes on behalf of her husband and offers his overdrinking as an explanation for his rudeness. Her face contorts with pain, anger, or shame—I can’t tell which—before she declares he wants to apologize. And yet, he says nothing as he stretches his hand toward me.

Do they both expect me to shake his hand to indicate my acceptance of his wife’s apology on his behalf? Our black and white hands clenched together would invoke the icon of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee of the 1960s—a symbol of a hoped-for racial reconciliation.

As his hand dangles between us, I look directly at him before speaking. “I have no interest in knowing you.” Realizing anger is seeping into my voice, I slip into a more preachy and louder tone to control it. “The next time you encounter a black person, you should keep your curiosity or racial anxieties to yourself. You’ve got a problem, and it has nothing to do with me.”

I decide that without some repair to the tear in the fabric of this social gathering, this party is essentially over. Either my interrogator or I can leave immediately. I do not intend to take responsibility for fixing the disruption he caused. Refusing to shake his hand—spoiling his wife’s attempt to get me to accept his wordless apology—I mean to shift the responsibility for the tension to him. It might also prevent further harm to my psyche. I let his hand hang between us for a few more seconds until he drops it to his side. His wife ushers him toward their coats, and they leave the party. After their departure, no one mentions the incident to me. I resume the conversation about Iran. My wife and I stay until we have to relieve our babysitter of her duties.

~

How did I have the temerity to humiliate a white man when I was, in fact, “the only black person in the room”? An experience I had when I was fourteen provided me some inner guidance. In 1958, during lunch on my first day in a New England boarding school—Phillips Exeter Academy—a white boy called another white boy at our table “nigger.” My response was to ask him never to use that word in my presence because it “hurt my feelings.” The speaker, who was my age and from Texas, apologized. I accepted his fumbling apology. I was trying to humble him by letting him know that there was no possibility of our becoming friends if he used racially derogatory language in my presence. Interestingly, I never heard a black racial epithet directed at me or anyone else during the remainder of my four years at Exeter, even though I was often the only black in the classroom, dining hall, or common living room in our dormitory. (That’s not to say that, less than a generation after World War II, I didn’t hear racial or ethnic epithets directed at Jews, Italians, or Mexicans, only that I didn’t personally challenge any of those speakers.)

Although surprised by the questions about my race at the Christmas party in 1979, I was nonetheless emboldened to push back aggressively. I was indifferent to the social consequences of my actions. I doubt my little oration and refusal to shake hands had any effect on my enquirer’s future racial behavior. His leaving and my remaining may have had some effect on the remaining guests because of what it revealed about the social hierarchy at the university. I was a young tenured professor at the law school—faculty—and the other guests and our host worked in the various libraries on campus—staff. The host was a member of the law school library’s staff and played squash with me weekly. He and his wife once came to our house for dinner, and the Christmas party invitation was perhaps the host’s way of reciprocating.

I guessed the consequence of my “forcing” a white staff member to leave a party: I would never be invited to the host’s house again. And over the next few months, after my host got a promotion in the library system, I found another squash partner. Perhaps staff parties are where the staff can make fun of the faculty with impunity? Conceivably to most of the guests I was simply a faculty member trying to “integrate” a staff party. I didn’t regret losing the possibility of a genuine friendship with my host.

~

Before I left for Exeter, my parents never set me down for The Talk about how to deal with whites. Rather, in dinnertime conversations from the time I entered elementary school, my parents suggested ways of living our lives with inner dignity in the face of racial barriers, seen, unseen, and totally unanticipated. I knew from my upbringing, pre-boarding school, that racial slurs were part of the social reality that I would encounter in the changing racial and cultural landscape after World War II. The implicit message from my parents and older adult siblings was that I had to take a pragmatic approach in responding to racial slights and insults, varying from righteous indignation to retreat and silence. When I entered school in January 1949, my mother expressed her hope that I would grow up to be a minister or doctor, but if I ended up a dishwasher, I should be the best dishwasher. It was her way of informing me that racial or economic barriers might prevent me from entering the upper echelons of the black middle class. My ambitious mother never told me I could grow up to be president.

Her cautious optimism about my future, her ninth of ten children, was based on evidence of the changing prospects for our family. Five years after migrating to St. Louis from rural central Arkansas, my father had a stable civil service job at the post office; my second oldest brother, Willie, was in the last year at the local teachers’ college for blacks, having graduated from the technical high school for blacks with a specialty in furniture making; another older brother, Mac, was enrolled at the best academic high school for blacks because the family had managed to buy a house in a “better” neighborhood; the remainder of my older siblings were enrolled in a feeder elementary school for this high school; and my oldest brother, Al, and my oldest sister, Lena, were married, employed, and lived nearby. Although there were no low-cost medical schools for blacks as there were for teachers, Washington University School of Medicine had announced a year before I entered kindergarten that the school would admit blacks. Finally, President Truman had signed an executive order desegregating the armed services in the fall of 1948, three years after Al returned from his service in World War II; Truman’s election platform that year proposed the elimination of all legal segregation.

But there were signs of resistance to the removal of Jim Crow laws and practices. Southern Democrats left the Democratic Party after the 1948 convention and ran their own candidate for president with a platform of allowing states the legal authority to mandate segregated schools and other public facilities. The new party, the Dixiecrats, sought to deny any candidate enough electoral votes to become president when Congress met on January 6, 1949 to certify the election. The Dixiecrats’ candidate won four states and garnered thirty-nine electoral college votes, not enough to deny Truman the electoral college victory. My mother could foresee the possibilities of resistance to any fundamental change in basic race relations. Why tell a kid he could be president when he couldn’t enter the front door of the hotdog stand a half block from home?

As I grew older and thought about Dad’s own educational path, I realized his approach to race and education was more nuanced than ensuring I entered the black upper-middle class. Dad graduated in 1920 from a historically black college, Arkansas Baptist College, that had both a ministerial and an academic track. He chose the latter, what we would today call the liberal arts rather than the professional or vocational program. He rejected the more traditional path to racial leadership when he closed the door to ministerial education for the black church.

My Dad’s aspirations for me were more inferred than Mom’s, embedded in his stories about his two intellectual heroes, John Dewey and George Washington Carver. Dad encountered the work of Carver, the black applied scientist at Tuskegee University, when he worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a New Deal agency, for a few years in the early 1940s. Dad had left his position as a schoolteacher in a racially segregated rural school to disseminate knowledge on improving the sustainability of new crops to groups of black tenant farmers and sharecroppers in an FSA project in southeast Arkansas. In order to be effective out in the field talking to farmers, Dad attended workshops at Tuskegee that featured Carver’s research efforts to sustain small farmers on the cotton-deteriorated soil. Carver’s search for alternative cash crops to cotton led to many new discoveries for the uses of peanuts for which Carver was renowned. Implicit in Dad’s repeated Carver stories was the idea that those blacks fortunate enough to have college educations, like himself, should share their knowledge to help other blacks.

I have no idea how Dad encountered the work of John Dewey. Dad seemed to love quoting Dewey as much as he admired the research accomplishments of Carver. If I was struggling to extract a bent nail from a piece of wood with the claw of a hammer, Dad would bark out a few short instructions to aid my “learning” of how to extract a nail. He rewarded my slow and eventual success with, “As John Dewey, the philosopher, said, we must learn by doing.” An underlying objective of these stories was to make me aware of a larger perspective beyond what my teachers were teaching—some kind of theory from which we discover the purpose of our education. His goal was to prepare me for continuous learning after my formal education, however I ended up earning a living.

~

In 1958, post-Brown v. Board of Education, my parents initially disagreed about whether I should accept a scholarship to Phillips Exeter Academy. My college-educated-striving mother saw prep school as my gateway to an Ivy League education and a professional career. My more hesitant father resisted, although neither parent ever discussed his apprehensions with me. Left to my own teenage imagination, I assumed his reluctance had a lot to do with his fears that the white teachers wouldn’t be sufficiently attentive to my intellectual growth.

When Dad talked about race in the 1950s, his teaching about race was grounded in two concepts: flourishing and survival. In the Palmer household, survival was built around the question, where are you? If your answer wasn’t “home,” a secondary set of questions followed. Does someone at home know where you are? And most importantly, who are you with? If, for instance, I wanted to go roller skating at the outdoor rink in Forest Park on a summer evening, I knew that if I drafted my younger brother and several of my nieces and nephews to join me, we would be allowed to make the mile walk home at 10:00 p.m., even though the park was clearly near the dividing line between the white neighborhoods to the south and the black ones to the north. We also were expected to be each other’s chaperones in case we had arranged to meet friends at the rink. The underlying notion for dealing with the racial divide was you were safer at home. Any adult in the family could veto a request to leave home because either the destination or the people you might be with were not on the “approved list.” Strict control of where any of the Palmer children were seemed necessary to my father’s peace of mind in a world where a fifteen-year-old black boy from Chicago, Emmett Till, could be brutally lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955.

My father wanted his black children to survive in a potentially hostile world so that he could glimpse how they would flourish as human beings. Education, as lifelong learning in Dad’s view, was the essence of how we could live semi-detached from the racial indignities of a Jim Crow world or, in my view, how we could live to see the cracks in the wall of racial barriers. The questions on Dad’s mind when presented with whether I, his “next to the baby,” should attend a boarding school a thousand miles from home was something like this: Can Larry flourish intellectually, socially, and spiritually away from home? If the public school gifted and talented program that Larry is now enrolled in is not likely to be rich enough for him, are there any local options?

In spring of 1952, two private higher educational institutions in St. Louis, Washington University in St. Louis and St. Louis School of Pharmacy, announced that they would admit black undergraduate students. Mac, who graduated high school in June 1952, had a partial scholarship to St. Louis School of Pharmacy, but Dad refused to sign the loan papers to pay for the remainder of Mac’s expenses for the first year. Dad believed he could not risk the liability of Mac’s inability to repay the loan after graduation with five of Mac’s younger siblings, including me, to feed, clothe, and shelter until each turned twenty-one (the age of adulthood was not changed to eighteen until 1971). As an act of defiance, Mac joined the Air Force and left home.

Also, in 1952, a private boarding school in the suburbs announced it would admit black students. St. Louis University, a Jesuit institution, had admitted its first group of black freshmen in 1949, but the Catholic cardinal had been working on desegregating the parish elementary and high schools since 1944. The looming question in Dad’s mind might have been, “If Larry can win a scholarship to an elite boarding school, might he not also be a candidate for a scholarship at one of the local private schools or one of the Catholic high schools?”

The decision to allow me to leave home at fourteen was apparently a family decision between my parents and my two oldest brothers, Al and Willie, both in their early thirties. I didn’t participate in any of their discussions because I had made it clear I was enthusiastic about going to Exeter. Each older brother eventually told me his version of their joint conversation with our reluctant father.

Willie focused on Dad’s expressed anxieties about his ability to pay for the “extras,” such as the required coats and ties, and whether my expectations for college after my boarding school education would be affordable. To relieve these anxieties, Willie offered to adopt me, thereby becoming legally responsible for all my economic needs. The offer was not accepted because my Exeter scholarship included the annual costs of travel, books, and a clothing allowance for the first year. I’m sure Dad wouldn’t have accepted Willie’s offer under any circumstances.

Al literally went to the heart of the matter, broke down in tears, and pleaded with Dad to let me seize this open door to an extraordinary education. Al probably also referred back to his conversation with the principal of Exeter at a meeting in St. Louis to answer my parents’ questions or concerns. Al was at the meeting with me, Mom, and the principal because Dad either couldn’t get time off from work or refused to attend the specially arranged meeting. I watched with great admiration as Al had a frank Q&A with the principal about how many other black boys were at the school, how younger boys were protected from hazing, etc. (I was very small at the time, less than a hundred pounds.) As Al would tell me years later, at the bottom of Dad’s hesitancy was his fear that I would never return to what had become “home”: St. Louis.

By late summer, the cold war about whether I could venture into the white world on my own ended with a treaty both parents could endorse. Dad felt my intellectual and social development wouldn’t be hindered at Exeter. I would learn to ask the kinds of questions that drove the lives of John Dewey and George Washington Carver, and Mom got to see me on an educational track for a career as a professional. She could sleep easy knowing I was unlikely to end up being the best dishwasher.

~

I have only been a racial pioneer once. In 1965, I was the first black student nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship by the Missouri Nominating Committee. Not exactly front-page news like James Meredith’s entrance into the University of Mississippi in 1962, but the two local St. Louis newspapers ran a story about me and my fellow nominee, along with our pictures, before we left for the final regional round of the selection process in Des Moines, Iowa. At the end of a full day of interviews, my fellow Missourian (a Harvard senior like myself) came home with one of the four scholarships allocated to the Midwest region to study for two years at Oxford University in England. I came home empty handed to a grief-stricken mother.

Perhaps “grief” is a bit of an exaggeration. But when I called before boarding the plane back to St. Louis to inform her of my “loss,” I could sense telephonically how disappointed she was. Her only response was to tell me to take a taxi home. In point of fact, she (or Dad?) had arranged for Al to be at our house at 10:00 p.m. on that Saturday night when I arrived, apparently so I could have someone with whom I could share my disappointment. As I entered the front door, Mom turned away from me and went into the kitchen. Al grabbed me and gave me a bear hug, although by now I was about four or five inches taller than him. He untangled himself from me and said:

“Let me ask you just one thing. Do you think you didn’t win because of race?”

“God no!” I smiled gleefully. “The other finalists were outstanding and very interesting guys.”

“Good. Don’t ever think that. It could destroy you,” he replied tenderly.

Even in that moment, he was warning me of the dangers of interpreting every slight or disappointment through a racial lens. Further, he was reminding me that the ultimate goal of those imposing and maintaining the racial hierarchy is to “get into your head” and perhaps your heart and soul to control not only what you thought of yourself, but how you felt about yourself as well. To assure Al that I recognized the dangers of seeing my failure to achieve a Rhodes through a racial lens, I described the qualifications of my fellow Missourian and Harvard classmate to illustrate that objectively he was clearly qualified. He had, for instance, been elected to Phi Beta Kappa his junior year and seemed highly likely to graduate summa cum laude—a record I didn’t match.

~

While I was in law school and the Vietnam War was heating up, Al, a World War II veteran, gave me some unsolicited advice. “If there is any legal way you can avoid this war, do it.” Not the way the media portrays the Greatest Generation’s attitude toward military service. I assured him I was looking for a job after law school that would provide me a deferment until I turned twenty-six, when I would become ineligible for the draft. The risk of conscription led me to wonder about what inner wounds he might have endured because of his service as a busboy on a ship during World War II.

In the Navy’s version of racial segregation, blacks were assigned to positions in the mess hall of ships, unlike the Army where blacks served in all-black units under black commanders. Until th war in Vietnam, I couldn’t imagine the dangers of Al’s noncombat assignments in the Pacific theater. Perhaps it was my own fear of being drafted into the desegregated military that propelled me to paint a picture in my mind of Al on a destroyer or aircraft carrier wondering if the enemy guns would strike his hiding place in the ship or if a Japanese kamikaze pilot would become a suicide bomber by crashing into his ship. I imagine him overhearing white crew members denigrating their enemy combatants with racial slurs like “Japs.” Or even worse, listening to racial epithets from white crew members as they cursed him because of the manner in which the black cook had prepared a certain dish. Knowing Al—he was a mere eighteen years old in early August 1945 as ships gathered off the coast of Japan for a possible United States invasion—he might have overheard the nervous fear underneath the bravado of the white pilots, deck crewmen, and gunners as they sipped coffee and smoked cigarettes.

I decided to ask him a question about his experience:

“How did you endure being in the segregated Navy?”

Al smiled at me the way he did when he called me “my little brother” before responding:

“I learned to love the sea.”  


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