For the prospective reader I thought it would be helpful to post a sample chapter.
You can read the text below, or click here to hear me read it to you.
Chapter 1: Jamie Goldberg
Detroit, Michigan, Spring 1970
“I am sorry, Mrs. Goldberg, it is against the school rules.” Mrs. Bradford’s temples were pulsating. I, Jamie Goldberg, was her least favorite student. I was as annoying as a precocious ten year old student could be. Too smart for my own good, but not smart enough to make life easy for myself. She regularly humiliated me in front of my classmates, leaving me to wonder when I would ever feel like I belonged somewhere.
Mrs. Bradford enjoyed thwarting me with brute strength, if not mental superiority; but my mother was a force for which she was unprepared.
“You can’t let me take my own son out of school?” scolded my mother. Her small five-foot-one frame, bobbing red hair, and outrageous blood-red designer coat with the black tentacle fringe, made her look more menacing than her size.
The tall, gray-haired Mrs. Bradford towered over my parent. “He’s not sick; he’s perfectly well. There is no reason to take him out of school, Mrs. Goldberg.”
“Stopping a war isn’t a reason to take my son out of school?”
“No, it isn’t.”
“You won’t let me take my son out of school?”
“No!” Mrs. Bradford barked.
I saw my mother relax. I could not suppress a smile; I knew Mrs. Bradford had lost.
“Okay, just try and stop me then.” With that my mother, Mrs. Ruth Esther Goldberg, demanding wife, defender of the people of Detroit and mother of the school’s most unpopular student, walked over to my chair and picked me up by the arm. I almost stumbled out of my chair.
“Go, Mrs. G!” cried Brian Germaine, one of the school’s first black students—courtesy of my mother’s political machinations.
“We’re going,” she said as she hauled me out of class.
Amid hoots from the other kids, Mrs. Bradford ran to the school intercom, yelling something I could not hear because, in an instant, I was out of the room.
Mom whisked me into the car where my older brother, Steven, was already sitting.
“What Neanderthal schmucks,” she fumed. Off she drove with us downtown. The ride was jerky, but for us it was normal. Mom’s foot didn’t quite reach the gas pedal so she resorted to giving it a good kick in order to maintain speed.
In the back I was breathless from the tension in the school. I was thankful that the fight was over and settled in my mother’s favor, my terror of the later consequences notwithstanding. I was certain Mrs. Bradford would take revenge on me in front of
class in some dark and horrific way, while my mother, who was trying to save the world, was more than ready to sacrifice her son just as Abraham willingly offered up Isaac. Whether God would stop her at the last minute, I was unsure.
Mom was driving Steven and me to an anti-war demonstration, and it wasn’t the first time her political activities had gotten me in trouble with authorities and my pressuring peers.
When I was seven years old she had maneuvered to desegregate the local school district. She succeeded in getting only one African-American child, the aforementioned Brian Germaine, into our school. Mom’s accomplishment turned all my friends against me. Not at first, but as the kids compared notes with their parents, they ended up hating my guts, calling me “nigger lover” and other names my mother would never allow me to repeat, let alone complain about.
The only real close friend I had after that episode was this very same Brian Germaine, the single African-American whose family had the courage to choose the all-white school.
Unfortunately—that is for me, not for the United States—around my eighth birthday my mother tried again. Any remaining sympathizers disappeared when she and a local civic organization successfully sued the school district for discrimination. The presiding judge ordered the school board from the neighboring African-American township to resign. Then the judge fused the two school districts into one. Instantly my school went from seventy-five percent Jewish and twenty-four percent Catholic to fifty percent African-American and forty-nine percent “beleaguered” Caucasian. The latter group couldn’t get out of town fast enough—except my family; we were in it for the duration.
The school became an integrated/segregated school. The African-Americans stayed among them-selves and took my only friend, Brian, with them. This left me with no one. Neither side thanked me for my association with the ruining of both schools. I was alone, but not left alone.
At first the new world order shocked me.
I heard a familiar voice. I looked up from my gym locker. I smiled. It was Brian. I thought my lost friend was coming back. “Oh, hi, Brian. How is it going?”
Then, he was joined by three more unsmiling kids. “Brian?”
“Get up, Jamie.”
Brian’s voice resonated with that friendliness I associated with our former relationship. I even thought this was a discrete moment for us to declare our mutual friendships with new friends to boot. It wasn’t until he kicked me in the groin and his new buddies kicked my legs from behind that I realized something was amiss. The feelings of friendship quickly blended with howling pain and humiliation, creating a cognitive dissonance from which I was never to recover.
I came home bruised and my clothes dirty, chiefly because they were thrown into the garbage by Brian’s friends. My mother gasped, but she was on the phone.
“Mildred, you have to realize desegregating the schools is the most important—wait a sec, what happened to you?—nothing Mildred, my son just came home a mess. Anyway, keep me posted on Oakland County. I’ll come up there for a strategy meeting … knives? Mildred, that’s no excuse for cowardice … Millie, we have to start somewhere … pragmatism breeds poverty … What do you mean who said that? I did—look I gotta go; I’ll call you right back … Okay, then I am calling the mayor … Fine. Goodbye.” She slammed down the phone, then glanced at the damage. “What happened to you, Jamie?”
“I fell.” She accepted the excuse with a surprising ease.
“You fell? Again? Honestly, how can you be such a klutz. You have to be the most uncoordinated kid in school. What am I supposed to do with you?” It was a question she often asked but never answered. “Can you stop looking so sad all the time? Why not invite Brian and his new friends over to play sometime?” She stared at me and heaved a disgusted sigh. “Oh, go wash up—and change your clothes before your father comes home.”
I wasn’t just the butt of the black kids’ fury. I had become an equal opportunity target; both whites and blacks felt a compulsion to bully me.
But by then, I felt I deserved this fate, even the furtive beatings that followed. My situation lightened inadvertently when Jeremy, a high-voiced sissy tried to come to my rescue. Poor Jeremy. His weakness attracted the malicious beatings of our schoolmates with a fervor unmatched by those associated with
my political views. On the one hand I felt a vague kinship for Jeremy. This kinship extended just enough to make me feel guilty about his torment, but not so far as to join his side. Though I suspected even at
that early date that his was the side on which I really belonged.
At the Kennedy Square demonstration, by com-parison, the action was orderly. We marched resolutely around the square in a vain attempt to stop bloodshed in a distant land. My mother’s passion failed to allay my fear of the intimidating police. On horseback with grim unfriendly faces, they circled the marchers. Other sneering policemen in riot gear stood ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. I was shaking. My mother was defiant. For all their scary intimidation, the police did nothing. To Mom’s disappointment, there would be no arrests this time, unlike the 1968 Poor People’s March, the highlight of my youth.
Then, I was in a sea of strangers, the only white kid. My mother and father had run ahead so Mom could hobnob with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s second in command, Ralph Abernathy. I was marching down Woodward Avenue mouthing what seemed like
the words to songs I did not know. We all walked hand in hand, my eight-year-old white hand clasped by larger black hands. It was a beautiful experience. I was not afraid at all … until the march ended at the waterfront. There, white policemen on horses knew how to deal with people who marched in peace. Without warning, the men on horseback charged the crowd. A terrifying chaos ensued, during which I was pushed away, threw a tantrum, and was subsequently whisked away by Eileen, our house cleaner, who had somehow lost her shoes in the fracas. It was a nail-biting wait for my parents to return.
It was not until much later that night that my father and mother reappeared with a small African-American child named Ladon. He was maybe two years younger than I was. He lived with us for barely six months. Why, I am not exactly sure, though I was quite angry when he left. He was my last real buddy, someone who looked up to me. Ladon’s departure made me realize how alone I was in my own home.
This anti-war demonstration in Kennedy Square was pretty tame by comparison. Still, in spite of the solemn chants—“What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now!”—and our orderly marching with placards, I braced for the police to come and destroy us at any second. I was, for some reason, waiting for the hammer to fall. My brother Steven, looking completely unperturbed, shook his fists at them. My mom, noticing this, followed suit. Luckily, all to no avail, Mom’s only achievement was to heighten her youngest son’s fear.
The police surrounded the demonstration but left us alone, much to Mother’s disgust. “What a bunch of cowards,” she muttered. “If there were three more blacks here, we’d be getting trampled right now.”
I stared at the policemen on their horses. They seemed belligerent and proud. I swallowed. I began to chant, “Trample me! Trample me!”
Fortunately for me, they did not comply.