When I was a lad I served a term at my Uncle Hank’s gas station on Milwaukee and Erie. It was the mid 20th century and I, at age 16, was snared in the death-row career of pumping gas and patching inner tubes.
I was also caught up in the wide-ranging wisdom of Uncle Hank, who never bothered to throttle down any opinion, never mind how deeply uninformed or profoundly sightless. No matter. I eagerly sponged up every dollop of the kaleidoscopic dilations he dispensed whatever the topic–politics (“That Dale Carnegie, he would have been one helluva president.” ) or haute cuisine (A kosher salami chub you have to hang in the kitchen for at least two months until it’s wrinkled and hard like the old Gypsy in the Wolf Man movies.Otherwise, it tastes like goyisha crap.”or sports (I’m telling you, Wrigley won’t let a Jew on the Cubs. They never gave Cy Block a chance. Sure he hit .207 in Class D. but boy, could that Yiddishe kid field his position,” even race ( The colored, they’re such happy-go-lucky people.”).
Though so many of Unc’s perspectives were mostly distorted, one view–plucked empirically–did often hold its ground, to wit, that many of the African Americans we encountered in the neighborhood–balanced as it was at the margins of black and white –did indeed seem oddly cheerful–a joyousness that sometimes seemed to me dubiously ingratiating. But since it was Unc’s reflection and carried the weight of contemporary conventional wisdom , I filed it into my folder of cognition. Besides, wasn’t Unc’s paternalistic take underscored by the manic hijinks of the Harlem Globetrotters? Yet, it was with a vaguely nagging hesitancy that I accepted the “Negro” as a kind of cultural court jester.
This doubt led me to sense that the Negro community was marginalized as well–a consequence of my home-grown grasp of marginalization. Being the progeny of a deaf-mute parent does feed one’s feelings of outlier status. Just as Blacks did, my mother–a widow in her early thirties–suffered from the stigma of stereotype.Too many American misunderstood the “dumb” label in “deaf and dumb.” Thus she was seen by too many as feeble minded. And so –notwithstanding our being A students–my sister and I were looked upon by extended family and others as facing the inevitability of dim intellectual and financial destinies. So powerful a force was this dreary outlook for the deaf that–in the dozen or so American states that had legalized eugenics in the 30’s—many of this un-vocal minoity had to submit to sterilization, Nazi style.
Decades later, it finally dawned on me the reason I had always harbored a kind of blurred kinship with the society’s outcasts, the disadvantaged,, the ignored, the peculiar, the strange, the homosexuals, the ethnic minorities, the blind, the crippled and other untouchables that touched me. Despite arriving at status and success in the most mainstream of measures, my empathy never wavered. You see, having dwelled among the deaf, I had never stopped feeling like an outsider myself. Here I was, just another stray. (And here I remain, mostly.)
All of which brings me to report an observation that nobody else I know has ever expressed. And probably never dot-connected,
Yet decades later, another epiphany struck me: a common-denominator of the fifties’ Blacks and deaf. Many blacks, in the company of whites, and many of the deaf, in the company of the hearing, would reflexively slip on their Happy-Go-Lucky masks and enact the pantomime of court jesters. The motive? Nothing less than pure FEAR! The economic destinies of both powerless communities stood at the mercy of the powerful. No deaf plutocracy existed that could hire the deaf. Blacks who could hire blacks were about as rare as forks in Japan. And what deepened the terror for Blacks was existential dread. In the fifties, lynching was still thriving. And so the only thing that stood between complete impoverishment (and sometime extinguishment) for both powerless communities was the whim of the powerful. So, both blocs clung on as supplicant serfs at the mercy of their overlords, Is it any wonder that they devised their strategy of disguising themselves as accommodating clowns?
Today, for the most part, African-Americans no longer endure the indignity of fear-based cheerfulness. Thank goodness.As for the deaf–as embodied by the successful Gaullaudet University student protest of the late 20th century–younger deaf people (particularly the more educated pre-lingual deaf) move though society with pride. Thank goodness, again.
Were he alive today, my guess is that Uncle Hank might revise his description of the fifties, to “Unhappy Go Unlucky.” His prescription for perfect salami? Probably immutable.