Thursday, January 21, 2016

WHITE FOLK'S STORE (An excerpt from Dear Jeff, a memoir of civil rights and cross racial adoption)

             For a year now we have been blessed (or cursed in the opinion of some neighbors) with a humongous new Safeway at the corner of College and Claremont in Oakland.  Back in the seventies, when I was living in south Berkeley on Oak Knoll Terrace, we did most all of our grocery shopping at the old version of the Safeway, which was torn down and replaced by the giant one.  In those days, my then wife Judy had her law office a mile north on College Ave, in the Elmwood District of Berkeley.  Often she would shop for dinner fixings at the Safeway on her way home. Back then, Rockridge was 99% white and patronage at the Safeway reflected the white demographic. Our adopted African American son Jeff and one of his black friends happened to come in to the Safeway one afternoon as Judy was in line waiting to check out her purchases. The following occurred.

          As Judy waited in the crowded checkout line, Jeff and his friend suddenly appeared. Jeff was 17 years old at the time, sporting a huge afro and wearing his favorite Members jacket. Judy had been at work and was in her professional lawyer-look outfit. As Jeff approached her, Judy turned and said in a loud, hostile voice,

       “What are you doing here, boy? This is a white folks’ store.”

       “You dissing me, old lady?” Jeff replied, equally as loud.

Everyone heard. Everyone froze in place. Conversations were cut in mid-sentence. The clerks stopped ringing up purchases. Fear and tension filled the store, as some twenty or thirty persons plotted their escape routes but dared not move, torn between flight and curiosity over what in the world was about to happen.
Jeff and his Mom locked mean looking stares. Half a minute passed;  it seemed like an eternity. Tension grew.  Judy and Jeff  felt the frightened stares of clerks and customers focussed upon them. They enjoyed the attention they had attracted. Soon Judy could not suppress the smile that spread over here face.

        She broke into laughter.  Jeff’s laugh joined in.

       “Hi, Mom!”

“Give me a hug, Jeff,” Judy replied, opening her arms and wrapping Jeff  in a big squeeze.

How I wish I could have been there to see that moment. To see the shoppers and clerks consumed by fear and tension and then watch the tension drain from their bodies as they relaxed in relief.

        What fun!

        Of course, in this day and age, such jesting would be politically verboten—not only verboten, but dangerous--totally unacceptable to engage in a mock racial confrontation, even between a loving mother and son.

        Nowadays there is simply too much real racial tension and confrontation to dare make a joke of it.   It's simply not a joking matter.

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