Charles Bane, Jr. reflects on how the strong but sturdy hand of a woman guided him to manhood during hard times for his family.
I was extremely ill throughout my childhood. I never write about it or mention it to anyone besides my wife, because I have no interest in drama. The rules surrounding children in most homes, for me, were lax. But that is not to say I was not surrounded by a vigorous, strictly demanding intellectual climate. My father had won a scholarship to the University of Chicago, a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, and law degree from Harvard. My mother was graceful, very beautiful and an adornment to his life which she refined. But she was not interested in being my father’s intellectual companion, and had no interest in her children. She lived in a social whirl.
My father hired a domestic black servant named Almeda Cruz. African Americans smile at the relationship between the two cultures, knowing that many white people who boast that “Harriet is practically one of the family” are unaware that they were often secretly loathed by the African Americans they employed.
This was not so for Almeda Cruz, whose commitment to the advance of civil rights was open and militant. She was determined to ensure I survived, and meet a standard of right living of which many white children are strangers.
She plied me with “Negro” folk remedies; she beat my backside with a wooden paint mixer. She taught me that right demanded courage, and wrong made you less of a man. She taught my father also and the two spoke often, alone. When his friends accused Paul Robeson of being a communist, my father snapped that in Moscow, a black man could travel safely, eat and lodge where he pleased, and that no hypocritical allegiance to Russia was demanded of Robeson while denying him the basic freedoms of a citizen. Under Nixon, my father, by now well-known, was audited.
My father and I went for long walks in every weather of Chicago, and I quickly understood that I was, however young, his confidante. This, and the demands on my character by Almeda were an authentic remedy to illness. My father had the ear of Otto Kerner, then Governor of Illinois, who had been tasked by Lyndon Johnson with creating a commission and report to explain the race riots of 1967. The Kerner Report declared that white and Black America lived lives separate and unequal, and that the root cause of the riots were inequities in employment, housing and education. Lyndon Johnson was infuriated but in the report I heard the peals of my father and the firm voice of Almeda, insistent and persuasive, her head cocked, talking to my father.
Today marks Almeda Cruz’s birthday. In my thirties, grown well in Florida’s sunshine and fresh air, I sent her clippings of my activities in the minority community, the threats I experienced and the victories, many small, I secured. She scrawled back, “Now you are a man.” Happy birthday, my beloved.
Photo Credit: focus2capture/Flickr