In fact, I found that most of the older black people I ever had any encounters with were also, to a fault, the most considerate and kind people I had yet to meet; much more so than the white people I knew. I came to the conclusion my cousins were full of shit. I liked black people. I couldn’t wait for them to come to Jess Rulam. I knew the others in my class looked down on them, but not me. I knew that the black kids had to be the same kind of considerate and friendly people as the old ones I had the pleasure of meeting and knowing.
I was wrong.
* * *
Pete had just met up with me and John as we were heading to our new classroom. “Well, what do y’all think about these black kids?”
“I don’t know.” I shrugged like I had no opinion.
“I’m glad you didn’t call ’em niggers,” John said, whispering at me. “I’d hate to get the hell beat out of me the first day before I even make it to the classroom.”
“Ah, they ain’t gonna do nothing.” Pete sounded overly confident. “They’re scared to death of us.”
Bart and Andy approached from behind and Philip, Thad, and Jude were ahead of us in a huddle, talking.
“There’s not as many as I thought there’d be,” said Jude.
“Most of ’em went to that big city school in Barclay,” said Bart. “I’m glad of it too. I don’t like niggers. Damn, I got to stop saying that word.”
“Yeah, you’ll get the hell beat out of me because they won’t know which one of us said it,” said John with a half-laugh. “They like to pick on the scrawniest,” he added as a caveat.
“In that case, I’ll get the hell beat out of me all day,” I said. They all laughed. I didn’t want to share the fact that I didn’t think we had a thing to worry about because all the crap they heard about black people was bullshit.
“Where’s big-ass Harold?” asked Pete.
“Big-ass Harold is standing behind you, you dumb-ass,” said Harold, appearing suddenly. After a pause to look around and assess the situation, he came to a conclusion. “Oh boy, this is just what we need, more damn niggers.”
“Shut up, Harold,” John said in a loud whisper. “They won’t do nothing to you, but they’ll stomp the hell out of me and Matt.”
“I swear to God, you get to be a bigger pussy every year, John,” mused Harold. “Come on.” Harold headed to our new room with us closely behind. Coach, who was now our fifth grade teacher, started calling roll. All the same gang was pretty much intact.
He called all Jess Rulam kids first and then he got to the black kids who had transferred from Orr:
“Here.” Tall, wiry, flat face, long arms, lightning quick.
“Here.” Bigger, broader, heavily muscled, powerful, not as long arms.
“James Anthony Jones.”
“Here.” James Jones’s brother—smaller, skinnier, lightning quick too.
“James Earl Jones.”
“Here.” Tall. Taller than Jesse, a beanpole, skinny neck.
“We got three James Joneses,” said Coach, startled. “Are you kin?”
“Brothers. I’m called Earl,” the last James Jones said.
Brothers? I thought. Three brothers in the same class? And they are all named James? What the hell?
“OK,” Coach chuckled, and continued calling the rest of the black kids.
“Here.” Pretty black girl, well-dressed, proper looking.
“Here.” Ordinary, plain, nice smile, smart.
“And Shirley Wells.”
“Here.” Something wrong with her face; birth defect of some sort; proper, more proper than Patricia; probably smartest kid in the class, including the whites; not from this state; Michigan, I think.
That was it—seven black kids in our class. Nothing like I imagined. I didn’t see any problem. How could there be with only seven in the class, and three of them girls?
* * *
The recess bell rang, and Coach told us to watch ourselves. He had to go to the office and do some paperwork. I was wondering if we were going to play football, if Coach would quarterback, if the four black kids were going to play with us, and if they played, would the fact they looked five years older than us translate into them kicking the shit out of us?
Or, mainly, would there be any trouble on the playground? The three Jones brothers didn’t look as nice as the old black people.
I was right.
“Which one of you whiteys wanna fight?” said James Cater, pushing Bart in the chest with his finger hard enough to move him backward.
When you imagine in your head that a bunch of black boys want to start a fight on the playground on the first day of school, even at the unsophisticated age of ten you don’t ever picture it as simplistic, as in which one of you whiteys wanna fight, but these were not sophisticated times, and these were not sophisticated people.
“How about you?” His finger brushed across my cheek.
“Hey, leave me alone,” I said, pushing his finger out of my face and backing up into the safety of the gang, which was about seven of us or so. I sure didn’t want to fight him.
“You sho are a runt,” he said with a snicker. “Hey, Jamo, come hea and look at dis hea little shit.”
Jamo was the other James; I was the little shit.
“He done quit sucking his mama’s tit too early,” he said, laughing as if it were the funniest thing he ever said.
I stopped liking black people.
“What, none of you white-ass white boys will fight, will ye?” said Jamo, who strolled over to join in on the fun.
Damn! Everything they said about blacks was true. I mean niggers.
“Well, I guess we just gonna ha’f to make you our slaves looked to me like.”
“Dey all lined up. Give ’em stooges slap,” Jamo said, holding his hand in a slapping position. He was talking about The Three Stooges, where Moe would slap Curly and Larry multiple times, one after the other, in quick succession.
We were all pretty much in a straight line, shoulder to shoulder, except me. I was tucked in behind somebody, cowardly. James Cater went to the end of the line and, holding his palm at our face level, walked rapidly down the line, lightly slapping the first four faces until the arm belonging to the body on the fifth face took hold of his wrist with a powerfully tight grip.
“Keep your damn monkey hands off me, nigger,” said Harold, with his teeth tightly clenched.
James Cater stood looking up at Harold, somewhat startled. He turned toward Jamo and pursed his lips mockingly. He quickly jerked his wrist away from Harold.
“Well, well, dis big-ass white boy done act like he gonna fight.” Cater was walking back and forth up and down the line, shaking his head, looking down at the ground.
For a black boy that was just called a monkey and a nigger, and who had spent the previous five minutes doing everything within his power to provoke a fight, Cater was sure taking his time jumping on Harold’s big white ass. I didn’t blame him.
Even though they were older, and much bigger, and much more physically mature than the rest of us, Harold was as big and mean as they come and an imposing figure for anybody. To his credit, Harold didn’t show any signs of fear.
Cater quickened his pace back and forth, back and forth, faster and faster. I didn’t know if he was trying to work up his nerve because he was intimidated by Harold’s size, or if he knew enough about white kids that he figured they wouldn’t fight. I wondered if this show of Harold’s courage threw off his plans, or if this was just a black thing that niggers did.
Cater suddenly stopped, turned in a millisecond, and rushed his face within two inches of Harold’s chin, looking up at him and standing on his toes to do so.
“You think you a bad white boy, don’t ya, white boy?!” Cater was spitting his words, and his eyes looked like a crazed psychotic madman. If that’s what the pacing was for, it worked.
He stepped back and turned his head toward Jamo, mumbled something unintelligible, and clenched his right fist in a ball. I knew it was about to be on. He turned his head and was about to say something when Harold’s fist landed flush on Cater’s lips and blood splattered. I even noticed a drop of it on my shirt later when we returned to our classroom.
He staggered a couple of steps backward and fell back on his butt. In a flash he was back on his feet, coming straight at Harold. Harold swung wildly and landed a glancing blow as a cat-quick Cater turned his face slightly and the fist whizzed by. When Harold’s momentum overextended him, Cater, like a blur, got behind him. He grabbed Harold’s head, twisting it from side to side. Cater’s forearm was lifting Harold’s upper lip, exposing all his teeth. His mouth started to bleed. Cater, for the time being, had control of Harold.
I have said it once before, and I will say it again here—Harold Spartani was the strongest kid I had ever seen. Nobody was stronger as a child than Harold—nobody. He planted a foot just behind Cater’s, took hold of both of Cater’s arms, struggled into a new position, and body slammed Cater to the ground. It was so hard it sounded like a bag of fertilizer had dropped off the back of a pickup truck. Thwack!
Now Harold was on top, and in control, and I was in a quandary. I hated that bastard, Harold. Anybody else, anybody, and I would have loved to see them stomp his big, arrogant, hateful, smug ass. It would have made my year. I would have sung about it for weeks, wrote about it in class, told my kids about it for years and years, and if I could paint, do a portrait of it and hang it on my wall.
But now, for this one time, I found myself pulling for Harold. This of course means that I hated dumb-ass, stupid, nappy-headed, bully-ass jigaboos more than I hated Harold. In fact, I hoped he beat Cater’s brains out, what few he had that is. But, as usual, I rarely got what I wanted in those days.
Harold was on top and started peppering Cater’s face with both fists, but was missing most of the time. Cater’s head was like trying to hit a sewing machine bobbin on high speed. I could see Harold tiring, and I could see that Cater had a lot of experience wrestling and fist fighting, probably with the Jones brothers.
In one explosive wrestling move, he flipped Harold over and completely swapped positions with him. Cater was now on top, flailing away. Harold was on the bottom, except Harold’s head didn’t move as fast as Cater’s. He caught every blow flush on. When Cater tired of using both hands, he moved to the left of the dazed Harold and used his right fist over and over and over. Again and again he pounded away, even taking a second to rest, before pounding away a dozen more times.
Harold was in serious trouble. He stopped fighting back. His eyes were rolled back in his head with only the whites showing. Blood was pouring from his mouth and nose, but that didn’t stop Cater. If anything, it only seemed to quicken his hatred for the white boy that almost beat his monkey-nigger ass the first day of school.
Even as big a coward as I was, I knew we had to stop this or Harold might die. Pete and Bart got the same idea and started to help, but Jamo stepped forward and roared, “Any of you white asses come any closer, and I’ll plant your ass in the ground.”
None of us came any closer. Jamo was a hell of lot bigger and badder than the relatively scrawny Cater. If this smaller one is killing Harold, imagine what the big one could do to us, I thought.
No teachers around. No one to stop this assault! This was so much worse than when Harold had beat the hell out of me that one time. All I could think of was that Harold was probably getting what he deserved, but did he need to die for it? From behind us a shadowy figure emerged and in a flash was standing over the two boys. Cater drew back his fist and a dark hand took hold of his wrist in a viselike grip. Cater struggled frantically, but couldn’t move his fist even a quarter of an inch.
“Enough, brother,” said Jesse calmly and quietly, never taking his eyes off Cater’s.
Cater looked at Jesse with bewilderment. He tried to break the iron grip that clamped his wrist but could only move his elbow up and down. Realizing that moving his hand was futile, Cater got off Harold’s chest and stood up. Jesse immediately let go.
“I ain’t none your damn brother!” shouted Cater with the same baffled look on his face.
But I wouldn’t be surprised if he isn’t Jamo’s brother. Everybody else in class is, I thought.
Jamo walked up to Jesse and bumped him with his chest. This fight didn’t look like it would last long. Although Jesse was as tall as Jamo, maybe taller, he wasn’t nearly as thick, and given Jesse’s propensity to never defend himself, I had already resolved myself to the fact that Jesse would soon look like Harold, maybe worse.
Jesse stuck his hand in the middle of Jamo’s chest, which prompted an amusing smile across Jamo’s face as if Jesse had just signed his own death warrant. Jamo lifted both hands in the air, clasped his fingers together tightly, and came down like a two- handed club on Jesse’s arm. The look on Jamo’s face spoke volumes, for Jesse’s arm did not move. Jesse’s fingers wadded Jamo’s shirt up into a clump and pulled him even closer to his face.
“Enough,” he repeated, but a little louder and backed it with an earnest glare. Jamo looked fiercely into Jesse’s eyes for an eternity—ten full seconds. He stopped his struggling.
Jesse let go of his shirt. Jamo and Cater looked at each other, turned and walked away quietly, alternating confounding glances at one another and throwing occasional shoulder shrugs.
Jesse turned and administered to the same boy, who in the same place, but at another time, had committed a similar assault on him. Harold struggled to his feet with help from Jesse’s hand.
With Jesse on one side and me on the other and with Harold’s arms draped over our shoulders, we helped him totter to the school’s office.
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