For a number of years now, I have belonged to a Facebook group called “I grew up in Riverside in the 50s and 60s”, because . . . well, because, having hit the ground in 1946, I grew up in Riverside in the 50s and 60s and I am not immune to an occasional bout of nostalgia regarding that experience. At that time Riverside, California, was a marvelous – even idyllic — place for a middle-class white kid to grow up. In 1950, a mere 46,000 people lived there, cradled between the San Gabriel Mountains to the north, the Chino Hills to the south, and the San Bernardino Mountains to the east. Everyone liked to point out that the mountains, the desert, and the ocean were all only an hour away. And the City, too – Los Angeles – was an hour drive to the west. Only in the late 60s as the population swelled did traffic problems arise. Terrible smog, too. But before that is was – on the surface anyway – paradise. Hot and dry, the sun shone pretty much continuously. It had one major industry – citrus, and especially navel oranges. The first orange tree (imported from Brazil) was planted in 1871. By 1888, Riverside was surrounded by over a quarter of a million trees. In April, orange blossoms perfumed the air. The trees produced enough money to make Riverside the wealthiest city per capita in the US in 1895. They also provided a haven for teenagers to drink contraband alcohol. Not a few of them did so hidden away at night in the ordered rows of trees, huddled next to smudge pots.
It felt like a small town in many ways, full of small-town freedoms for a kid. You could ride your bike anywhere. Close enough to Los Angeles to soak up some of the fading art deco glory and allure of the larger city, it was far enough away that parents could send their 5 year old kid to walk a half mile to school every day and not be worried. Both my parents were born there in the 1920’s. My dad’s parents arrived around 1898, my mother’s a few years later. We were automatically part of an extended community of friends and family, bathed in a special intimacy and freedom.
The Facebook page of “I grew up in Riverside in the 50s and 60s” mostly consists of someone posting a photo of an artifact from that distant time and asking, “Who remembers these?” or “Where were you when?” These is usually a commercial product – a confection, item of clothing, toy, etc. – from the period, a photograph of a drive-in burger joint or roller rink long plowed under by the voracious blade of progress, or a poster for a concert. Comments follow in which people relate stories of how the product or concert affected their young lives. Boomer Central in that sense, the nostalgia for the defining cultural commodities of the 60s can become a little overwhelming.
Interestingly, though, while the comments dwell on memories of first eating Ike and Mikes, or velvet bell bottoms, or your first Stones concert, no one ever mentions politics. It’s eerie given how central politics were to the 50s and 60s. Someone may ask, where were you when JFK was shot, but never where were you when the LA riots/uprising broke out? There is no mention of the war against Viet Nam or the mass movement that grew to oppose it (Where were you when you first heard the words My Lai?). I guess you could say it’s an unspoken agreement among the participants to repress those memories—the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the Black power movement, the Women’s movement—in order to avoid conflict and retain that charming Leave It to Beaver aura that permeates the site. Everyone knows that any political statement threatens to open up the civil war that boils just under the surface of public discourse in the U.S.
But the silence around the political turmoil of the 50’s and 60’s is nothing compared to the silence about race (Who remembers where they were when the Chicago police murdered Fred Hampton in his bed?). Silence isn’t quite the right word. It’s an enormous absence, a Black hole, as it were. If the site was called “I grew up White in Riverside in the 50s and 60s,” there wouldn’t be an issue. The absence of “White” is a problem since it implies a universalized normalcy to Ikes and Mikes and Monkey’s concerts that other repressed and excluded points of view and experiences might find a bit presumptuous. Even downright racist – in an ordinary, everyday racist sort of way.
And Riverside in the 50s and 60s was nothing if not racist in an ordinary, everyday sort of way. When I moved to Buffalo, NY in 1982, I was taken aback at how frequently people I met wanted to know what my “background” was. What background, I would ask? Are you English? Italian? German? I would then explain how in southern California, at the farthest edge of the immense push out of Europe that began millennia ago, there were three social groupings—Black, Brown, and White. And they did not mix. There were also some Jewish kids, but they were White.
Racism was the norm in those days. You were odd if you weren’t racist. Not toxic, violent racism, just everyday, ordinary racism, what they call, I think, these days unconscious micro-aggressions. I don’t know about my father’s family. I never knew his father as he died when I was quite young. I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, and never heard her say anything racist, but it’s hard to imagine someone of her generation hadn’t picked it up. My mother’s side of the family was another story. Her father and brothers, were vocal racists. They frequently used one brutal racist slur or another when speaking of Black people. Looking back, I think my grandfather must have been one of those guy’s in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man who organized the Battle Royale at the beginning of the novel. Not a nice man. He belonged to one of those corrupt White patriarchal clubs that pass themselves off as service organizations – the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks (which, interestingly, was started as a social club by White Minstrel singers). After he died I found among his things an elk tooth watch fob with the letters BPOE on it. What’s that mean, I asked my mother. Without pausing she replied, biggest pricks on earth
Which makes my mother a mystery. One day, my sisters and I, we were maybe 8 and 9 years old, were reciting an old ditty that we didn’t realize was bad. We must have brought it home from school. Eenie meenie miney moe, it went. We got to the part that goes Catch a ni . . . and my mother stopped us. That’s an awful word, she explained, it’s ugly and nasty and I never want to hear it in my house. My mother’s intervention changed my life in an instant. More than one guest in our house was taken aback to be informed by me or my sisters that they were never to speak that word in our house. And they didn’t.
I knew only one Black person my entire life in Riverside—my grandmother’s housekeeper, Molly. This obviously harkens to some stereotypical moment where the privileged White boy says, I’m not racist, I loved . . . X (for X fill in Black nursemaid, Black nanny, Black housekeeper). But the fact is I did love Molly. Molly was always there, from earliest memories. Stories told how she bathed infant me in a pan in the kitchen sink. She was the embodiment of love, generosity, and caring. And I knew almost nothing about her, not even her last name.
As I grew and became more aware of what was happening to Black people in the US, I learned more about Molly. I learned she could not read. I learned she had a son who she worried was getting radicalized in the 60s. I learned where she lived when my father and I once drove to her home to pick her up. The Black section of Riverside in the 50s and 60s was in a large depression just east of downtown. I had never been there, though I had driven by it countless times. Years later, I visited an old cotton plantation in South Carolina. The slave shack I saw there (described unironically as a “picturesque antebellum cabin” on the information plaque) now comes to mind when trying to describe Molly’s house. Every house on that block, and many of the blocks around it, were the same small, decrepit structures, and all painted the same fading, forest green—which now suggests to me a common landlord. (Who remembers the name of the Slum Lord who rented those little green shacks to Black people down around 12th and Howard?) What I remember most is the smell of collards boiling when Molly opened the door to come out. I had never smelled that before. And I never forgot it. It was different.
My experience growing up White in Riverside in the 50s and 60s was not uncommon to one degree or another. Our worlds were segregated into distinct zones. Segregation was self-imposed and self-generating. Since most wealth finds itself concentrated in a specific racial zone (White, fyi), there was no need for draconian apartheid laws. Until high school, no Black people, Molly excepted, entered my life, because of neighborhoods segregated by income and custom into exclusive racial zones. The photos of primary school classes posted on the growing up in Riverside Facebook page show row after unbroken row of smiling White kids. This was southern California, not Alabama or Mississippi. In high school it changed, but it was too late by then. Suddenly there were groups of Blacks and Latinos, but everyone mostly kept to themselves, hung with the people they already knew. There were some exceptions. Music is a great mixer, and the choir attracted singers, regardless of race. That’s where I met my lifelong friend, Danny Herrera. That mixing happened with other activities as well, but there was no general social reformation. The boundaries held. Black, Brown, and White.
When the civil rights movement started things began to change. My friend’s mother was into folk music (music again) and brought Odetta and other civil rights champions to town. News of the Freedom Riders filtered into our consciousness. (Who remembers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner?) Many of us were deeply affected by the news of church bombings, mass beatings, and burning buses. (Who remembers the name of the bridge in Selma where the police committed atrocities against peaceful Black protestors?) It seemed that the nation’s soul was at stake along with the integrity of the words, “these truths” and “self-evident” and “created equal.” We marched in solidarity down Magnolia Avenue when Bull Connor unleashed his dogs, human and canine, on people who just wanted to vote. But it was all White students from the University. Even then the boundaries held.
As I suspect they do today, though it was marvelous to see how many White people joined with Black Lives Matter in the protests following the police lynching of George Floyd. But the boundaries remain intact on “I grew up in Riverside in the 50’s and 60’s,” where no mention is made of Black Panthers much less Black Lives Matter. You don’t need a divisive political debate to find those boundaries. Just take a quick spin through the site’s photo archive where you won’t find a single photo of a Black or Hispanic person. Not one. Not even in the background. This is not malicious. It’s not even conscious. It’s just your ordinary, everyday racism, a little testament to our ongoing failure to discover America and salvage the nation’s soul.
I was living in exile in Canada when my grandmother died in 1972. I heard from my sister that Molly, still with her after more than 20 years, saw the writing on the wall, took a few items of value from my grandmother’s things in lieu of a pension, payment for a lifetime of service, and disappeared. I never got to thank her.