Bring me all of your dreams,
Bring me all your
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers
Of the world.
Langston Hughes, "The Dream Keeper"
It was 1968 in my middle-class neighborhood in New York City, and a friend of mine was at the door. We were both thirteen years old. I stared at him through the screen as he stood on the steps and looked up at me.
"The niggers are rioting up on Linden Boulevard. You wanna go see?"
He was an Irish kid—everyone I knew was an Italian kid, an Irish kid, or a Polish kid. The family next door was Irish. Their old man was a New York City cop. Across the street was a family with thirteen children. They were Irish. Their father was a New York City garbage man. My third-grade teacher and her kids lived across the street from me. They were Italian. One of my best friends lived up the block. He was Polish. He and I used to ride our bikes in ever-widening circles outside our blocks. We would brush up against the St. Albans neighborhood—where Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, W. E. B. Dubois, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Count Basie, Floyd Patterson, Fats Waller, and Ella Fitzgerald had lived. That place was where the "coloreds" lived—and most people I knew used the word "Jonesies" to describe black people. My aunt told us, one day, that James Brown lived in St. Albans. We would drive our 1960 Pontiac Ventura by his house on Linden Boulevard. His place looked like a castle with a turret, and we would wait to see whether it was true that he would come out front to hand out dollar bills to anyone who walked by. I also used to ride my bike to the nearby New York City Public Library branch, pedaling past the Mafia men in training who were hanging out in front of the basement pool hall and the pizza-by-the-slice places and the candy-cigarette-newspaper store run by a Jewish guy named Jack. The badass girl group called the Shangri-Las came from my neighborhood. One of my brothers, the story goes, dated one of them. They sang that anthem "Leader of the Pack." I used to watch the guys in front of the pool hall carefully as I made my way to the library.
One day, I spun a revolving rack of paperback books and came across a collection of poems by Ogden Nash. I liked it. They were fun, snappy, and they seemed to suggest something important, without really being all that . . . important. And I looked for other books that had short poems. I found a paperback by someone named Langston Hughes. How and why it was in this library had to be a testimony to a few things—the enlightened mind of the person running the place and, perhaps, a nod to the fact that things were changing damned fast. It was the sweeping era of white flight in New York. A twitchy something was out there—a mad distrust, and the thinnest veneer being put on impulsive evils and tendencies, as if people I knew had thrown a little jacket over their hatreds, barely concealing them, barely containing them. The middle-class, soigné assumptions were like old parchment on fire, pieces of some sort of bourgeois contentment, some sense of order and history and routine, just catching fire on the edges. Like paper slowly burning and the words, the certitudes becoming evanescent.
My father, I know, would have died if he had known I had found some holy texts in the paperback rack at the goddamned library. He was raised in Italy, he used to talk about being hated by white people when he finally settled in the United States—and he and my mother still sometimes talked in Italian about "the American people." And they were consumed, eaten alive, by the idea that whatever it was they had settled into in this part of America was crumbling. The niggers were up on the boulevard. And as if I were doing something criminal, I kept coming back to read Hughes, and it was like hearing, feeling music: "I could take the Harlem night and wrap around you, / Take the neon lights and make a crown." Like hearing something that had been deliberately locked away, buried behind cement, steel, cold things. It was like some secret flavored syrup: "Take the Lenox Avenue busses / Taxis, subways / And for your love song tone their rumble down."
It was like summoning smoke, something over there that you had to at least pursue, even if you had no damned clue—and would never have a clear understanding. It called up so many nameless things, things outside my ken, my abilities: whispers, silk brushing against silk, the ominous clanking of chains, bittersweet dreams, aches, and stolen pleasures. I felt as if I shouldn't be reading it at all. As if I should look over my shoulder: "Take Harlem's heartbeat / Make a drumbeat / Put it on a record, let it whirl / And while we listen to it play, / Dance with you till day."
The kid on my front porch was impatient. I had been reading Langston Hughes. The kid was on the lower step, looking up at me. Through the screen on the door, his face looked like some perfectly ordered, mathematically constructed cobweb. I used to dream, looking out that door screen when it rained, and watch the way each little square filled with water, blurring the outside world.
"C'mon, do you want to go see the niggers?"
Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated, and people had gone to Linden Boulevard in my changing, white-flight neighborhood, moving east from James Brown's house, from where W. E. B. Dubois had lived, from where the prophet John Coltrane had lived. No, I didn't want to go the boulevard. What would I see, what would I ever know?
When I went to college, I lived in a part of New York some people called White Harlem. I walked north a few blocks to 125th Street and strolled around by the Apollo Theater. I went to the reopened Cotton Club. Langston Hughes had gone to my college for a while, until racism drove him away, until he began spending more time being interested in 125th Street, in all the streets of Harlem. I took a job monitoring free-food programs for the United States Department of Agriculture—and I would go to the World Trade Center offices of the USDA and get a list of churches, schools, and community centers in Harlem and the South Bronx and East New York. I would go to those places, day in and day out, to make sure that children—almost all of them black—were getting a "super doughnut" (one injected with vitamins), which the government was handing out. It was a more elemental education than the one I was getting at my Ivy League university in Manhattan. I took long subway rides, the only white face on the crappy, bleak trains, and exited at stops I didn't know existed. I slowly walked up flights of subway steps and headed to the street, holding my breath, steeling myself against some fear and an abject, dizzying sense of entering some place that I shouldn't be in—because I would die, because I would be chased, because I would have to admit, on my damned knees, that I had no clue and would have to explain the millstone from a lifetime of inherited things.
I walked for blocks and blocks through a 1970s New York City that had been reduced to postwar rubble. Buildings with wings, floors amputated. Dozens of them in a sort of bombed, Dresden slouch. Some were cracked open, with walls exposed, as if you were looking inside a scorched dollhouse left behind in the ruins of an inferno. And when I walked by, inside the falling buildings all over East New York or Brownsville, I would suddenly see a child standing up, dressing, and staring into a mirror. An adult would appear, look through the dangling wires of the apartment building, and guide the child outside. The free-lunch man was coming. And it was time to leave this abandoned place, this place that should have been torn down, this place desperate people had decided to pretend was really a functioning home. In some parts of New York, some bureaucrat ordered landlords to paint windows on some of these condemned buildings. Some trompe l'oeil, pretend reality. So if you were walking by or driving by, the building wouldn't look abandoned. Fake windows with fake potted plants sitting under fake window shades, all painted in Easter-egg blue and red. I went to East Harlem and tried to fathom where my family's immigrant roots fit in, where the old Italian neighborhood in Harlem had gone. Langston Hughes had helped define the Harlem Renaissance, he had been all over this place: "The night is beautiful, / So the faces of my people. / The stars are beautiful, / So the eyes of my people."
And I sat by myself when I went to see Big Joe Turner in a club one night, and he leaned against a stool and paused before he began to sing. He was still large, still a commanding presence, but he looked as if he were posing for his final studio portrait, the sepia-toned legacy photograph, and it happened to be in this room, one like a million rooms from Kansas City to New Orleans, and his head was crowned by yet another undulating halo of cigarette smoke. If he had slowly drifted right up through the smoke and disappeared that night, transported by both his immense dignity and his profound weariness, I would not have been surprised.
On a summer break, I took a Greyhound to New Orleans and lived for a few weeks in a motel near the highway. I walked some streets near Congo Square, walked down Canal, and got lost well beyond the geography, never feeling so alone. Back in New York, I wrote something about the Cotton Club. I wrote about a sad family in Harlem whose daughter had been killed in the apartment building they lived in—and I never understood why they let me into their living room, why they opened the door. At night, I sat on a rooftop on an old building on Morningside Drive and looked down the hill, down into Morningside Park, into Harlem. There were fires, sometimes, and there was action on East 116th Street. And I thought long and hard about the fact that on my first day in the Ivy League there was an announcement—that you better not miss your subway stop, that you better not get off the subway in Harlem.
In the late '70s, I moved to Texas to work at a newspaper in Abilene—the only paper in the world with a quotation adapted from Lord Byron's Don Juan as its slogan: "Without or with offense to friends or foes, we sketch your world exactly as it goes." I ate my first barbecue at the wonderful Turnerhill's—and the nice man who ran the place told me there was an interesting black presence in the city. Walking around one day, I found a record store called Brother's in that small zone that was clearly the black neighborhood. Abilene wasn't really that different, it seemed, from where I grew up in New York City. There were boundaries, real and imagined. I really wouldn't understand until later (and this was addressed in a good book by the writer Lolis Eric Elie called Smokestack Lightning) that barbecue in Texas, in the South, could actually sometimes serve as the great equalizer, the palliative. The smoke was some sort of healing incense that drew people of different colors together.
A year later I moved to San Antonio and spent a growing amount of time visiting the East Side. Tucker's Kozy Korner, which identifies itself as the oldest African American bar in Texas. The Web Lounge, where jazz and blues guys in the air force would jam with Clifford Scott, Spot Barnett, Jitterbug Webb, Rocky Morales, and the local gods and goddesses. There were the Cameo Theater, where Louis Armstrong played, Johnnie Phillips's Eastwood Country Club, the San Antonio Black Sox baseball team, the Carver Center, Inman's barber shop, the influential Sutton family. I walked the cemeteries on the East Side, walked along East Houston and East Commerce, by the grand homes on Dignowity Hill. At night, with the sun finally setting in August, I played basketball for hours at a park on a near East Side hill that felt like a good place for a stranger to feel elevated. Walking downtown one day, I found a poster nailed to a wooden building—it was for a long-since-gone Bobby "Blue" Bland concert at the Eastwood Country Club. I took it down and kept it until the day I was able to have Bland sign it for me. I drove my motorcycle, more and more, all over the East Side. It felt like New Orleans to me—drooping wooden buildings, vine-covered alleys, churches that tilted toward the street but that seemed to vibrate when you went by them on Sunday morning. Time had stood still—in good and bad ways. It was whatever comes well beyond bittersweet. Slice off the rest of San Antonio, and the East Side would have been what it was, what it was forced to be, what it sometimes aspired to be—a world, a self-contained universe, unto itself. You knew you had entered it. You knew you had left it. One day I was walking on the East Side again, and there was a blues mural up on a crumbling wall—some holdover from a show, a nightclub, some folk-art-like painting that someone had done that showed a woman on a phone telling someone to come on over. I asked a friend to take my picture next to it.
At night, I parked my car downtown and walked by the mysteriously potent Aztec Theater, the place that had a replica of a sacrificial altar inside. I would hang out in the pinball parlor on the corner, drink at the Esquire, and walk east. If I were lucky, the legendary George "Bongo Joe" Coleman would be out on Commerce Street near the river, setting up his big oil drums and then playing, rapping before jumping on his moped, a fez on his head, and zooming somewhere. And the East Side was just a few more blocks away, cut off, like most black neighborhoods in Texas, by the railroad tracks, by the highways.
A few years later, I moved to Houston—one of Samuel Maverick's descendants in San Antonio told me I would like it because it was the closest thing to New York in Texas. The way he said it suggested that I would find something there. I moved into a falling-down house across from the Fourth Ward, a dense collection of narrow alleys, shotgun shacks, poverty, and neglect. And I knew, from the days I walked and drove through that sad, neglected city within a city, that there was no doubt nothing like the Fourth Ward in America. Sitting in the un-air-conditioned This Is It soul-food emporium one 100-plus-degree day, looking at a black-and-white TV with tinfoil for an antenna, my head matted with sweat, I felt—maybe—that I was going to die. Smothered by the humidity, by the things pressing down. The cultural claustrophobia. It reminded me of the souks I had visited in Morocco, where you went deeper until you had no sense of direction and everything linear was turned feverishly serpentine. It was like being buried alive. The entire zone, all of the Fourth Ward, was clearly a plaything for the city's rulers, and they were hovering, far away, looking down at it. Too many things, too many people, had conspired to create the Fourth Ward as it existed right then. One day I watched a parade moving from the Fourth Ward and under the roaring highways that had dissected and exiled the area—the marchers, dressed in Sunday best, were headed to a church downtown, headed to the Antioch Baptist Church, which the powers that be had tried to cut off with their highway projects. Isolate the people from their church—if you can't burn the church down—and the community will shrivel and die. In the Fourth Ward, people walked to their church even if they had to walk miles in the brutal heat.
A smiling woman named Gladys took me one day to see the Houston hanging tree outside the cemetery reserved for the city founders—and to see the nearby hidden cemetery, forgotten in the trashed-out lots, where the first black men in Houston were buried. I also met Earlie Hudnall, one of Texas's most important photographers, and we walked together down Lyons Avenue—once a vital artery for African Americans in the Fifth Ward. I went back and forth on Lyons for weeks on end. And it was like walking up the subway steps. Dread, anticipation, not knowing, and then seeing a pile of tombstone rubble alongside an old rotting building . . . pieces of pale gray tombstones piled up like Indian oyster middens on a barrier island in far south Louisiana. And that time, Juke Boy Bonner, the soulful poet and bluesman, was inside my head, talking about "staying off Lyons Avenue": "Cause if you go there green, / Somewhere down near Jensen'll be the last time you'll be seen."
And I read Lorenzo Thomas's poetry and heard him talk about black Houston, about how he tried to save Lyons Avenue, make it a place for arts and culture and a renaissance—but that things, well, got complicated. And we talked, late some nights, at that rickety apartment I lived in across from the Fourth Ward. He was hip, he was laughing, he was absorbed with the musicality of poetry, the raw blues and hard jazz of Houston, and I wondered what he thought about the fact that the brother of a famous Texas bluesman—a sweet-faced angel of the blues, an elegant purveyor of whiskey dreams—had slipped into my bathroom and was selling lines of coke. One time, some people I knew were looking for some drugs, and someone at a Houston blues club told them about another man to see. That man said he "had to go into The Alley" and he pulled out a gun, tucked into his waist, and came back a long hour later. In Houston, Thomas made me think hard about the maybe obvious crossroads between street-level blues and poetry—it was what Langston Hughes had rendered so eloquently. Both poets had their ear to the ground, so close to the bottom.
Allen Ginsberg came to spend some time in Houston, and I was his guide when he wanted to hear some Texas blues. He had just put out an album of spoken, improvised blues. I went to pick him up at the bungalow that he had been given to live in at Rice University. When I knocked on his door, there was this jumbled, scary grunting, huffing, panting, and then a "MOTHERFUCKING GOD-DAMN HOLY HELL MOTHERFUCKER" scream came from inside. I feared the worst. I knew a little about Ginsberg, and I had been obsessed by him for a while. In college, I had moved into the building he had lived in, in the building where he and Jack Kerouac had hung out. I went to the bars they had gone to. And when his bungalow door finally opened in Houston, he was in his underwear, sweat dripping into his beard, his eyes glazed over, and his glasses tilted on his face. I hoped to God there wasn't an undergrad in the room.
"I just passed a kidney stone," Ginsberg said.
He laughed, got dressed, and said he really did want to hear some Houston blues. We headed for a place called The Groovy Grill and listened to a trio play Jimmy Smith chicken-shack jazz-blues. Ginsberg was happy. He had a bag with him at all times, like an old-fashioned doctor's medical bag, and in it were books. He would listen to something someone played, something someone said, and he would reach into his bag and pull out a book and read out loud. He liked The Groovy Grill. He seemed to like Texas blues.
Another day when I was on Lyons Avenue, I was hoping to make it all the way to the tasty Lockwood Inn, where Joe Semien made his barbecue. Some people called the Fifth Ward by its nickname, the "Bloody Nickel." Juke Boy said: "It's a struggle here in Houston, man, just to stay alive." I stopped in the hoodoo-mojo store called Stanley's House of Power on Lyons to buy knobby brown John the Conqueror roots, "goofer" dust collected from cemeteries, nails yanked out of old coffins, and to watch people write down their wishes-to-be on scraps of paper and slide them under some burning black candles in a back room. The day I was there, the guy who owned the place had put a Frank Sinatra album on a turntable. That was unsettling, and it made me think of how many times we had listened to Sinatra in our home in New York, as if Sinatra could provide an aural firewall that would cloister us against the niggers, the Jonesies, the coloreds, even Langston Hughes. When everything else seemed closed, shut down, boarded-up on Lyons, Stanley's House of Power was bursting with people whose bad and good intentions were painted on their faces like hopeful rouge.
I went to Mary's Place on Lyons, where a tabletop fan blew stale air and a jukebox played blues. I went to The Branding Stable, where I watched Little Milton recline like a blues maharajah on a couch with a well-dressed woman on either side of him. At the Club LaVeek, on Blodgett Street, guitar player Johnny "Clyde" Copeland would go from table to table. At a mysterious house down the block, men in suits were constantly walking in and out and arm in arm with laughing women in tight dresses. There was Garcia's, a humble little club where Albert Collins and the musicians from Ray Charles's band would gather when they were off the road. And I would walk down Elysian Fields, down the blocks where I had gone to talk to the ethereal saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders (he had exiled himself to Houston for a while, trying to get his act together, he said), to talk to the dignified singer Peppermint Harris, to talk to the massively intellectual jazzman Arnett Cobb, to talk to the manic bluesman Big Walter Price, and to talk to an old man who still played the bones—ham bones. I went to look for the ghosts at the El Dorado Ballroom, at Elgin and Dowling, where Duke Ellington had played. And I looked for them on Erastus Street, where the hustling kingmaker, player, promoter, and producer Don Robey ran The Bronze Peacock club. I believed Juke Boy, more than ever before, when he said: "This city's full of slickers, boy, so you better know what you're doin'. / 'Cause you know Houston—that's the action town."
After two years in Houston, I felt something emerging: almost every rural and urban racial puzzle in Texas could be seen through the filter of Houston—not necessarily understood, but it was a place to start. It was where people fled to, where people made a stand, where people were exiled to, where people grappled for some small inch of the gilded tent. The jazz and blues musicians talked to me, but I really didn't hear them the way I should have. Cobb and bandleader Milt Larkin, and people who weren't really from there but were defined by Houston, who really knew Houston and what it meant to African Americans around the nation—Johnny Otis, Etta James. In the back lot of JB's Entertainment Center, I sat on Bobby Bland's tour bus, and I had the feeling he was wondering why I kept appearing at every club he played in the state. He talked about Houston, about Texas, about how, as T-Bone Walker, said "the hustle is always on." Houston was close to New York in that way. And in the end, I listened to that city's forgotten Hop Wilson, and I wanted to believe his hopeful prayer about getting to move to that metaphoric Sugar Hill, about moving across the river, about just staying alive. His words could have been written by Langston Hughes: "I done got over, well, I done got over, well I done got over . . . done got over at last."
One time in Houston I was talking with Jean-Baptiste "Illinois" Jacquet, who is credited with one of the greatest sax solos ever recorded (on "Flying Home"). We figured out he was now living very close to my old house in New York, and I was living very close to where he had grown up in Houston. I didn't tell him that we had fled the niggers, that I had tried to comprehend Langston Hughes, that I had driven by James Brown's house to see whether he was giving money away. For a while, Jacquet put me on his Christmas-card list.
I began to "specialize" in stories about African American culture, people, history, politics. Not that I knew anything—but because, to me, there was no one else doing anything. When I worked in Abilene, there was one black journalist. When I worked in San Antonio, there was a black photographer and a black sportswriter. In Houston and Dallas, it was pretty much the same. There were precious few "minority" reporters. In Dallas, I remember being struck, right after I arrived in 1983, that there was something called a South Dallas Bureau—as if that part of town were a foreign country. The woman who ran the bureau was a legend in the black community—and rightly so.
I spent a dozen years in Dallas, and early on, I walked on old Forest Avenue—some people said it was named after the Confederate general, Nathan Bedford Forrest, who massacred 300 black prisoners after the surrender of Ft. Pillow in 1864 and later helped found the Ku Klux Klan. Dallas was once the national headquarters for the Klan. That much I knew. And Forest Avenue eventually became Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.
I stopped in a dry-cleaning store that had an intriguing name—Baccus. The owner, Jasper Baccus, chased me down the street in the direction of the fine old home where Stanley Marcus—who ran Neiman Marcus—had grown up before all the white families moved out of South Dallas. Baccus chased me almost all the way to the Elks lodge, threw my business card in the gutter, and yelled that nobody from any newspaper ever came to South Dallas. When I got back to the paper, I was told that he had called and asked whether I was actually an employee. He thought, I assumed, that I was a cop.
I spent years working on stories that centered on African American communities in Texas. William Snyder, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, and I traveled the country for a series of stories about streets that were named after Dr. King. I talked to James Farmer, Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, Count Basie, B. B. King, and Ray Charles. I retraced the route of the Freedom Riders through the South. I went back to Harlem to write about its future and its past. I wrote several stories about the blues in Texas, and I traveled to the Mississippi Delta several times and wrote about it there. I went to Tunica, Mississippi, and talked to elderly women who lived in tarpaper shacks in what Jesse Jackson had called American's Ethiopia. I spent every day for a solid month, from sunrise to late at night, in an alley in South Dallas, trying to stay warm around a fire that had been lit in a barrel—there were homeless people, out-of-work carpenters, roofers, children, crack addicts, and even a wandering city councilman. I took notes, pooled money for forty-ounce bottles of malt liquor, tried to interpret people's welfare forms for them.
I took a cab to the Desire housing project in New Orleans and watched young men pass packs of crack into car windows. I went to South Central Los Angeles and hung out with a man named Earthquake and other members of the Rolling 30s Crips. I went to Des Moines, Denver, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia and spent time in neighborhoods, asking people about Dr. King's legacy. I talked with the head of the Junior Black Academy of Arts and Letters and got to be good friends with a man in Dallas who called himself the Right Reverend of the Blues. Often, I stayed up until sunrise at a famous place called The Green Parrot, in South Dallas, and talked with a music promoter and club owner named Earnest Davis. He once owned a nightclub called The Classic Club, which had featured the best blues players in America, as well as odd acts like a hulking man in a nice dress known as Mister Aretha Franklin. While a fine Texas saxophonist, the late Marchel Ivery, played one night, the singsong-voiced Davis challenged me to identify what car he was driving just by looking at his car keys. I guessed a Mercedes, and he bought me a drink and asked why we couldn't be real friends, why it was that we would probably never be real friends, why we would really talk, black man to white man, only at four in the morning in the supreme late-night nexus, at an after-hours room in deep South Dallas. He always insisted on walking me to my car. One time I was outside a place called the Blues Palace with that same Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer. A man with what looked like a machine gun was guarding the door. It was two in the morning and the club was emptying. My photographer friend said that it looked like a nice night. I pointed behind him at a large woman wearing nothing but panties and standing in the dirt parking lot, calmly talking to two men. The jazzman Ivery used to talk to me about "the night people"—how they were a demanding and sometimes surreal audience. It seemed like something Langston Hughes would know.
At home, my wife began talking about my "African American complex." And one day at the newspaper, I walked in on two editors. They were sharing a laugh. One of them said to me: "You know what people say about you? 'Wherever there are two black people, you'll find Bill Minutaglio.'" The reporter at the desk next to mine turned to me one day: "I like to go to West Texas. You like to go slumming."
In front of the newspaper, a leading black activist regularly protested the newspaper's coverage of various issues. After that black activist became an elected official, a county commissioner, he was involved in a fracas at one of his protests. I was at home, and the editor of the paper called me, saying the man would talk only to me. But why? In many, many ways, I didn't really want to talk to him—what would I know, do, say? What did I really know about anything? What could I understand? He had to know I was pretending, assuming too many things.
I won awards from black journalist organizations—national ones, local ones. And for years, I blanketed myself in some righteous robes and presumed that I was serving some higher goal. That I was doing all this because it was important for everyone else to know these things, these stories.
I once spent a seemingly endless sequence of Sundays going to black churches, one after another: tiny wooden churches that had twenty elderly people inside, and bigger brick ones that had once housed all-white congregations and were now exclusively African American. Often, I would be escorted to the front pew. And when I stood to leave, people would let me go first. Very rarely was I ever asked why I was there. At a church in South Dallas one summer Sunday, I almost crawled to my car after hearing the entire congregation locked into a hammering, intense rhythm that was unlike anything I had ever heard. It was beyond gospel. Something as hard as metal would have broken under the rhythm I heard, and that was, perhaps, its intent. When I was in San Francisco during that city's last great earthquake, a nighttime aftershock reminded me of that church—like something that had stolen into my room, a shuddering presence, like frames in an old movie suddenly, loudly stuttering and stacking up on one another. Being in that church had scared me in a different way. Five hundred people spoke with one sound, one idea spun straight from the kinds of truths that can emerge only from having endured aching cruelties. And the people were unquestioning, even welcoming—and polite enough to not laugh as I walked, weak-kneed, down the aisle and out to my car.
I suppose I felt something sincere. I presumed that there were people in Houston and Dallas and Mexia, people I had written about, who had become my friends—and maybe hadn't been kind to me just because I was writing about them. It was all some kind of tangle, part obsession, part devotion, part guilt, and all that white-man's-burden business. I took my toddler daughter to a gospel music show in a tiny church. I took my best friend to hear the Five Blind Boys of Alabama at Lincoln High School, where the price of admission was one canned good. We were the only white people there, and when the lead singer decided to come directly to us, to walk directly down our aisle and stand right in front of us, we didn't know what to do. As he was thundering, enraptured, I could see a possessed woman jump out of her chair and begin to dance on one foot. All that I could think of doing was to touch the hem of the singer's white suit jacket as gently as if I were touching a rose petal.
And I went to more clubs by myself, and bouncers with rifles walked me to my car at four in the morning. I met a young man who was a promising writer, and I decided to be his godfather, his patron, his adviser. He showed me his diary, and I convinced some people to publish it. He didn't, in the end, like me very much, although I helped him get a book published about his life inside the madness of the heroin-mean streets of Texas. I think he thought I was viewing him in the same way Katharine Hepburn talked about the little brown babies in The African Queen—in that condescending, paternal, and pious way that colonialists have always done it, the way the great white liberals practice their sanctimonious anthropology. The way beneficent white journalists parachute into someone's world and then radio home for an escort out.
Nothing was really clear except that, really, change was slow—and achieving something tantamount to comprehension and context was like trying to hold smoke in my hands. Jean Lafitte and Jim Bowie were still here in bedrock Texas, and maybe they were still marketing slaves. It is deep in the culture, it is always there in the tree rings. You can search for the blues and you will find them—or they will find you.
A man named Donald Payton took me around Dallas one day. As far as I knew, he wasn't the kind of historian who regularly published in The Very Obscure Journal of Things That Happened in the Past. Seemingly self-taught, he was fighting to find things, pieces of black history in Texas that no one wanted known. It was always an uphill climb, not that that was unexpected, considering the color of his skin and the things he wanted to resurrect. Payton made me slow down by an old building in Oak Cliff, just down the road from where T-Bone Walker, who changed the world by popularizing the electric guitar, had lived—and where Lee Harvey Oswald had lived—and where Jack Ruby had lived. There was a rectangular, waist-high shadow on a wall. It was where the old colored water fountain had been.
Payton said, of course, that you had to look for the shadows and then decide what they really meant.
My family, back when I was growing up in New York, twice joined the white flight. We finally sold our home in New York City to a black family for about the same price we had paid for it decades earlier. It was a crushing turn of events for my parents. It changed everything, and I believe it helped kill my father. We sold our home the same year "the niggers were rioting" up on the boulevard—the same year that I got robbed by some black kids outside a Catholic church. We were gone by the time the elm trees changed color in the fall.
We moved to a leafy, airy place in the suburbs. I made a friend named Jack. He was the only black person in school. I was new, getting into fights almost every day, and we seemed to get along. I invited him to come visit me. He lived in a small, isolated pocket that I would later realize was like other places around America that African Americans sometimes call The Bottom or The Bottoms. A hidden area, a forgotten area, close to the heavy traffic, close to where water can rise. Close to where people were in the shadows—good people, bad people.
When he came to my house, I heard my mother answer the door. She told him I wasn't at home. I stood at the staircase and saw him turn his back and go away. I don't know whether he saw me.
These stories were written over thirty years in Texas. Some appeared in newspapers, some in magazines, some in books I have written. They have been edited and updated. They take place in Mexia, San Antonio, Houston, New York, and Dallas. They are a form of odyssey—a white writer's chronicle of things he heard and experienced in Texas.
My friend Lorenzo Thomas published a collection of poems called The Bathers. The title was a play on words—a nod to something elegant and refined, and a nod to the water cannons that he had seen trained on black Americans during the civil rights movement. Thomas, for one, taught me that things are never, ever what they seem in Texas. You can try to script things in black-and-white—but getting to each side, getting to sureties, involves a long march through the gray zone. Through shifting tectonic plates of distrust, hope, and fear.
T-Bone Walker, from Linden, Texas, became my favorite blues musician—and it wasn't just because I had grown up on Linden Boulevard, where the niggers had rioted, where everything had changed, where someone had tucked a book by Langston Hughes in the paperback rack. I headed out to knock on doors all over the bottomlands of Dallas, where he had lived and played. I went house to house down by the old Elizabeth Chapel, one of the oldest African American churches in the state. I walked the curving streets and asked people whether they had once known Walker, whether they could tell me anything about him. A woman told me that she had known him and that she also knew a lot of other things that were long dormant: about the grandmother who could talk to the spirits, who could find the bodies of young black men who disappeared inside the muddy, demanding swirl of the Trinity River . . . and all that that fetid body of water implied.
Walker sang about the rivers in Texas rising, consuming you. And he sang about the confusion, about what happens when you don't know "which side of life to choose."
He said this: "Fate's an awful thing."