The summer of '75.
The country was still reeling from the previous few year's Watergate scandal.
Muhammad Ali was still the Heavyweight Champion of the World.
All you heard on the radio was "Love Will Keep Us Together" by The Captain And Tennille, "Shining Star" by Earth, Wind And Fire and "Philadelphia Freedom" by Elton John........
Moviegoers flocked to see Jaws, Dog Day Afternoon & One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest.
Haile Selassie passed on.
The World Trade Center had now been accepted as a permanent fixture to the New York City skyline even though it had been there for years.
The world was a different place. For me, I can remember this to be a very special time. A time to absorb so much of the energy around me. The happenings and events of my life in those simpler times have left an indelible mark on my psyche. As many would say it; “Those times made me who I am today.”
My parents always had tremendous foresight in exposing me to many things. I thank them so much for that. But even in a perfect world the things that cross your path may not be what was planned in the overall scheme of things. But looking back now, it can be viewed and accepted as an inevitability.
In the summer of 1975, I returned for the second year to a summer camp that was so enriching to my childhood experience. It was a seven week stretch from the New York inner city and a completely different world. For a young man-child of 12, seven weeks away from your family and local friends could also seem like an eternity.
My father through his business connections had a chance to forge some personal friendships with some very affluent individuals and this afforded me the opportunity to go to the North Country School “Camp Treetops”summer program without my parents paying a dime. There were hundreds of children there from all over the country and a few from foreign lands. Most of them were spoiled little brats who came from families who owned big companies, were politicians or had some high profile background.All about eleven and twelve years old. Out of them all, three or four were black.
It was amazing to mix amongst people my age who thought so differently. Things that were a big concern for my friends back home in the city were not even on the scope of these new peers of mine in the summer camp. These kids had similar issues like any young man or young lady at that age, but it was interesting to hear about investing, traveling and other diverse activities that we who come from the inner city only see on the television set. What I learned especially was how those youngsters could not conceptualize my reality but I could embrace their mindset so much faster.
Later in life I began to understand how we as black people in order to survive in America, HAVE to know well the so called mainstream culture, we have our way of communicating with each other at home and in our inner circles. This unique way of communicating oftentimes gets left at the door with our coats and umbrellas. But even in the company of white co-workers who don’t have a clue no matter how hard they try, they just aren’t equipped to decipher those quick glances, loaded expressions and subtle tilts of the head while speaking that convey so much more than words could ever share.
But yet and still, the experience was edifying to my life, it was also a place that breathed life into what I had been protected from for so long but had to stand and deal with it face to face with no one to help me. I was so far away from home so I can’t blame anyone but it was the way things presented themselves. What am I talking about you say? I am speaking about one of my earliest, obvious encounters with this thing called racism….
His name was Jim Pugh, I will never forget this name. This was his real name and he was a counselor at the camp. I remember hearing his name for the first time and thinking that “PEW” meant that something stunk. I should have known. Because he did. Not as far as an aggressive nasal assault, but in the content of his character. I must say one thing publicly to him and I really don’t care who knows: “Wherever you are and whenever I see you Mr. Pugh, I am going to thoroughly kick your ass! Take as many pictures now while you have your teeth and blemish free skin. Read all of the books you can and check out all of the girls booties in tight jeans you can at the shopping mall. Why? Because I am going to kick your teeth out, scar you up and leave you blind for life. Case closed.
Going into my second year at Camp Treetops, I kind of knew what to expect. The horseback riding, the mountain hiking trips, the artistic activities and nature walks were all things that I looked forward to after a year of being away. I didn’t see color. I knew that the others looked different and lived differently from I, but I was about to have inflicted on me the cruelest realization of the worst kind.
Mr. Jim Pugh. A very tall, thick and intimidating white man in his early thirties with a subtle anti social demeanor. Clean shaven with very small mouse like eyes behind a pair of thick goggle looking spectacles that even Dr. Cyclops would be too proud to wear! He was always in these khaki colored shorts, whether it was because he wore only one pair all the time or had many pairs of the same color. Not to get off the subject but I must ask to all white guys out there, is that a mandatory color that one must have as far as pants are concerned to maintain you being an official WHITE MAN card carrying member? Just asking.
Mr. Pugh was a “floating counselor”, he wasn’t assigned to any one area (We were all in groups of four) but would fill in, as many counselors would find themselves out on field trips that would leave their position open and needing to be filled. Because of this, Jim Pugh didn’t have the close bond with the youngsters because he was never in an area too long to get to know anyone. I think he liked it this way. Anyway, I began to notice how at mealtime, whether it was breakfast, lunch or dinner, how he was always staring so hard in my general direction. When I would then look his way, he would look the other way. Also, during the days walking along to different activities I noticed a few times that when I spoke to Mr. Pugh in a respectful manner and greeting, he would never speak back. When other counselors where present, I would get the Cheshire cat smile from hell. Something was definitely up with him.
Well I found out what he was all about! Early one morning, while enjoying breakfast, Jim Pugh was assigned to my group and had to ensure for the most part that we consumed an ample amount of our breakfast. That seemed fair to me. But there was one type of cereal that the camp served that particular morning that turned my stomach. They had a nick name for it but I have long forgotten it. The other counselors knew the effect this dish had on me and allowed me to eat a larger amount of the other offerings the kitchen had on their menu.
Not Jim Pugh! He instructed me at that moment that I would sit there all day long until I ate the very food that made me sick. Looking back, this man in my estimation had some major issues going on in his life and looked more demented as he nervously smiled with the other adults in the kitchen as he discreetly possessed me in his reign of terror. I was upset but held it in. I knew what my father told me about speaking up for myself. But it was always easy when he was near ’cause I knew he had my back. But here I am, 12 years old so far upstate in New York up in the Adirondack mountains near the Canadian border!
I told him that I could not finish the food as it made me sick. He told me I had NO choice in the matter and would have to do what he said or face the consequences. I got mad and felt that first rush when you finally experience what racism is all about. When he looked me in my eyes, his deranged and twisted expressions of pseudo authority frightened me because he sure appeared in his spirit to be a Klansman or Nazi Supremacist. He didn’t know me well but HATED me! Why? What did I do to him? Now I understand his staring at me like he wanted to kill me. I was scared, hurt and very confused. Why would a counselor feel this way about me? I checked myself in my own innocent way. Did I do something that I wasn’t supposed to do? Was I bad? All I could think of was my father and mother! GET ME OUT OF HERE!
Three hours later, as the other kids went on to their other activities and would occasionally poke their heads through the door to see if I was still there, I sat watching this dried nasty cereal that I definitely wasn’t going to eat now after three flies set up shop in it. I wondered, “Where are the other counselors? Were they in on this? Maybe it’s a big joke? It wasn’t. I couldn’t wait to write to my parents or call to tell them what was going on. I know my crazy militant muscular hard working Jamaican Daddy would have torn Jim Pugh to pieces when he finds out.
Well, Jim Pugh was very annoyed at my stubborn determination and couldn’t legally justify me sitting straight through to lunchtime when the others arrived. I won. But did I? Mr. Pugh ordered me to get up from the table and told me to walk out in the open field so he could have a stern talk with me. Again, my thoughts raced….”What did I do?” “What does he have to say?”
I remember hearing in the barber shop from the old men getting their hair cut the tales they shared about how evil white people can be toward blacks. My father raised me to be respectful of everyone but told me that in time he would explain why things are the way they are in the world. But the stories the old men shared resurfaced so quickly: “Don’t let them catch you talking with their women young man, they don’t like that even though they can come to our neighborhood and honk at our women!” Hence, the word “Honkie”, which came from the white men who came to the black neighborhoods to pick up black prostitutes.
The problem was that they didn’t know who was “selling” or just passing through because of the naturally voluptuous shapes the majority of the black woman possessed. So they would “HONK” at every black woman they encountered, looking foolish and broadcasting their intentions to the world. I also heard of the beatings that cops would give to innocent black men and the dirty deeds that were constantly inflicted on our community. Now, I was about to get my first taste.
Lance!….Jim Pugh firmly said. Yes! I uttered with all of the strength I could muster in a way my father would be proud of. “Lance, I’ve been watching you for a long time. I think you are an intelligent young man who happens to be very different from all of the the other coloreds that I have ever met. Coloreds? I thought to myself. That was played out! Wasn’t that the word they called us before we were negroes? Aren’t we Afro-Americans now? I mean, something didn’t feel right about the way he said it. Especially since he was not a country bunkin hick inbred trailer park livin’ kind of white man. He was from a big city (I heard) too and knew better.
“Lance! You walk around here like you are a baby superman. While having confidence is a good thing, you need to know your place. You read awfully too much! Everytime I see you, you are reading or asking questions about how things work. You are wasting your time doing this because you are made to work hard physically. Haven’t you wondered why many negro ( Oh aren’t we making progress, we are negroes now) men have more muscles than us white men?” Look at sports, have you ever wondered why they dominate all of the sports they get into? It’s because they are made to labor for us. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just the way things are supposed to be. I am just trying to be your friend and show you some things so you don’t waste your time in life.”
He continues: “Most negroes are good at basketball and can jump very high. You ever notice that Lance? They can jump higher because they have an extra bone in their legs that help them to jump higher than whites. But it’s because of that same bone that slows them down when they try to swim faster than whites. They will always lose to us in swimming. So swimming is something you wouldn’t even want to try in your life.”
I thought to myself,”What in the heck is this man telling me? If he had to confidence to speak to me this way, he would really feel confident to speak to other whites this way! And if they were “good” whites who hate racism, why wouldn’t they have denounced him or corrected him? Evidently he has been doing this for a long long time!” Well, I am quite sure that Mr. Pugh was not prepared for what happened after his helpful little “guidance speech” to this young impressionable “threat” of a uppity smart mouthed black boy!
I guess it’s comparable to a gardener pulling up a weed when it’s small and young before it grows to become a problem to the total garden. You know how those weeds can be, they tend to mess things up for the more desirable flowers!
I told Mr. Pugh that “my Father taught me that we are the original people of the earth and that all of civilization as we know it came from us!” I will NEVER in my life forget the snarled teeth gritting expression that this evil mans face displayed. It was like all of the anger that one feels in a lifetime came out in one short moment. If he could have killed me for saying such a thing and gotten away with it, he would have.
I followed up with some jive talk that I heard growing up in New York and could imagine now how funny it sounded now that I think back on it: “You don’t know me devil! You ain’t makin’ no Emmit Till out of me! I will get all of the Black Panthers up here to come and beat you up real bad!” I even threatened to have my Father beat him up once I told him what he said to me!
I called home and had my parents arranged to have me come home earlier than scheduled. I do remember receiving a written letter of apology from the camp and I also remember the other counselors whispering how quickly Jim Pugh left the campsite after getting a very direct phone call from my Father.
I hated the way all of this felt and did not know that I would be fighting the spirit of Jim Pugh for the rest of my life. My eyes were now opened. The innocence that buffered me from the times of turmoil in the world were now vanished! Comic books now lost their appeal to me and newspapers took their place. Anything that had to do with escapism and frivilous so called entertainment was a waste of time as I had no feeling to watch anything on television that didn’t pertain to what was reality.
And looking back it was for the better. Many felt that something had died within me. No. Something was born. And I liked it. I gravitated toward the black bookstores in Harlem and Brooklyn as the years went by. I soaked up knowledge from many sources the older wiser men who survived the truly rough times growing up in the south, The Nation Of Islam, The Five Percent Nation, The Hebrew Israelites, The Rastafarians, The Black Liberation Army and Black Panthers. I used it as a template and a gauge to what was going on around me. I learned not to accept what others had told me about the world without testing it firsthand for myself and how it pertains to me. I saw how this racist media permeates the thinking of the young black mind through these television programs, cartoons and comic books.
I refused to allow my mind to be invaded without taking total control of what goes inside of it from a very young age. Thank God for Mr. Jim Pugh. His very presence in my young life gave me a “heads up” for the definite battles to come. And I look forward to fighting, killing and destroying the mind of satan everyday of my life.