Cuz every brotha man’s life
Is like a roll of the dice, right?

Public Enemy

 

I must’ve been about 9 or 10 when I accompanied my father to the Indianapolis farmers market on an Indian summer weekend afternoon in 1974 or 75. Knowing my father’s appetites as I do, we had likely devoured a few German sausages and cheese, and with our work done, were preparing to return home when I spotted an older black man shuffling towards us. As I remember the incident now nearly a half-century later, the man was north of 70 with a frame so slight that his chest appeared caved-in, or sunken, like a toppled bird’s nest. But he was, as we used to say, cleaner than the board of health, dressed in a worn but neat brown suit, necktie, and fedora. I remember the man approaching us slowly, and the closer he got, the more I could discern a look of unmistakable anguish on his face, that left me wondering, in the seconds before his arrival, if he wasn’t planning to attack my old man.

Instead, he clasped my father’s right hand tightly in his, and in a raspy voice repeated these words, like a mantra, for what seemed like an eternity:

“I’m sorry, son. I’m so sorry. I’m so very sorry.”

Clearly embarrassed, my father withheld absolution because none was warranted, and instead tried to console the man while simultaneously attempting to regain control of his annexed hand. “It’s okay, Mr. Goodloe. It wasn’t your fault. No one ever blamed you.”

What I would learn later was that on a gorgeous late summer Saturday in 1935, a then-27-year-old Theodore Goodloe was the driver of a truck shuttling 33 young, festive hay riders from the city’s historically-black neighborhood of Haughville when it was sideswiped by a truck driven by a white man. Seven people were seriously injured and two were killed: 22-year old Arthur Kelley and a 14-year-old boy who were both apparently dangling their legs from the left side of the truck when the collision occurred. The teenage boy died instantly; both his legs were severed at the knee. 

His name was John Jeter and 55 years ago today my parents paid homage to the older brother my father never knew by naming their second son, and third child me after him. In a front-page article, the city’s black newspaper, the Indianapolis Recorder, described the driver of the second truck, Earl Bramlet, as 24. He was not charged, but I am familiar with that westside street where the accident occurred and it is plainly too narrow to accommodate two trucks driving side-by-side (the Recorder describes the road width at 18 feet which is exactly the width of the two nine-foot wide trucks). It would be nothing less than reckless to attempt to pass under the best of conditions, and downright murderous if you see a pair of legs protruding from the open bed. Maybe Bramlet’s judgment was impaired by alcohol, or the kind of racial animus that found its voice during the Great Depression, but whatever the case, you can rest assured that had the situation been reversed, and Bramlet had been black and the hay riders white, someone would’ve gone to the can, or strung up in a tree. 

And so it goes as I celebrate (for lack of a better word) today my 55th birthday. I wish I could say it feels like MJ dropping that double nickel in the Garden, baby, but it most surely does not. What defines my life more than anything is that I am descended from the second largest population of Africans spirited away from the land of their birth to live and toil far from home on a continent that is dark and cold and foreboding, among the largest settlement of Europeans in the history of the world.  I feel like something that’s been dug up, as though my body is the physical manifestation of a body politic that is as disfigured as the body of the uncle for whom I was named. Everything hurts, as though my legs have been shorn off at the knee, and what remains of me is a constellation of stigmatas and an outsized worry that for however many days that lay ahead of me, I may be condemned to walk the earth aimlessly like Theodore Goodloe obsessed with a question so agonizing it blots out the sun:

What does it mean to suffer and why couldn’t I do more to stop it?

Even more nettlesome for my generation is that we inherited from our parents a country that was far better than the one they were born into, yet are bequeathing to our children a country that is far worse. Somehow, my demographic cohort managed to piss away the whole of the 20th century: for all intents and purposes, African Americans today own no more of the nation, one percent, than did the freedpeople when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.  

My paternal grandfather, my father’s father, was born 21 years later in 1884 in Union City, South Carolina, which is notorious for the 1993 case in which a white woman named Susan Smith murdered her two towheaded boys and told police that a black man had carjacked her at gunpoint and sped off with her kids. James Jeter fled the South sometime after the turn of the century at least in part, my sister and I surmise, to elude the explosion of Jim Crow violence that followed the 1898 racial massacre in neighboring North Carolina and ended up in Indianapolis sometime around World War 1, landing work at the Link-Belt chain factory, and settling in the same Haughville neighborhood that would later produce Oscar Robertson, and jazz musicians Wes Montgomery, Freddie Hubbard, and J.J. Johnson. 

The year 1935 was an awful one for the Jeter clan; two months before my uncle John was killed, my father’s mother Lula, died of tuberculosis, I believe. And it wasn’t all that great for my mama’s family either; in May, FDR signed legislation creating the Works Progress Administration, which would later employ my maternal grandfather Ray Shannon, who was the most dignified man I have ever known. It’s been a grind ever since. In my lifetime, my people, my family, my community, has suffered virtually every indignity known to mankind. My father was unemployed on the day I was born he had been fired from a bookbinding company because bill collectors kept calling him on the job to dun him for arrearages and landed work at the Indianapolis Chrysler foundry not far from where his brother was killed. He became the first skilled tradesman and was known, his coworkers told us at his wake, to encourage other blacks to enroll in the training courses to do the same and take advantage of the higher pay and less strenuous labor. But a story he told me when I was probably 15 haunts me to this day. Under the collective bargaining agreement between Chrysler and the UAW, promotions at the plant were determined by a test. The job went to to the applicant who scored the highest. Sometime around 1980, as I recall it, that applicant was my father (the scores were posted on a bulletin board). My father waited patiently for his promotion. Weeks passed. Crickets. Finally, he asked his supervisor. “Jeter,” the white boss said, “if I put a nigger in that job you know we’ll both be fired.”

I think that more-or-less broke my father. His drinking seemed to escalate around that time and he really went at it hard for the better part of the next 15 years.   

I wish that story was unique but it is not, by a long shot. Like a Biblical plague, my kith and kin have suffered firings, demotions, predatory subprime loans, predatory college loans, depression, workplace injuries, and all manner of disrespect and depraved indifference from doctors and nurses and police and lawyers and teachers. My Uncle Robert, who everyone agrees was the smartest in a smart family, fed the lab rats at Eli Lilly for 30 years. One friend from high school was beaten so badly by the police that it caused brain damage; a boy I used to babysit was killed in a shootout with police outside Chicago; just last month, my nephew was fired from his job for being two minutes late to work, and, I am sure, because his bosses came to the conclusion that he was the smartest mothafucka in the room.

I don’t tell you these things because my family is unique but because it is not. Knowledge is sorrow, life is suffering, but in this eternal class struggle no one seems to take incoming fire with the same frequency and velocity as the sons and daughters of Africa. Our experience is akin to a lost chapter of the Bible, as we struggle to free ourselves from the pharaohs of this new and bitter earth, who mock us with their triumph, contrasted against our poverty, our enslavement, our shame at being subjugated for so long.

And so my 55th birthday has been one of reflection, and, if I’m honest, a bit of mourning, for the Beloved Community that never was, and this wretched white Republic that must always be, and an uncle who I never knew yet whose gruesome death represents a kind of baptism-by-fire into this wicked, wretched land, serving as a reminder that evil exists in this world, and will continue to do so until we do what the NYPD did to Eric Garner, and choke the living shit out of it, for all the world to see.