No one who had lived through the years of resistance could have been unimpressed by the change. Here was an auditorium with a racially mixed audience anxious, for whatever reason, to hear the thoughts of a black eighteen year old student. There were no hanging effigies, there were no sound trucks or reporters, there were no racist signs whitewashed onto cars parked outside the school. Integration? Desegregation? Meet thy friends? Know thine enemy? It remained to be seen.
BJ was introduced by Principle Pigg, who, as ex-football coach, chose to extol his virtues on the field. But football was not BJ's theme that day.
He began with a personal account of his own experience in moving from I. M. Terrell to Mansfield High -- the daily differences between operating in a majority and in a minority environment. He was hard on academics at Terrell, but used this to broaden his theme beyond the personal:
“The level of Negro education is even lower than the general level, and the general level is low because Americans by and large have so little genuine respect for intellectual effort. I find that here in Mansfield. I find it reflected in the school budget, and in the salaries of teachers vs. coaches. But there is a reason much more powerful than that: the level of Negro education is low because the education of Negroes is designed to perpetuate a segregated society. No matter how much money Mansfield, or Texas, or the South, or America boasts of spending on Negro schools, this underlying reality -- the propagation of inequity -- is utterly demoralizing."
The whites looked at one another; the blacks stared at the speaker.
“Black kids know this -- it’s hard to fool them. They know why they are caged in over-crowded, ramshackle buildings, in classes so large that even the most gifted student has got to slowly suffocate. It is not surprising then that the violent emotions of puberty, occurring in such a cage, take their annual toll, sending our girls into the maternity wards and our boys into the streets and jails. It is not surprising that a young man one day decides that if all his work is going to prepare him only to be a porter or an elevator boy, well, then to hell with it.”
Murmurs in the audience. One black parent mumbled -- publicly -- “Tell ‘em the truth, BJ...”.
“Our parents know this. African-American parents want their kids to get an education which will allow them to escape, and one day abolish the environment in which they see so many children perish.
“Now, I've lived in Mansfield eight years. But since enrolling here -- finally, after being told for those eight years I couldn’t -- I’ve heard a lot about how we’re putting all that Jim Crow behind us. I’ve heard it hopefully from honest, well-meaning people, and resentfully from people who would have it otherwise. But, you know, neither of them has it right. It seems to me white people will face up to our reality only as far as they can face up to their own. And white America has so many things it refuses to face.”
Here he shifted into the portion of his speech suggested by Arnold.
“America is the first society to actually achieve a taboo on anything unpleasant. Dirt? Bad breath? Dandruff? Away with them. In his “Last Word” publication, my team mate Arnold Hitler has pointed out to many of you the vocabulary of oppression and of slaughter. What he hasn’t emphasized, I believe, is that these language games represent a conscious decision to sanitize the unsanitary. Like racism and white supremacy.
“I’ll give you an example. My cousin Phil just came back from Nam, and told me about being on a chopper just outside of Hue. There were two North Vietnamese prisoners, and one said something to the other one, and the second one started to laugh. So the pilot said “Throw him out.” He ordered Phil: "Throw him out." So my cousin just pushed him out the door. Splat. “Might as well throw out the other one, too,” the pilot said, and Phil did. When he got back to base camp, he told his buddies the story, and they assured him it was a normal application of ‘M.G.R.’ -- the ‘mere gook rule’ -- for sub-humans.
Now the M.G.R. doesn’t come from nowhere. As a term, it hides and excuses the inexcusable. It grows out of a culture which hasn’t seen the last of its lynchings and murders. It inherits the cold-bloodedness of a nation built on slavery and extermination of the Indians, our own domestic gooks. When Mr. Griffin published his exposé a few years ago, he was hung in effigy and run out of town -- out of the country, in fact.
“‘But,’ you say, ‘Look at all nastiness that goes on in niggertown.’ And I say that that is the function of niggertown. If we weren’t there, white Americans would have to look into themselves and their own personalities, with all of their own vices, and darkness. Instead, they can look at us, and feel righteous.”
The silence in the room was excruciating, the blacks not daring to express their approval, the whites not daring to express their rage. BJ paused to allowed what he had said to sink in. Then he shifted nimbly, as he did on the field.
“It’s good to be here,” he continued. “I should have said that at the beginning. Normally, you throw and I catch. That’s how we’re bound together. Today, just for a few minutes, I get to throw, and you catch. And if that makes you feel bad, I have to admit that it makes me feel bad, too.
“But I am sustained by knowing that the so-called “Negro Problem” has always been a white problem, a problem of self-fulfilled projection. It has been the peculiar triumph of white society to able to convince those whom it calls inferior of the reality of its decree; white America has the weapons to translate its dictum into fact, so that the allegedly inferior are actually made so.
“I was invited here to explain the purpose of the Black Student Association. The BSA exists to explore the situation of black people here in Mansfield, and in the country at large. And already, in only half a year of meetings and classes we have come to two important conclusions, which I am happy to share with you today.
“First, as we all know, the goal of integration -- not just after dark -- is far more difficult to attain than simple desegregation. We can change the laws and the Jim Crow practices, but changing hearts and minds, changing hearts and minds is far more difficult. Ending the deep racial inequalities that afflict our society and, on a more personal level, fostering brotherly love among all races can only happen in a society of genuine equality. That means political and economic equality as well as social equality. That means equal work opportunities, and equal pay; that means equal standing before the justice system; that means equal treatment by realtors and banks and insurance companies. We are not interested in integration, per se. Black people are not as concerned with how to get along with whites, as with how to get along with their lives. We might make some new friends in the process, we might make even more enemies. But we intend to work for -- and bring to pass -- a system which assures the equal right of all, regardless of race or class, to live as full human beings.
“The other conclusion we have drawn -- and I offer this not as threat, but as suggestion -- the other conclusion is that American whites -- often childishly vindictive and potentially dangerous -- have the choice of becoming human -- or irrelevant.
“Thank you for your attention, and I’ll see you all on Friday night for the seventh Tiger romp of the season!”
The applause was tense: guardedly enthusiastic in black hands, grudgingly polite in white ones. Arnold and Edna began the chant planned to follow the strategic end of BJ’s speech: “GO TIGERS GO!, GO TIGERS GO!, GO TIGERS GO!, the mindless, but somehow enthralling mantra no Mansfieldite could ignore. To not join in this formula of approbation, even after being assaulted, would be tantamount to heresy. So the chanting built towards the hypnotic, and BJ was able to return to his seat under the false mantle of reflex passion. Pavlov could not have planned it better.
The chanting continued at Geyer field as the Tigers faced the Abilene Eagles in their seventh and last home game of the season. A string of victories makes each successive game more manic, the fans more blood-thirsty, the players readier to kill and die. Coach Crews gathered the Tigers in the locker room for the pre-game prayer session.
“Our Lord in Heaven, we thank you for this opportunity to show You our stuff in Your name. We know that by giving us an undefeated season, You’re not just making nicey-nice, but are challenging us to be more than we thought we could be. We know that with your help, we’ll be offering You our thanks -- around Your Birthday -- at State! A-men.”
“Amen,” the boys muttered.
“I can’t hear you!”
“Amen, you said it. Now look, guys, I know this is a tense time for you. The Eagles are six and one, and no pushover. We’ve studied their games; we know who’s who and who can do what. But just having it in your heads will not win a football game. I want you to go out there, and knock the snot out of em!”
The answering roar echoed off the metal lockers.
“There’s nothing that comes easy that’s worth a dime. Matter of fact, I never saw a football player make a tackle with a smile on his face. But that’s your special assignment today. I want you to kill em -- smiling. A big, toothy, frightening smile, right through your face guards. I want you laughing as you knock em down, laughing as you get up off the pile. I want them to never see a smile, or hear a laugh again -- in their entire lives -- without a shiver, remembering this day. Show me your canines!”
The effect was grotesque.
“Now, laugh. More! Louder! Keep those fangs out!”
It’s hard to laugh while baring your canines. Laughter requires a relaxed musculature. But readers who try to do this, will see that two things immediately occur: the face becomes painfully paralyzed in a snarl, and the laughter takes on a demonic quality having nothing to do with humor or release, but more related to the agonies of possession. When a room full of people begins forced laughter, it usually turns into something hilariously genuine, as comic momentum takes over. Not so here. A sweat-stinking, equipment-strewn room of large boys in their underwear, their faces distorted, their throats tense, ejaculating sharp, fierce, rough sounds made even the rusting lockers want to shut their doors in self-defense. Coach Crews felt his own demonstrative grimace fading as he perceived the horror of what he had unleashed.
“All right, that’s enough,” he yelled. It took twenty seconds for diaphragms to stop convulsing, and another thirty, for facial muscles to relax back to pre-icteric state. “I want you to kneel down, here in front of me. Now repeat after me: We gonna match em physical for physical!”
“We gonna match em physical for physical!”
“We gonna be more physical!”
“We gonna be more physical!”
“We gonna smile doin it!”
“We gonna smile doin it!”
“We gonna hit em longer! We gonna hit em harder!”
“We gonna hit em longer! We gonna hit em harder!”
“Four full quarters!”
“Four full quarters!”
“Now get dressed, and get out there and beat the hell out of em! With a smile!
“I cant’ hear you!”
The Coach walked out of the locker room muttering, “Sometimes the only way to win an argument is to shoot the guy.” He did earn his high salary.
Arnold lay down on his back, his shirt pulled up, allowing the contrast between the cool cement and the steamy air become a focus for his pre-game meditation. One-pointedness. Billie Jo had shown him this relaxation technique. Billie Jo. It was hard to keep his mind focused. Where was she right at this moment? Friday night in Oberlin. Did they even have a football team? How could he not know this?
“Pssst. Hey, buddy. I wanna show you something.”
It was BJ, all suited up.
“Another price list for dark meat?”
“No, man. Check this out.”
He handed Arnold a note:
LISTEN NIGGER BOY, IF YOU THINK YOU CAN GET AWAY WITH A SPEECH LIKE THAT, YOU GOT ANOTHER THINK COMING. IF YOU THINK YOU CAN ORGANIZE YOUR BLACK COMMIES TO TAKE OVER MANSFIELD, YOU AND YOUR NIGGER-LOVING FRIENDS ARE SORELY MISTAKEN. Y'ALL WATCH YOUR BALLS. THEY ARE TARGETED.
“Where’d you find this?” he whispered.
“It was in my locker -- stuffed in my goddam helmet. Someone has my combination.”
“Shall we show it to Crews?”
“What if he’s the one who wrote it?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean who else has the locker combinations, man?”
“I don’t know. Anyone in here could have watched you opening the door.”
“You mean you think it’s someone on the team?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh, shit, man, how’m I gonna play this game under friendly fire?”
“Hey, cool down. We don’t know it’s somebody from the team. I just said it could be. It’s probably not.”
“We’ll get together tonight and talk, ok? Let’s just have a good game, all right?”
“Your place at ten?”
Arnold returned to an intensely difficult relaxation.
Maybe Arnold was shaken. Maybe BJ was spooked. Maybe the Tigers were trying too hard to smile through their fangs. For whatever reason, the opening quarter ended with Mansfield behind for the first time in the season. Arnold had completed two out of seven pass attempts, there had been one interception, and BJ had fumbled his one great catch, blowing a drive that seemed headed for scoring. The score was 7-0. Arnold was clearly tense. For one thing, who else but he was one of ‘your nigger-loving friends’? BJ had credited him several times in the speech. His mind dwelled on the particulars of a double lynching. He tried to gather himself, reciting his checklist each time he backpedaled -- Careful now, ... find the touch, ... watch the wrist, watch the wrist... don’t overthrow...” -- but he was off, definitely off. He was being rushed. Where was his line? Could someone be sabotaging? Could it be one of the new blacks, resentful of his being “The Golden Boy”?
At quarter break, Coach Terwilliger gathered the team. “OK, men, this is just to get them off their guards. Now’s the time for sweet redemption. We’re gonna drive them and everything they stand for straight into the snot-ass ground. Right?”
The answering “Right!” seemed slightly shaky.
At halftime, the score stood 7 - 6, Eagles, the Tiger touchdown having come with a brilliant breakthrough and 63 yard run by Jim Featherstone, a new black running back, still a junior. The Hitler-Frame action was stabilizing, but for short hits only. During the dueling of the bands, right guard Darryl Royal was shot up with novacain to be able to continue with a likely broken hand. “Hang tough,” he was told.
One point down. An undefeated team on home territory. When the players burst out on the field for the second half, the crowd, already primed, burst into a frenzy of violent roaring, screaming, whistling, howling and whooping. On a cold Friday night in November, five thousand people seemed to have devolved into animals, with all human dignity thrown aside, to embrace and inspire the pack of high school boys illuminated in the sacrificial arena before them. So deeply were their dreams embedded in these boys, so central were they to the group psyche, the fans were in a collective kamakazi state, ready, if necessary, to self-destruct in glory. Would they applaud a brilliant play on the part of their guests? Never! The gracious muse of Southern Politeness had left Tarrant County for the season.
The Tigers took the kickoff on their own 25 and Featherstone ran it to the Eagles’ 33-yard line. The crowd was stomping, like to break the stands. Arnold took the hike, and dropped back to pass, looking for BJ crossing fast to the right, angling for the end zone. From out of nowhere, there loomed above him “Boomer”, the two hundred forty pound hunk of Texas beef, four inches taller and fifty pounds heavier than he, famous across the state for sacking and hurting opposing quarterbacks. Before he could be smashed, Arnold retracted his arm, faked a turn to the right, spun out to the left, and found a tiny alleyway. With an alert block by Joe Bob Arthur, and some expert interference by Steve Dowden and Wayne Jones, Arnold broke free of the defenders, and out-ran them down the left sideline. “Go, Hitler, go! Go, Hitler, go!” shouted the crowd, and before they could repeat it four times, Arnold hit the endzone, and the delirious crowd hit the roof which was the sky. George Hitler sat in the stands with a lump in his throat and thought how sweet it was to see his boy do that. God dog, can he run!
The intervals had paid off. The sprinting practice, the conditioning, the tireless, pre-class, weight-room workouts with his cheeks bulging and his body vibrating. Even the Saturday morning film sessions, listening to Crews and Terwilliger tear the team apart, critiquing. It all had paid off in this moment: he had single-handedly, in the face of a Boomer-attack, put his team ahead, and blessed the lives of five thousand Mansfield residents, whose whole being depended vicariously on his own. The extra point was good. 13 -7, Mansfield. “Go, Hitler, go!”
Late in the fourth quarter, with a first down at the Eagle 47, Arnold dropped back to pass. He saw flanker Gordon Headlee open, but his touch was too soft, and the ball fluttered, a high fly up for grabs. Interception! His second in the game. The imposter was quickly dumped, but the moment, it turned out, was fatal. With 2:27 left in the game, Don Bradley, the Eagle quarterback, threw the finest pass of his life, a sixty two-yard bomb to his left end, to tie the score, thirteen all, and the extra point was good. In the last two minutes of play, Arnold led a fierce attack from his own thirty yard line. After three successive first downs, between short, successful passing and brutal inching-over pileups, the Tigers were at the Eagle thirty five, third and five. Forty-six seconds on the clock. The cornerback went into motion, Arnold dropped back to pass, hesitated a split second, faked a handoff to the left, and started around the right, angling low for the endzone. This time Boomer was on him, lunging at him high in a full-speed blitz, smashing his enormous bulk down on Arnold’s neck. Force = mass x acceleration. The force was great.
All right. So what? He got trashed. It was part of the game. But what wasn’t part of the game was looking up at his assailant as he lay crumpled on the ground, reaching out for a hand -- a not uncommon collegial courtesy -- and instead staring into the most hateful eyes he had ever seen glowering from the huge face of the would-be murderer towering over him..
“C’mon, you fuckin pussy, get up. You motherfuckin nigger-lover pretty boy, c’mon, let’s see how tough you are. Get up, you prick, you goddam pretty boy, nigger-lovin pussy-prick, Mr. Joe Rah-Rah.” And he spit. The stripe-shirts broke up the venemous staredown, and Boomer spit again, and lumbered away.
Nigger-lover? Nigger-lover? Had the imprecations spread 200 miles to Abilene? Was he to be revenged upon by every porcine racist in Texas high school football? Was the CIA and its goons already on his case? Were the knives already being sharpened? As he struggled to get up, helped by his teammates, he vomited a little on the field. Just a little.
When the whistle blew on their first defeat, the Tigers gathered at the fifty-yard line to pray an altogether different petition from the prideful locker room thank-You of two hours earlier. Coach Crews washed the boys in the waters of Babylon, as they wept their impotence in the strange land of defeat. The passer and the receiver had much to talk about that night.
When BJ got home, he was the first to discover the four slashed tires on the family car.
©2002 by Marc Estrin
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