Someone recently brought to my attention a 2005 interview in which Morgan Freeman calls ‘Black History Month’ ridiculous. In my opinion Freeman is one of those people who are bigger than life. He radiates that ‘something’ that makes people sit up and take notice, on and off the screen. So when I heard this I was quite curious. I am not going to recite the interview (if you have a moment, look it up, it’s worth watching) but in a nut shell he says not to “relegate” black history to a month. Black history is American history. Best part of the interview is when he asks Mike Wallace (the interviewer, who is Jewish) when Jewish history month is. Wallace answers ‘There isn’t one” so Freeman asks “Do you want one?”.
Although I see, and respect, the point Mr. Freeman is making, I am not quite in his camp on this one. Personally I think that any reason we have to drag racism out of the closet and discuss it, is a good reason.
That being said, I have never actually gone out of my way to do anything for Black History Month, other than maybe watch a CBC special on TV. My kids always came home from school and let me know they were studying Black History Month, and I would say “oh that’s nice”. I would go to the library and there would be a be layout of books about Black History and I would say “oh that’s nice”. I’ve read books on Dr. King and Malcolm X, but besides my own family’s history, that is about the extent of my knowledge of black history. I should know more, and I do plan to get around to it one of these days. There’s a reason that I am this ignorant about something so important, let me explain.
In the early 70’s my father went to California to apprentice as a blacksmith. At the time he was a young man, with a young wife and two small boys at home. I was quite young but I remember missing him. He would send us pictures of horses and cowboys he had drawn on toilet paper. I cannot express how happy these drawings made up, I would give a great deal to have one of those drawings today. Years later when he was telling me this story I asked him why toilet paper and he answered that was all he had. In addition to his apprenticeship, he was working as a gallop boy and mucking stalls to make money, most of which he sent back to us.
My father was a social man, he enjoyed life the best he could whatever the circumstances. He got along easy with people, enjoyed a laugh and a good story. So it did not take long for him to be invited to stop by the local bar after work for a beer by a few of the fellows he was working beside. Not that he needed the invite, I think he would have found it all by himself eventually.
As you left the gates of the racetrack, you walked onto a large parking lot. This is where my father found himself after a days work, with the sun going down, realizing he hadn’t a clue where the bar he was supposed to be going to was. As he walked to his car he could hear music coming from a small, rundown place on the fringes of the parking lot. Naturally he assumed this to be the place.
Perhaps it was because he was far from home, or perhaps he was dead tired from the long day he had just put in. But the way my Father told the story he never noticed any thing wrong until he got the bar and ordered a beer. The man behind the bar was a black man who towered over my father. My father was never a big man, but at the time he probably weighed about 130lbs soaking wet. The man behind the bar leaned down so he could look my father in the eye and asked him “What you want here boy?”. It was at this moment my Father decided to take in his surroundings, in his words “there wasn’t another white face in the joint, and everyone seemed to be looking at ME!”. He ordered his beer, maybe it was his accent, or maybe the gods were simply smiling on him that night, but the gentleman behind the bar asked him “where you from boy?”, to which he replied “Montreal, and quit calling me boy.” The bartender studied him another moment, grinned, shook his head and gave my father the beer he had ordered. My Father had every intention of finishing that beer just about as fast as anyone had ever finished a beer and getting his ass out of there. The patrons of the bar had gone back to doing what they had been doing, but people started to drift over to my Father. “Your from Canada?”, “How long you been here?”, “You speak French?”, “What the hell you doing coming in here?” The questions kept coming, he answered them all, with a smile and a laugh. He told me he had one of the best nights of his life. His beer was mostly paid for by people wanting to know about the Great White North. He told me the people were great but the music was better. Once again in his words “Those colored girls wouldn’t let me sit down. I could move pretty good for a white guy back then.”
In the early hours of the morning some of the gentlemen of the bar walked him back to his car, explaining to him that a little white guy shouldn’t be alone in that neighbourhood at that time of night. He thanked them and told them he would see them the next evening after work.
The next day the guys he was supposed to have met asked him why he had not shown up. He told them he had ended up at the wrong bar, the one over at the end of the parking lot. They let him know that he was lucky to be alive, and not to be caught in that area after dark. That day after work and many a day after that he went right back to that same bar, the people called him Frenchie and made sure he got to his car safely every time.