Checkers Anyone? by Kenneth Weene

Checkers Anyone? by Kenneth Weene

What eight-year-old boy doesn’t want to do things with his dad? When my father told me to hop in our black four-door Ford, I was happy to oblige. That we were going to the general store made it all the better. I loved roaming that store—cram packed with scythes, guns, food, ice cream, clothes, notions, even the local post office. The entire place redolent of Maine. Voices filled with flat “R”s and twang. Local folks stopped in as much to socialize as to shop.

The wood-burning stove would be cold—summer was not a time for roaring fires; but there was sure to be a checker game in progress, the board sitting atop an upturned pickle barrel similar to the one from which I would, if Dad was in the right mood, fish a crispy dill for a special treat. Checkers was a religion almost as important as the Boston Red Sox. Its devotees were the old men who gathered at Maynard’ store; its practice was simple, red and black.

My father never asked to play, nor was he ever asked;  but I loved to watch those geezers huffing and puffing their way through each game as if it were mortal combat.

While Dad and Maynard, the proprietor, worked on our order—much of which would have to come from Portland or even Boston and would arrive in perhaps a week, I wandered through that wonderland, trying as children do to soak-up everything that was being done and said.

Elvira, Maynard’s wife was talking fabrics with Hortense Clark. Usually, I would have skipped the women’s talk, but Hortense mentioned my family name. “How come Maynard lets that kike Weene order things; I wouldn’t do business with a Jew.” She spat the last word out so it hung in the air.

“Hortense,” Elvira answered, “Joe’s a White Jew.”

“What the hell did that mean?”

Instinctively, I knew it was not a question to ask aloud. That was well over sixty years ago, and I am finally ready to answer my unspoken question. My answer is not, as some might expect, about anti-Semitism, although anti-Jewish prejudice certainly underlay Hortense Clarks’s comment. Rather, it is about race or at least the American concept of race and how that concept affects our social and political discourse. It is about what has been termed by some the American dilemma, but that dilemma is not about the role of Blacks, African-Americans, Negroes, or whatever term you have learned to use when referring to people who can trace their roots back to Africa. Rather it is about how early Americans came to see themselves, how those first British-Americans came to define their world.

Perhaps a bit of history would be helpful. Well before slavery had become the mainstay of what is now the Southeast United States, it took root in the Caribbean. England had discovered sugar and the insatiable European sweet tooth demanded plantation after plantation of cane. Sugar was a backbreaking crop and labor intensive; what better way to produce it than employing the cheapest possible labor, slaves. But the Africans brought to Jamaica, the Barbados, and other islands were not agreeable to the plan or to their treatment. There were rebellions. Vulnerability to French and Spanish intrusions and to the depredations of pirates and privateers added to the sense of unease in those island colonies. Better to move lock, stock, and slave holdings to the mainland where there was comparative safety. So the Carolinas were settled. If sugarcane did not do as well in the new plantations as they had in the islands, tobacco and rice coupled with fur trade with the Indians made up the difference.

However, the plantation owners still didn’t feel that safe. The slaves were no happier with their conditions in the new setting; they still wanted freedom; and the Spanish in Florida encouraged slave rebellions. The enslaved Black population outnumbered the plantation owners and their hired hands. Then, too, displaced Native Americans brooded in the forests. There was a boding sense of danger. The solution of British troops being garrisoned in the communities was too expensive and was certainly unacceptable to the plantation owners who wanted to be their own royalty. Better to find other, poorer Europeans to share the risk, to settle the lesser lands and provide the services in the towns and villages.

The attraction of the New World to impoverished working class recruits was land. If they had none in Europe, at least in America they would now have some. So they came. Of course there was a selection process that went on. French and Spaniards were not welcome. After all, England was in almost perpetual war with those two Catholic monarchies. While Scots, Welsh, and Scots-Irish were the most welcome, there were too few of these; so other Europeans were welcome: Greeks, Albanians, Germans, and so forth. They came to find themselves an economic underclass, many indentured, often burdened with debt, and seldom able to obtain land worth the farming.

The question was how to keep these poor Europeans from forming a natural affinity with the slaves who often worked beside them all for the landed gentry. How to keep them from seeing themselves as oppressed. It was in that context that the notion of a “White Race” was born.

“Why do they call themselves the human race? Do they think somebody is going to win?” The line from a television sitcom haunts this topic. Just what do we mean by race and how do the word’s two meanings intersect?

Race in the sense of rushing or competing comes from the Norse or perhaps Old English.  Race in the sense of “people of common descent” comes from the Middle French, possibly before that from the Italian. It was originally used to describe people and other things that naturally grouped together, including wines of particular flavor, a generation, a group of people with a common occupation, or people who had a common background as a tribe.

There is no evidence that race referred to people being divided on the basis of physical differences before the late eighteenth century. In other words, those colonists—rich or poor—did not come to the Americas thinking of a “White Race.” They may have thought of Africans as different from themselves, but only in the way they may have thought the same of Russians or Slavs as not being like them or perhaps of Welsh and English being different.

It was essential to the landed gentry of the colonies to alienate the poor Europeans from the Black slaves. The easiest way to do that was to play up the sense of difference and the clearest difference was the color of skin. Hence whiteness became a political tool.

That night in Maine I lay on the grass and looked up at the stars. I could see so many of them—no light pollution to interfere. I did not know even then if I believed in God or Heaven, but I do know I believed in possibilities and the future. I looked up and like many young Americans of that day I saw a world that could be better. It did not occur to me that there were many who could only see the ground beneath them, who lived in desperate fear of things getting worse.

“Keep your eye on the prize.” What a great evocation. But for those who cannot know if their children will have enough to eat, there is no prize. They cannot look to the stars; they are far too busy watching for the pratfalls along the path. For those who are living in quiet desperation there is no possibility. For them it is the simple maxim, “Look back, the Devil may be gaining on you.”

Fear becomes anger, and anger becomes rage. The Devil is coming and has to be defeated. And if that Devil is represented by the descendents of the slaves whom their ancestors were supposed to look down on, by the Black-skinned Americans whom their culture came to call a different race, why it is clear where the rage must be directed.

 For a person who sees himself as a member of the White race who lives in a terror of downward social mobility, a terror known only too well by those who are just holding on to their rung of the ladder, the mythical other, the Black, becomes a threat beyond the tolerable.

From the first gleaming of the American character this terror of the not-White was mixed in— added intentionally by those plantation owners looking for allies just in case of a slave rebellion. Once it existed towards the African slaves, it was easily displaced onto other groups, groups that at some psychological level were identified as not-White. As descendents of early French settlers migrated from Eastern Canada down into Maine and New England, they became the non-Whites. The Irish who were carried to the New World by the waves of the potato blight were often labeled “Black Irish.” Obviously, to Hortense my father was not “White,” but Elvira set her straight, albeit about just that one person, not all Jews.

Today, for most Americans, the French, Irish, and Jews have been assimilated into the class of Whiteness. African Americans are still not white. Neither are those of Hispanic background. Consider those wonderful questionnaires one is so often asked to fill out, for instance satisfaction surveys after Internet purchases and services. The classifications offered for self-identification make it clear that Hispanics are not White.

A short time ago I saw a picture of four children on the social media; they were labeled Black, Yellow, Brown, and Normal. Normal, that is the label given to the white child. Perhaps there was no intent; after all the purported message of the picture was “Everybody deserves to be treated equally!” Equally to the normal, to the White.

Another recent event sends the same message. An exit poll of voters in South Carolina asked, “Are Blacks getting too demanding in their push for equal rights?” Too demanding, how can one be too demanding in the expectation of equality?

It is many years since I heard my father referred to as a White Jew. At the time, I suppose a part of me was happy with that distinction; it meant that my dad was accepted, that at least to some small degree we were part of the community. But he was not asked to play a game of checkers.

Years later I am not so happy. I wish I had known then what I know today. I would have spoken up. Voice cracking with youth and emotion I would have said, “My father is a person. He is honest and trustworthy. Beyond that, there should be no labels. We are Americans, and we should know better. We are the children of revolution, of the natural human drive for freedom, a goal that can never be realized while we are willing to classify ourselves as if we were talking about the flavors of wine.” I would have taken a bite of that pickle clutched in my right hand and added, “Besides he’s a great checkers player.” Yes, I would have added that.

At least now I know that it is my responsibility to say such things, to make those comments in the social media, to stand up for that idea in my life; that is the responsibility of a free person. For if we are not equally free, then freedom will no longer have meaning.

If there is a Devil who will gain on us, he will not be in the guise of those with a different shade of skin but in the guise of those who tell us that we must fear others in order to protect ourselves. We can defeat that evil spirit. The place to start? Might I suggest a game of checkers? Might I suggest that we set up that overturned pickle barrel and start to play—making sure that everyone gets a turn.

All About The Keys by Kenneth Weene

All About The Keys by Kenneth Weene

“It’s all about the keys.” I was told that when I first went to work in a state hospital. I soon learned what she meant.

First, what she didn’t mean was that the patients, without keys, were locked in. Perhaps on some of the more secure wards, but in the buildings where I worked they were free to come and go. A metal coat hanger skillfully twisted – well really not that skillfully – would open many of the doors and almost all the window gratings. 

Even those most hapless of inmates, the non-verbal autistic children who were housed in a separate ward, occasionally got free and roamed their little world. One day I happened into the building director’s office to find that doctor effectively treed on his desk while his secretary screamed helplessly and dirty, screaming children appeared to be doing a primitive dance everywhere. I called for backup, and two-by-two we escorted the children back to their dayroom. When we had finished, those of us who had done the escorting sat in an office and laughed. I have no idea what the rescued psychiatrist did, but the secretary asked to be transferred to another office.

No, the keys didn’t mean that the inmates were locked up while we were not. Nor were they of great use to us in getting about the hospital – although they were easier to carry than an untwisted coat hanger. Obviously, we could use all the same routes as the people under our charge. On a couple of nice days, when I was going to take kids for a walk on the grounds, I asked the inmates to open window grates so we could go down the fire escape and avoid walking through the smell and closeness of the dayroom, to say nothing of avoiding the intrusive and unnecessary questions of bored aides and the instructions of nurses needing to confirm their authority.

The keys were not for locks as much as they were for show. Perhaps that was why many of the staff managed to amass large rings of keys, many of which were for doors through which they would never pass. Keys were the badge of authority. It almost seemed that the more keys you had the more right you had to tell others what to do. More importantly, carrying a ring of keys meant that nobody would haphazardly tell you what to do. In a world based on power over another person’s body and mind, in a world in which sedatives could be arbitrarily administered, in which seclusion in rubber-padded rooms with ones arms securely wrapped around could be imposed at a whim, in which money – and cigarettes, which were another currency – could be given or taken by decree: in such a world the symbol that one is not subject to such capricious decisions must be carefully carried at all times.

It was certainly not that the staff were saner than the patients. Indeed, there were some staff who routinely became patients – not necessarily in our hospital. It was often a short step between carrying the keys and having none, between being the authority and being the subject.

The hospital, the asylum is not a sanctuary, for there can be no sanctuary where power is so easily wielded, where control can be so easily symbolized. My first day’s guide was correct. It was all about the keys.

I Pledge Allegiance by Kenneth Weene

I Pledge Allegiance by Kenneth Weene

The day before our mothers had brought us to the classroom door. Miss Buckley had greeted us with a smile and questions. “Do you like to color?” Do you like music? Do you—?”

Most of us had nodded, too shy to speak.

“You have to tell me,” this new force in our lives instructed. “When I ask you a question, you must answer. Say ‘Yes, Miss Buckley’ or ‘No, Miss Buckley. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Miss Buckley,” I managed to squeak through my terror.

“Good boy, Kenny.” She patted me on the head, and my educational indoctrination was underway.

The next morning, we stood outside with the older kids until the bell clattered and a teacher opened the door. I knew my mother, like many others, was standing outside the chain link fence watching to make sure—one cannot know of what. My brother was there, ignoring me with a watchful eye from the third-grade line.

We marched single file down the hall, down the stairs, and into the kindergarten. This day, Miss Buckley was not so friendly. Moving with a quiet teacher grace around the room, she made sure each of us found a child-sized chair in the circle. She made do with gestures and gentle shoves, the fewer words the better thus modeling another rule of school life: “Quiet, no talking.”

Overhead a loudspeaker squawked. A tinny voice ­— nothing like the voices on the Sromberg Carlson on which we listened to Baby Snooks and Buster Brown — told us it was Thursday, September some number, and that we should have our books covered by the time we came to school on Monday morning. I had no idea who he was, why he was saying these things, or why books needed covering.

Then that voice announced, “Please stand and face the flag of our country for the Pledge of Allegiance.”

We sat there, not sure what to do, until Miss Buckley stood and gestured for us to do the same. “Put your right hand over your heart and look at the flag,” she instructed.

Most of us had no idea what a right hand was or what she meant by “over your heart.” At least we all knew where the flag was. Forty-eight stars and thirteen stripes, hanging from a short pole, jutting into the classroom above a swath of pictures our teacher had pinned on one wall.

The voice droned on with words I would, over coming weeks, memorize. I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands — one nation, indivisible — with liberty and justice for all.

Every school day for the next ten years, until I went to boarding school in tenth grade, I would repeat that pledge. Nobody ever discussed it. Nobody ever shared its history. Nobody ever questioned its purpose. Most of those days, the pledge was followed by a verse from The Bible, with occasional substitution of a short poem — always by an American author and always extolling the wonder that was us — and then by “The Lord’s Prayer — in Protestant, not Catholic form.

One hundred eighty days a year, the indoctrination continued. The goal, in retrospect, to convince us that we lived in a Christian nation, a Protestant nation, and that we should love, honor, and obey that nation with all our hearts, minds, and souls.

Years later, studying educational history, I realized that my childhood had been rife with indoctrination and propaganda. One reason for that indoctrination was as close as my grandparents’ homes. All four had immigrated to America. For some inexplicable reason, the educators of the late nineteenth century feared that such immigrants would have more loyalty to their old homes than to their new. What a strange notion! Why would they have traveled so many difficult, uncomfortable, and often dangerous miles if they didn’t have a dream of coming to America? Why would they have suffered the indignities of Ellis Island and the struggles to learn a language and find a job in a strange land if they didn’t consider it a better world? Better for themselves and their children.

When Francis Bellamy penned the original Pledge of Allegiance, it had been meant as a statement of love for one’s country. That was 1892, and the Columbian Exposition was about to open in Chicago. Bellamy, a man of the cloth who professed both socialist values and an abiding racism, wanted to give voice to his belief that the American White nation was special—so special as to be properly compared to the Roman Empire. This wondrous American nation was not for all, but those who did belong must love it with unquestioning devotion and pride. Born during the Civil War and a true New York Yankee, it was Bellamy’s dream that every true child of America from the North, South, or West would join in his pledge.

A strong advocate for public education, Bellamy assuredly saw such an affirmation of national love a perfect addition to every school day.

That the Pledge was an integral part of a nationalist propaganda made its alteration during the Cold War all too easy. In 1954, the last year of my public school career, Eisenhower pushed for a change in the pledge’s wording. He wanted congress to add “under God,” which they did. Two years later, “In God we trust,” was made the national motto and added to American currency.

The reason for those changes was simple. Eisenhower was looking for a simple way to demark the difference between the United States and the “Communist” government of the U.S.S.R. Freedom of religion became the touchstone for that difference. Years later, when Ronald Reagan met Mikhail Gorbachev, it was religious freedom to which Reagan turned in his criticism of the absence of rights in the U.S.S.R.

By the time “In God we trust” was made the part of the national currency of thought, I was in boarding school. My first year there I took a European history course taught by Doc Livingston. In a strange and reverse way, Doc reminded me of Miss Buckley. As a teacher, Doc’s goal was to make us question. “History,” he once said to me, “is the dissecting of truth from lies, of reality from propaganda.”

I did well in European History, especially on the essay requirements. The school’s headmaster was surprised. He had thought I was overreaching taking an advanced course. I never told him the secret of my success: Whatever the question question its premises; separate truth from indoctrination.

All those years of saying that pledge (and mouthing the words to The Stars Spangled Banner — no point in making people standing near me suffer — and saluting the flag when it was raised in mornings and taken down in evenings) and I still question our nation’s propaganda.

I do not want to pledge my heart to a country or political system. My mind? Yes, that I can pledge because doing so allows me to take part, to judge, to disagree. But my heart? No. It isn’t that I don’t love my country. I do. I cannot, however, give unquestioning allegiance. Indeed, to do so seems to me to disrespect the authors not only of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution but also of the Federalist Papers, and all the other arguments and convocations that went into our nation’s framing. It disrespects the process of legislation by which conflicting views are resolved and of our system of law by which the tension of argument is resolved. Worse it contravenes the entire history of a nation that has honored change, indeed that has prided itself on being a beacon for change in the world.

I do not bemoan those hundreds of mornings spent saying the pledge, listening to Biblical verses, and reciting the Lord’s Prayer. I did not suffer those minutes. Perhaps I am even better for them, but I do bemoan a country that cannot recognize that its own propaganda is still propaganda, that saying mantras of patriotism is not the behavior of true patriots. If government is derived from the consent of the governed, that consent must not be automatic but given grudgingly and after careful examination.