My Beginnings Family Roots Through Junior High School
My family hails from miscegenated roots in Accomac, the seat of Accomack County, Virginia, on the rural DelMarVa peninsula. If the peninsula is a stubby thumb of land sticking 180 miles straight down the coast, right below the point where the borders of Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania meet, then Accomac is smack in the middle of its overgrown fingernail, the last 75 miles that encloses the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. By the map, Accomac is just 180 miles from the U.S. Capitol, but by road, history, and economics, it's much closer to Richmond, the ex-capital of the Confederacy.
Then as now, the wealth of Accomack County comes from the land and the accumulated labor of African-Americans since slavery times. The tiny county raised 5 percent of all Virginia's chickens and grew almost half of Virginia's cash vegetable, corn, and melon crop in 1992. The 2000 census also said it was 32 percent black, 63 percent white, and just under one percent any kind of mixture. But everybody knows the numbers don't tell the real story.
Accomac, Virginia, was a very strange place. It had a lot of relationships that were a lot stronger than anything you could get by getting married or in court. They had a lot of respect for people who simply had children and took care of them, whether they were married or not. And, from slavery times, a lot of those children were fathered by white landowners on black women. I think that attitude made it easier for everyone to live together, separate and, of course, unequal, bound to the same isolated piece of land, without a great need to ask a whole lot of questions about who was what to whom.
In Accomac everybody was related to one another. My great-grandfather Frazer Wharton, who the pictures indicate I favor the most, had a white father. Frazer had his first child, my grandfather, by his first wife, Mary Dye, around 1893. Then he married another lady and had fourteenchildren. I'm not sure how Frazer managed to get all this land in Accomac, but I assume it came from the white Wharton clan that gave him his name. Except for a couple of uncles of mine who later passed for white, I still don't know much about the white Whartons. I grew up assuming that my grandfather was a scion of a proud black landholding gentry. Oh, was my mother proud of being a Wharton, hot damn! "Blanche Mary Wharton Rangel," she'd reply when formally asked her name.
As a child, from the time I was seven to about age fifteen, the family would have me and my sister down there for the summers. They called it Whartonville, because the Whartons ran everything. I remember the farm people who would come into town and get drunk, and Frazer Wharton would get them out of jail. It was another world, the rural Deep South in the late depression years, or maybe two worlds away from Harlem. In Harlem, fruits and vegetables came to you, rolling by your house on a paved road, on a cart pushed by some European immigrant shouting in a foreign accent. In Accomac, you went down dirt roads to get your food from the land, with no whites of any kind in sight.
In Harlem there were corner bars and rent parties and dance halls for celebrating the end of the workweek, or to get away from having no work at all. In Accomac there were county fairs. Oh, those fairs! It was just like in the movies--think Giant with Liz Taylor and Rock Hudson, or, better still, the movie version of the musical State Fair. Except everything and everybody was black. Oh, the pies, the crabs, and the corn--all that food and entertainment and all the drinking! I'd go there with my granduncle George, who liked to squire his little nephew from the big city around town. He was really the bad boy of the whole clan. He ran a little social spot in town, a kind of cross between what we called a candy store in Harlem and a nightclub. And he drank a lot of liquor. He'd get drunk at the fair and then forget where he left me. You know, something about drinking and then misplacing your kids must run in my family, because years later my uncle Herbert would sometimes do the same thing to me up in New York.
In Accomac it seemed as if everyone but Uncle George worked the fields. When my sister and I were down there, everyone got up at five o'clock in the morning. If we wanted to eat with them, we had better be up early, too. Actually, they'd leave a cold ham on the table, maybe some fried apples in the frying pan. But then everyone hit the fields, and they worked hard. They took it very seriously, and they had us out there taking it seriously, too. I remember how we weren't supposed to eat any of the strawberries we were picking. They'd get angry with you if you were talking or fooling around, and they'd raise hell. Of course, once the daywas over, and we'd come back in out of that sun, they'd love us to death. But when they were working, they didn't give a damn where you were visiting from; if you were there and you were eating, you worked hard in the fields.
If only for that reason, I made sure I spent my time hanging with Uncle George.
Uncle George used to visit a lot of people at night, and leave me in the car. One time I ran the damn car into a tree while I was waiting. But he was so bad, he just said, "Forget about it." He didn't give a care about nothing. Uncle George! He had this place--I guess you'd call it a roadhouse--that served hot dogs and beer but no hard liquor. They had music going, and people would come, buy their cigarettes and soft drinks, and socialize. I don't recall thinking much about it at the time, but it must have felt a whole lot like the action on a Harlem street corner, and that was damn sure more my speed than picking produce.
And Uncle George thought my coming from Harlem made me something special, gave me what we now call street smarts. And then I caught some guys stealing money from him one time, and that did it. He fired the guys, and bragged about how it took a kid from Harlem to get these thieving sons of bitches out of his business.
So these are my grandfather's roots, but he didn't like the farm life that Accomac offered him. His name was Charlie Wharton, and I guess he could have stayed and staked a claim to some of that land. But one day when he was sixteen, he reached down, picked up a good handful of that dirt, and let it crumble through his hand. Then he looked up at his father and said he didn't want any part of it. That's the story he told me about getting out of Accomac, over and over through the decades. He basically went a couple hundred miles up the coast, to Atlantic City, New Jersey, and found work as a waiter. Later on he met this pretty gal, Frances, my grandmother, whom I never knew. She was from Savannah, Georgia. He brought her to New York, and had two children--my mother and her older brother, Herbert. They were living someplace in Hell's Kitchen, because that's where the blacks were at that time, before they started moving up, and uptown. My uncle was born in 1902, my mother in 1904. When my mother was two years old my grandmother died giving birth to a third child, who didn't survive. About 1923 my grandfather left Hell's Kitchen and moved to 132nd Street, where he bought a brownstone.
Now, for the longest time he would have me believe that he didn't have access to any money to afford to buy that house, but his father, Frazer, came up to New York and signed a note for him. My grandfather put a down payment on the house, and he had to pay off that note.These are stories my grandfather told me in the kitchen, when he'd be drinking. Often, from down in his cups, he would go on about all he had done for my mother and my uncle Herbert, and how neither one of them appreciated it.
My grandfather would never learn how to use the word love. Ever. But he did talk a lot about how he had to fight the authorities to keep his kids. Apparently the child welfare officials of the day were always trying to take my mother and Uncle Herbert from him because he wasn't married. Years later he would tell me stories about all the girlfriends he kept around the house when my mother and uncle were children. He'd go on about how they all had boyfriends, and he knew it. But he tolerated them, because all he cared about was having someone around to take care of those kids. Hell, he wasn't even around half the time, because he was out trying to make ends meet for them. To hear him tell it, the gals thought they were working him over, and he thought he was working them over. They may have thought they were cheating on him. But all he was concerned about was maintaining a minimum acceptable domestic environment for his children's sake. He wasn't looking for love; he was looking for someone to be there for those kids so he could go out and work.
Somewhere along the line he met this lady, Miss Indie, we called her. I don't remember where she was from, but she was the force that straightened him out. He married her, and she really structured his life. She got him to take a civil service examination, which at the time involved picking up dumbbells, to qualify for an elevator operator job. She also got him to join a political club, and then to go for the job running an elevator in the Criminal Court building downtown. He put in about thirty-five years on that job before he retired. In fact, it was trying to help him keep that job just a little longer that caused me to take my very first step into politics.
When he turned sixty-five, and they were trying to force him to retire, I had to go hat in hand to the neighborhood Democratic political club to plead for an extension. What happened was that I had signed a petition supporting an insurgent candidate for party office, someone who was not part of the regular organization. I didn't know what the hell I was signing. I was in law school, and I had not a clue about how clubhouse and Democratic machine politics worked. But they made a big deal out of it. It just happened that insurgents were the only guys who came by the house, always bearing petitions and asking us to sign. So I had signed. But the local captain made it abundantly clear that he had checked the names on that petition, and it looked like I was an upstart who was going against the regular organization. Nowadays, in mostplaces in New York, it seems like nobody knows who is who, much less who signed what, at the precinct level of politics. But back then, in Harlem, precinct- and club-level politics were like church-congregation or family-clan politics--no disloyalties went unnoticed or unrecorded, and people had memories like elephants. Even I remember it like yesterday. It was then called the New Era Democratic Club, and a few years later I'd make my first mark in politics by going up against its leader, Lloyd Dickens.
My grandfather had actually signed the right petition, because he knew the precinct captain. And so he was right pissed at me for making waves that might sink his civil service job early--for no good reason. They would not give it to him until I came to the club--contrite--and asked forgiveness for my transgression. But it didn't stop there. They actually made me go to the Democratic leader of New York County, Carmine DeSapio, for the extension. They sent me to a guy who had something to say about making presidents of the United States, just to let one old black man in Harlem keep running an elevator for a few more years!
The whole thing really teed me off, until I saw how petty it all was. That's just how disciplined they were back then, because for generations they maintained power over people down to the smallest detail--even a menial job--by counting every vote. It wasn't entirely about me at all. But there is also no question that once I showed up, going to law school and all, and voting in their precincts, they felt they needed to send me a message: "We've got our eye on you, son." They knew I was going someplace. I got that extension, and later, for years after I became friends with Carmine, I had something to tease him about. I also had my first taste of how dealing with powerful people gets things done, and might make you powerful, too.
Miss Indie opened up a little bakery-restaurant on Lenox Avenue. I never knew her well, but I understand that she was an entrepreneur. Ironically, after all those years of Grandfather keeping girlfriends as nannies for his kids, Miss Indie didn't really get along all that well with my mother or Uncle Herbert. Family history has it that Uncle Herbert once threw a brick through her store window, because he was mad about something or other. Uncle Herbert must have had a chip of some kind on his shoulder from puberty on. He ran away from home at least once as a teenager, and had a reputation as a street fighter. He joinedthe army at fifteen, and soon went up to Peekskill, New York, where he was trained. He served in the legendary 369th Infantry Regiment, the "Harlem Hellfighters," though he did not get to go overseas. Grandfather eventually convinced him to settle down and get a civil service job. They ended up working one block from each other, Uncle Herbert running an elevator in the New York State court building at 80 Worth Street, and my grandfather at the New York City Criminal Court building at 100 Centre Street. Uncle Herbert was married to one woman, my aunt Mariah--and had that elevator job and drank hard on the weekends--until the day he died. He had a bad relationship with his father, but in some ways he ended up doing the exact same thing with his life.
My mother met my father in that brownstone on 132nd Street, where she lived with her father and stepmother. My father was working in the building as a handyman; she was fifteen or sixteen years old. She ran off with him and got married, though she was forced from time to time to return with me to the house she was raised in. My grandfather never, ever forgave her for that. While Uncle Herbert waged an open war for independence from grandfather's control, my mother went back and forth between cowering under her father's intimidation and slipping away on her own. It's hard to say who won most of the time, but I know who was always in the middle of their fight: me.
My mother would buckle under a tongue-lashing from him, calling him "Father" and pleading with him. He'd cuss her out, and then I'd jump in and say "Don't you talk that way to my mother." She'd say, "Charlie, that's my father, you shut up." Grandfather would just laugh, because he just liked to piss me off. "I'll slap you to the floorboards, Blanche. I'll slap you to the floor," he'd go on. "No, you're not," I'd say, and run over to her, as he would be backing her down, jabbing his fist at her. "Oh, Father, please don't," she'd cry. But all it was was him showing me that he was in charge. He never hit her; he didn't have to to make his points. In fact, most of the time I was the one who got my behind whipped--by my mother, for interfering.
Grandfather was content to simply scare the hell out of her, yelling and balling up his fist at her. He was short and my mother was short--he would have so much fun just intimidating her. And I would really go at him. I know he didn't dislike me for doing that, but it created an atmosphere of unpleasantness. Grandfather was forever giving me chores to do--clean the steps, sweep the street, march up to the Bronx over the Madison Avenue bridge to buy day-old bread, go downstairs to get coal for the fire, gather horse manure from the street for his backyard garden. On reflection, the fact that he would raise hell with me showed that he really cared. It just wasn't in him to say it or act like it. Like I said,he was not on speaking terms with the word love. It was the language of intrafamily power and control that my grandfather spoke, as much as a man like my grandfather could actually have power and control in his life.
My beloved brother, Ralph, who died in 1975, was the oldest of my mother's three children. I came seven years after, on June 11, 1930, and my sister, Frances, three years later, in September 1933. Shortly after Ralph was born, my grandfather kidnapped him, after a fashion, and, along with Miss Indie, took him to Canada. I don't know a lot about it, except what my mother would tell me. Grandfather wanted to keep Ralph away from our father; in his mind, taking him to Canada at birth was somehow providing a safe, albeit temporary, haven. Grandfather was also determined to show her that she'd made a mistake, running off like that with my father so young, and then turning up with a baby at age nineteen. And my mother was just too weak to resist him.
It was no more than a visit to Canada, probably to see some relatives for a few days, but it was vintage Grandfather sending a message. You know how grandparents are. They love their newborn grandbabies to death, and they just know they would do a better job raising them than their own children will. My mother may have given birth, but mother or not, a grandfather's daughter will always be his child. He looks at her with that newborn in the bed and what does he see? His baby holding another baby.
When my daughter Alicia gave birth to her son, my grandson, in 2002, and I visited her in the hospital, she caught me staring down at her as though my mind was somewhere in the clouds. I had this great big smile on my face.
"Why are you smiling like that?" she asked. I said that I was thinking about how I used to grill my mother about Ralph's "kidnapping."
"How could you possibly allow your father to take your firstborn, just take him like that?" I used to ask her. "Didn't you fight? Didn't you scream? Didn't you yell? And what kind of guy was he to believe he could just take your child?"
Now my daughter looks at me, concerned.
"Well, why are you thinking about that here?" she asked.
"Because I'm thinking about taking your child right now!"
And, boy, did we laugh. I didn't snatch the child. But I could see for the first time what Grandfather was thinking. You just can't help feeling that a child is too important a thing to leave in the hands of a young mother. Especially, as in my grandfather's view, when you don't think the mother has too much on the ball. Of course, I'd never think that ofmy beloved Alicia, but there are those parents who do. It just took me until age seventy-two to understand them.
My mother must have done some amount of growing up in the seven years between having Ralph and having me. One thing is for sure, nobody was taking me away from her, though she did kind of ship me off to live with Uncle Herbert for a couple of years. Mom used to make it clear to me that whatever happened, she was stuck with me. Not that I was stuck with her, but she with me. We were always based in Grandfather's brownstone at 74 West 132nd Street--we called it "Buckingham Palace" like the one in England, or just "Seventy-four." By the time I came along I think she'd gotten enough legs under her to skip out of there on a regular basis to do her things, working or whatever. And when my mother would leave, maybe get a new boyfriend or something, I was the one who would always be with her. We looked alike, unlike my brother or my sister. She'd joke about it, in terms of how I was always around her apron strings.
My father was absolutely no good, but my mother loved him. In my earliest memory of him, and of being stuck to her, I must have been about five or six years old. My father was hitting my mother on the steps of some apartment-type building. I went and got a broom to hit my father. He started laughing at me and then just walked away. I guess I've hated him ever since. When he died, my sister asked me if I was going to the funeral. She said she wouldn't go unless I went. I really didn't want to, but because my mother still loved him, I agreed. My brother got along with my father a lot better, for some reason, but I never did. I belonged to my grandfather's home, to "Seventy-four," not my father's. I lived there all the time, except when my mother would leave the house and take me with her.
One thing is clear: My grandfather jumped right over me in terms of falling in love with my mother's kids. He fell in love with my sister, Frances, and he raised her. And he cared about my brother, Ralph. But I really couldn't get along with that Wharton clan, though it was the only family I had. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I was so tied to my mother, and she was so often going in and out of Seventy-four for the sake of love or a job--she often lived upstate while working as a maid in a Catskills resort hotel. I think each time she fell from grace, I had to fall right along with her, in some people's eyes if not my own.
But then again, I truly didn't get along with a lot of people when I was a kid. I remember so clearly visiting my uncle John, my grandfather's brother, who drove trucks for the U.S. Postal Service. He had his home in Long Island--Jamaica, Long Island. That's Queens, of course,but back then people still thought it was the same as Nassau or Suffolk County, the suburbs. He was the big shot in the family, with this big house, and when we kids would be visiting, they'd ask Ralph to dance or some such thing. And they'd give him a dime for dancing, and they'd point to me and say, "Well, he ain't gonna do nothing." And I wouldn't, either; I never got the dime. I just knew I wasn't getting that dime.
I guess they would say I had a mean streak in me. Once, I remember making Uncle John turn his car around on the Triboro Bridge--you could do that in those days--because I wanted to go home. He had to do it, 'cause I was raising so much hell, and I don't think he ever forgave me for it. I have to think that would be my attitude, too. If I were taking my daughter's kid somewhere and he raised so much hell I had to turn around, I'd be pissed for a good long time. So I can understand why I was not well liked. What I don't understand is if it was just that I was disliked and was responding to it, or whether I was responsible for being disliked. That's why I'm very tolerant of children today, even little bastards of children.
Everyone, of course, wants to be liked. But I think even then I figured that if I wasn't going to be well liked, I would be respected, or at least have my desires respected. The exception to this that stands out in my mind was a time I wasn't tied to my mother's coming and going for a couple of years. She was working upstate in a hotel as a maid, doing what they called "day's work," where she got paid by the day, some kind of contractual thing. All I know is that she decided not to take me for a change. She cut a deal with Uncle Herbert for me to live with him and his wife in the Bronx for two years. That had to be the roughest two years of my goddamn life. But I had big fun.
Poor Uncle Herbert. He didn't drink anything during the day, or at night for that matter, but there wasn't a weekend that he didn't get drunk. He was married to a very nice lady, Aunt Mariah. For the life of me, I don't know how she tolerated that guy. Damn, he was nice during the week, but he was rough on the weekends--definitely a Jekyll and Hyde situation. If it were today, Social Services would instantly intervene in the case of a kid caught up with an uncle who would get drunk and wash his own face with powdered chlorine bleach. He'd whip my ass on the weekends just to be whipping my ass. But he was always so ashamed of himself on Monday when Aunt Mariah told him what he had done.
Nobody got away from Uncle Herbert on the weekends. Nobody. He'd get drunk and go visit all his relatives. He'd go and embarrass everybody--I mean everybody! He'd get out to Uncle John's in Long Island. Uncle John used to make this homemade wine, and they'd cautionUncle Herbert, "Now, don't drink too much, Herbert." Shoot, Herbert had his own bottle on him. Nobody could figure out how Herbert got drunk so quickly, but I knew; Herbert carried his liquor with him.
The good news about living at Uncle Herbert's was going to school in the Bronx. He lived at 1478 Brook Avenue, in what we now think of as the poor black and Hispanic South Bronx. But back then it was an almost entirely white, working- to middle-class neighborhood. I don't remember ever having a black friend there. Everybody on the block knew us, and I guess we must have fit in. In those days people didn't always have telephones, so you'd give people the number of your closest candy store. The phone would ring and they'd shout the message up at your building: "Hey, Mr. Wharton, telephone call for ya nephew Chah-lee--it's his motha!"
I did pretty well in school there. Later, when I returned to P.S. 89 and Junior High School 139 in Harlem, I had enough going for me, in terms of confidence and good work habits, that studying was really no big deal. I really didn't appreciate it at the time, but that Bronx sojourn left me with some things that would work for me for the rest of my life. Among them, I have to assume, is what some people call my trademark New York accent.
Honestly, I never notice it. I was really amazed when I first went to Congress, and served on the Judiciary Committee, that they referred to me as the guy with the New York accent. Because I had no idea what a New York accent was. To me, it was just me. It was a Jewish neighborhood, and a predominantly Jewish school. I remember, after I got back to Harlem, the kids would just laugh and laugh at me for the way I talked. They'd say I talked like a white boy, a Jewish white boy. And I had no idea how I was talking. But it would be clear, from what older people would say, that I had picked up all of their accents, and all of their mannerisms, in what would have been my formative years, maybe age seven or eight or nine.
I'm convinced that my stay with Uncle Herbert, from an academic point of view, had to be a big plus. Aunt Mariah always made me do my homework. Before I got to that street, I had to get my work done. Now, when I did hit the street, apparently I was running with a pack of white boys. To hear Uncle Herbert tell it, I was leading a little gang of Jewish kids called the Black Pirates. He would laugh and say, "He's in charge of some white boys called the Black Pirates, can you imagine? This black kid, in charge?"
Uncle Herbert later said that back then I didn't know black from white. Maybe I didn't, but he damn sure did. Uncle Herbert was quite the black nationalist and Pan-Africanist in his day. He would take mewith him when he was doing the bars in Harlem on Saturdays. He'd take me in the bar with him, they'd tell him I couldn't stay, so he'd put me outside to wait for him. Shoot, that bastard once went on about his business and forgot he had left me out there. As an adult, I used to rib him, and say, "Uncle Herbert, how could you do that to me?" And he would just laugh.
He was a rebel--he'd be out there with those people on 125th Street and Seventh Avenue in the 1940s, where people would show up for political speeches, the old Garveyites and, later on, the Black Muslims. Some of the things he did! He would go and put all this thick grease into his hair, then go to a white barbershop and raise hell because they couldn't cut it. There was no way in hell they could cut it, mind you, because it was harder than lard. He would go down to Atlantic City, and order glasses of beer. Back then these places would break the glass after he drank from it, because he was black. So he'd go down there just to see how many glasses he could get them to break out of spite. He was a big supporter of Haile Selassie and Ethiopia against Mussolini and the Italians in the run-up to World War II, always bragging on how Selassie fought back against Italians--then a force in Harlem--in Africa.
And yet he was living in this white neighborhood in the Bronx. He damn sure didn't socialize with any of them. He didn't have a white friend. Of course, I don't remember him having any black friends either. All Uncle Herbert needed in life was Aunt Mariah, a job, and picking up those jugs on Friday. During the week, though, he was "Mr. Personality" down there in the New York State Court building. I used to go down there and hear him call out to whoever was the attorney general, welcoming him into the first car in the bank--his privilege as the senior elevator operator--"Hey, General," he'd shout. He'd laugh at me, hanging out with those white kids around Brook Avenue in the Bronx. But I was getting good grades, and he was thankful that his wife was doing such a good job guiding me. One sure thing in my life back then was that I knew Aunt Mariah loved me. And boy, oh boy, could that woman cook!
Uncle Herbert used to tell my mother that he wasn't gonna give me back. Jesus, did I hope he was joking. Of course he was, and when my mother did take me back she moved me to a place on 137th Street that was more or less my home until I joined the army. I don't think there's a lot to be gained talking about the rough life with my mother and her boyfriends during that time. Suffice it to say that I knew when I was sixteen years old that it just wasn't working. Even though I was getting pretty good grades in DeWitt Clinton High School, I was torn betweenlife tied to my mother and being on my own. I guess all teenagers go through it, but I knew I really had to get out.
My brother knew he had to get out of that mess, too. I loved my brother so much; I still do. His way out was the army. In 1941, probably in the summer, definitely before Pearl Harbor, he volunteered. We'd write each other all the time, and he sent my mother an allotment from his pay. When he came home in 1945 I was fifteen, and we started hanging out, big time. I have so many photographs of us together with "his gang," and "my gang," and "our gang."
What I do want to say about life after Uncle Herbert and the Bronx is that I tore it up at P.S. 89 in Harlem. Because Harlem was still such a mecca at that time, every successful black who grew up there went to P.S. 89. Put another way, if you were in Harlem it was also the only place to go. So we had commissioners, doctors, judges, and the like, everyone who survived Harlem and went on to Columbia and places like that started off in P.S. 89.
As I said, something about going to that school with all those white kids, and holding my own, instilled a lot of confidence in me. Maybe too much for my own good, as I would learn in a hard lesson about arrogance after I got out of the army. But for the rest of grade school I was bright as hell, and mischievous. I was taking a lot of stuff from other kids about the Bronx mannerisms I'd picked up, but one teacher at P.S. 89, Nettie Messenger, fell absolutely in love with me--and my intonation.
It probably wasn't love at first sight. She was a substitute teacher, and we prided ourselves on finding ways to send them packing, in tears. She left her purse on the desk, so we took it--not to take anything in it but to give her a hard time. But after I returned it without taking anything, she acted like nothing happened and stuck it out. Once, after she became permanent, she caught me drawing dirty pictures--I had a little talent for art back then--in a kind of booklet made from notepaper stapled in the corner. She grabbed it from me, and said I should be ashamed, but she didn't tear it up. Later, at the ice cream parlor where we went for milk shakes and such and the teachers ate lunch, I caught her sharing my book of nasty pictures with her friends.
As a young teacher she just assumed we were disorderly kids, and we were. Before I left her class, she got me to use my talent to draw a whole set of transparencies on the history of flight--from Daedalus and Icarus to the Wright Brothers. She used them to teach that unit until she retired. We kept in touch (years later we even laughed when I told her I knew what she did with my dirty pictures) and became close friends for the rest of her life. When I was in the army we exchanged letters, and when I went back to school in the fifties shewas so proud of me. On one of her postretirement visits to my home in Washington she returned those transparencies to me. I went to her funeral in Los Angeles in 1994.
I always had a job. I had been working since I was eight or nine or ten years old. I don't know if my grandfather made me do it or not, but I know I didn't mind doing it. One of the first jobs I ever had was at the Model Drug Store, on the corner of 133rd and Lenox Avenue. It was a big deal, and I was a little big shot for having that job. My arrogance was in full effect. Then one day I tried to ring up a sale and got the register tape all screwed up. My grandfather was so embarrassed he cursed me out.
The Model was one of those luncheonette and pharmacy combinations that were popular in the day, with a lunch counter with stools and such on one side, pharmacy and drugstore items on the other side, and a storage room behind that. I swore I ran it all. I was so damned good, or so I thought, that whatever came up with customers, for either side of the store, I just assumed I could handle it and jumped right up. Most of the time the pharmacist who owned the store--everybody called him Doc--would just sit on a stool, killing time at the counter, and let me run the show.
Once this pretty lady comes in. Doc is sitting on a stool at the soda fountain, flirting with some gal. I'm behind the pharmacy counter, and the lady asks for some sanitary napkins.
"Uhhh, we don't carry that," I said.
"Yes, you do," she said, "they're all ready, wrapped in boxes in the back."
So I yell to Doc, at the counter, "Hey, do we have any clean napkins, this lady says she needs some ..."
See, I hear "sanitary" and I thought she meant napkins that were clean. I just assumed she was in the wrong place--you bought napkins in a grocery store. Women just didn't talk openly about such things in those days. In fact, the boxes were all prewrapped in plain paper--you never even saw pictures of the product. People forget, but back then, and to this day, black folks are very conservative in some ways. We're always hearing this garbage about moral values, and how Democrats and urbanites don't have them, but most parties to this debate have no idea how conservative black folks are. I think it has more to do with being from the South, especially back then, than being black. When Iwas in the army I remember so many Southerners complaining about constipation problems, because they just couldn't bring themselves to squat alongside other men on the rows of open toilets in the latrines. Some of them would wait until the middle of the night to catch a shower alone, rather than be naked in a group. Meanwhile, they insisted that New Yorkers were some kind of perverts regarding body functions and sex practices, accusing us of actually letting women put their tongues in our mouths. I remember this one guy from Georgia whose mantra was "I wouldn't suck nobody's titty but my mama's."
But I had already seen it all, starting at the Model Drug Store. Talk about body fluids! We used to bleed people, with leeches! Oh, did I love doing that. Somebody comes in with a black eye and we'd bleed them, for a quarter. We had a big jar full of leeches. You reach in, take out the leech, "OK, now put your head a little closer," bingo! I'd watch that leech suck up that bad blood, puff, puff, puff up, and then fall down. They let me do everything. I'd make up the castor oil bottles, breaking it down from the five-gallon cans and putting it into little bottles with the Model Drug Store label on them and the dosage. If you needed a dose on the spot, then I'd go over to the other side and tell "The Greek"--that's what we called the man running the lunch counter side--to give you a milk shake. I'd spike it with a little castor oil, clean up the bottle, and make an extra quarter on the deal.
All the people running the drugstore were white, but there were so many black folks--real characters--involved when I first started hustling to make a little money. I was a paperboy for a newspaper that Adam Clayton Powell was putting out. You'd go to his headquarters at Abyssinian Baptist Church, buy the newspapers, and then sell them, at a terrific markup. When I started, I remember Mr. Newbie, the West Indian tailor, telling me, in his thick accent: "Baye, ya can't sell newspapers unless ya have a newspaper bag, ya got ta have a bag, baye." He made me go home and get some old clothes for him to stitch up into a right sharp sack for serving newspapers. I'd go back to the Bronx, in the area where I used to live, and sell the papers.
One of Adam Powell's guys--I think it was Acy Lennon--ran the newspaper. We sold them on consignment, and I remember one day it was raining, and I hadn't sold many, and he wouldn't give me my money back. He was a big guy, one of Adam's longtime right-hand henchmen. I had to go get my grandfather--all five-foot-something of him--to get me back my damn money. I also sold the old New York Post up there, going door to door and in and out of the candy stores. I don't remember making any money, but I did win a bicycle. Grandfather had no fearof the powers that had been in Harlem. He wasn't a man of means, but he did have that brownstone, and that family name--Wharton--and underneath all his common workingman front he was so damn proud of it. He would never admit it, but he was effectively cut off from the family wealth in Accomac, such as it was.
The wealth was primarily in agricultural property, but when his father, Frazer, died, Grandfather didn't inherit. He was the oldest of the fifteen kids, remember, and he had a different mother than the rest of them. It wasn't so much that the gang didn't accept him as it was that he had left them so early on and come to New York. Half of his half-brothers stayed on the farm, and half of them got the hell out of Accomac and went on to do pretty well for themselves. Clifton Wharton Sr., whose father got all the way to Boston, was a big State Department guy as far back as the forties. He became the first "Negro" ambassador to represent the United States of America. His son, Clifton Jr., was a deputy secretary of state under Bill Clinton, and ran TIAA-CREF, one of the largest retirement fund companies in the world, for many years before that. Cliff Jr. lived across the street from us, in the newly built, fashionable Lenox Terrace Apartments, in the fifties and sixties. But his grandfather, a cousin and good buddy to my grandfather, was uneducated, from right off the farm.
To tell the truth, my great-grandfather Frazer Wharton was a wealthy man, a truly bad dude, running all those county fairs I remember from childhood. But with all those kids, who were never able to consolidate and leverage the value of that land, it didn't amount to much after he died. Still, my grandfather never felt dispossessed of the family glory, probably because, uneducated elevator operator that he was, he always had an important place in the family geometry, the point where all the lines, lighter-skinned and darker, richer and poorer, professional and menial, often met.
My grandfather had three sets of clothes: the clothes he felt comfortable in, his overalls; his uniform as an elevator operator; and when he got sharp, the clothes from the attic that made him look like Beau Brummell. But most of the time he wore his overalls. I remember him in those overalls when his cousin Cliff Wharton Sr., the State Department big shot, would sometimes show up in this big black Cadillac limousine. Whenever I saw that thing pull up, I just knew I was getting a dollar, which was like a hundred dollars in those days. The movie house on the corner where we lived only cost eleven cents. A whole dollar! I just knew this guy was rich. He and Grandfather would go into the kitchen, overalls and ambassador suit, close the door, and just talk and talk. And every time he left, and that Caddy pulled away, the boys wouldsay "Hey, Charlie, who died?" Because that's all a black Cadillac meant to them--a funeral.
Whenever somebody actually did die, or the Wharton clan had some other reason to gather in New York, they stayed at "Seventy-four." Grandfather was the grand host: sending out for food, like rotisserie chicken from the place on "36th" Street--that's 136th Street if you're not from Harlem--or the place on Seventh Avenue for fried oysters. As with all families, funerals put all the eternal family lore, and all the outstanding family grievances, onto the living room couch and back against the kitchen sink for debate. And in my family that debate was lubricated by alcohol. One thing you could depend on at a Wharton clan gathering: There was gonna be liquor and there was gonna be an argument. Usually, the argument was about who Grandpa Frazer loved the most. But sometimes it was about which Wharton kin they knew, or at least suspected, were passing for white.
One time they all came up to New York because one of their relatives was dying, and they wanted to see him. They sent my overall-wearing grandfather to the hospital to see a pharmacist cousin, who was passing for white. Grandfather was about the only one in the family who even kept up with this man. He would visit with him like he was some old colored hand, and they would talk. So now that he was dying, the family asked Grandfather to let him know that the family had come up from Accomac because they heard he was sick as hell. I was in the living room when Grandfather came back and told them that the cousin apologized and said he really wished he had lived his life differently. He asked Grandfather to tell them he appreciated their coming, but the whole thing was too much to explain; they should just go on back to Accomac. Poor bastard was buried and they couldn't even go to the funeral. But my grandfather could, and did, in the role of the "colored fellow" who always used to come up to see him. The colored fellow who knew the family.
Boy, did Grandfather dress up sharp for those funerals.
Passing Whartons, some verified, some merely suspected, were just another part of the family lore. They'd tell the stories, and point the fingers, but there wasn't really any tension--the whites were the whites and that was that. There was a John Wharton who became the superintendent of this big post office in Manhattan, the same post office that my uncle John who lived in Queens worked out of. Uncle John drove a U.S.Postal Service truck, a very prestigious job for a Negro in those days. But because he was so fair-skinned, his black co-workers would tease him that he looked just like the white superintendent, who just happened to have the same name. "John, that must be your brother," they would tease. Of course, as it turned out, they were in fact distantly related, but Uncle John couldn't ever let them know!
I think my grandfather, as the oldest of Frazer's kids, saw himself as a kind of reality check on the far-flung, sometimes alienated reaches of the Wharton empire. One summer, when I was in law school, he insisted that I accompany his brother Roscoe, and Roscoe's girlfriend, on his annual vacation pilgrimage by car from Baltimore to Martha's Vineyard. Uncle Roscoe was a dark-skinned, untrained elevator operator in Baltimore, who was somewhat cut off from a bunch of well-educated Whartons who were big-time teachers and administrators in the public schools there. Every year he'd haul out this old Cadillac that he kept shined up, and take his time getting up to Martha's Vineyard, stopping at every relative's house along the way and spending the night. That was his vacation.
"Grandfather," I complained, "this is stupid. Why are you asking me to do this? I got homework to do, I got a job ... ."
"Goddamn it," he came back at me, "can't you do any goddamn thing I ask you? Listen, there are those goddamn people down there in the family passing for white. They don't even talk to my brother. But damn it, they don't mind black folks if they're going to school. One of 'em is even married to a black guy, a goddamn professor down there."
"What the hell does that have to do with me?"
"Well, goddamn, you're black, and you're going to law school," he says, putting his foot down.
Being in law school made me the perfect calling card to ride shotgun with Roscoe, who, of course, was really standing in for Grandfather. For Grandfather's part, he was standing up for his brother and sending a message: We were black, and he and Roscoe were uneducated elevator operators, but I was about to become a professional, a somebody. Boy, was I in for a ride!
So Roscoe's going to show me off to his white and near-white relatives--who don't talk to his elevator-driving ass--all the way to Martha's Vineyard, starting from New York, where he picked me up. We get to Boston about two o'clock in the morning, and he insists on going to see his brother Sam. So I'm in the car with his girlfriend, Kitty. We wait fifteen minutes, twenty minutes--forty minutes go by. She says go upstairs and get your uncle, but I don't even know where the hell he went. Suddenly he comes storming out, yelling, "That no good, rotten son of abitch ..." We ask "What is it?" and he tells us to mind our goddamn business. "Let's go to Cousin Marie's," he insists, and his jaws are tight the whole way. We get to Marie's, who had a brownstone similar to my grandfather's, and she sweetly settles us in for the night. Then, at six or seven o'clock in the morning, there's this big fight in the kitchen. I hear it, and I say, "Kitty, Kitty, what the hell is going on?" Kitty said Roscoe was downstairs fighting with his brother Sam. Roscoe was pissed off because Sam wouldn't let him into his house the night before. Sam was passing for white and his wife didn't know it!
For years in the thirties and later in the forties, when my mother was "in" at "Seventy-four," my brother Ralph and I shared the same bed. In my teens we really were only together for three years--in between the end of his hitch in World War II and when I volunteered for the army. In those three years, 1945 to 1948, we were the Brothers Rangel. He was dating a lot of girls, I was dating a lot of girls. We sometimes even dated the same girl. We were inseparable. I see them as a kind of Golden Age, when my big brother came back from the war and found me worthy and grown-up enough, at age fifteen, to hang tough with him at twenty-two. I had my own crew, we called ourselves Les Garçons, but Ralph and I were a thing unto ourselves.
Even when we fought with each other, we were brothers. Once, when I was discharged, he had a club that was giving an affair at Small's Paradise. This was when I was a brand-new Korean War hero. I had a date, elsewhere, but he wanted me to go in and be with him and his club members, he was so proud of me. And I wanted to go on my date; I just stopped by to say hello. He got a little belligerent with me, pulled on my coat, and we started fighting. Then one of his buddies jumps in and hits me; so we turned around and the both of us whipped the hell out of his buddy. Then we didn't talk for weeks. The game we played was that we just knew what the other was thinking. It was that way from childhood, the same way that married couples can complete each other's sentences.
While I was tied to my mother's apron, he was always running away. He'd show up at "Seventy-four" late at night; my sister, Frances, would let him in; and he'd leave early in the morning. He was a streets kind of guy--that's why he went off to the army. The army, then as now, was a common way out for people who were backing into a choice between risking their lives on the street or in a foreign war zone. When I was ayoung lawyer, a lot of troubled kids escaped from the streets to the army via the court system. I got a lot of cases just by reputation, but for most of them I wasn't even paid. A kid would get arrested for some petty crime and the family, if there was any, was usually without funds. I'd take them before Judge Maurice Gray, who was a friend. And when it appeared as though there was no father in the house, the mother was working, and the kid was out of control, Judge Gray would always be prepared to accept joining the military as an alternative to going to jail. When they enlisted, the charges were dismissed.
My brother, Ralph, married and had children soon after he left the service, which stopped him from taking advantage of the GI Bill. He simply couldn't work to feed his family and go to college at the same time. He started working for the New York State Department of Employment, where he remained for many years. Looking back, I still marvel at how we made it at all. When I talk to people who grew up in middle-class households, where going to college was a given, I'm just amazed. I mean, college wasn't even mentioned in our house when we were growing up. If it was mentioned, it was for someone else, not for us. This experience of living as "less than" could have been painful for me. But for some reason--call it a quirk--I simply tend to forget the hardest experiences of deprivation or humiliation. Even when I'm reminded, I have never been one to long for the "good old days." There's an expression in the army that sums up my attitude nicely: "Every soldier believes his last base was the best one."
The "good old days" were rough times. I used to keep a hole in my shoes. My brother and I used to joke that our shoes were so bad, with the holes in our soles, that we had developed "radar feet." If there was a piece of glass in the street, we never had to look down; our feet would just automatically avoid it. There was a guy with a shoe-repair shop down the street from us. When people didn't pick up their shoes, he'd shine them up and sell them. That's probably how I got my bad feet, but at the time I thought that was where everybody got their shoes.
When my grandfather died, I knew he wanted to be buried next to his mother, in Accomac, and that's where he is. He never saw me take my seat in Congress, or in the New York State Assembly for that matter. But if I had to thank anyone for the fact that I got there I'm amazed to say it would have to be him. It is from thinking about this book that I've come realize that the only reason I would one day blurt out that I wanted to be a lawyer was because of him.
If he had worked in a hospital I could have been a brain surgeon. But because he worked in the Criminal Court building, always looking up to the lawyers he was lifting all day long, that's what I ended up wantingto become, a lawyer. So I can't say I got my love of law, or politics, or even people from him. But what I did get from him was a context, a kind of kitchen college, a wisdom from the bottom of the cup. He was so unsentimental, and for the longest time I just saw one mean old man in it. For example, when I was in my twenties, after the army and then going to school, I hung tough at the big-name Harlem nightspots and later worked at the now legendary Hotel Theresa, which catered to the headliners appearing at the Apollo Theatre around the corner as well as other big shots. No one could tell me that Harlem and I weren't hot stuff.
But down in the kitchen, Grandfather would sometimes talk about Harlem's heydays of the twenties and thirties, and he made it clear that they were not any Renaissance for him. The nightspots that were glorified catered to white people from downtown. Their limousines were parked in front, but he couldn't even get a job in many of those places. Talking about me working in the Hotel Theresa--twenty years earlier he couldn't even go into the Hotel Theresa and be served.
Now, this was where Adam Powell came in, at the beginning of the war, and said, "This is wrong." Quite frankly, I don't see how blacks tolerated it all even that long. But Adam is the one who really turned the thing around. I'm very proud of the resurgence of Harlem, all the bustle and new buildings I can see every day from the windows of my district office. But the connection to past black glory is false, because all of these legends--the Apollo, the Cotton Club--weren't built for black folks, like the new Magic Johnson Theatres down the street from me were built for black folks. It was Adam Powell who broke the mold of people accepting a position of inferiority in our own community. He started marching on 125th Street, and picketing stores like Woolworth's, until blacks could work there. It's painful but important to remember that blacks still couldn't get jobs in the best restaurants on 125th Street when I was a teenager, much less eat in them.
So I'd have these conversations with my grandfather, in the kitchen in the forties and fifties, when the history was still recent and still plain all around us if we just opened our eyes. People find it very easy to remember the good times and forget the bad, but Harlem was a racist place. If you want to talk about Count Basie, Duke Ellington ... the wonderful people ... the yellow dancing gals at the Cotton Club, you can. But you don't talk about how many blacks could actually go in, order a drink, and see a show. There is no question that Grandfather's talk affected my views coming up. He never allowed anyone to believe he had an easy time in Harlem. Harlem was a rough place for him. As ateenager I remember listening to nationalists on 125th Street, condemning this thing called white supremacy, and lynching, and advocating black causes. But they were so much more entertainment than anything else. It wasn't until Malcolm X came along that what my grandfather had said, what my militant pan-Africanist Uncle Herbert used to go on about, finally made sense.
They really did think we were chattel. They really did take away our identity, so many of my uncles and cousins bumping around, just one and two generations out of slavery. They really did erase anything that would allow us to believe we were somebody from somewhere. And even today the stigma of slavery is still here. It's in the air. Black kids have it, and their parents have had it, and their grandparents have had it. You've got to rebut the presumption that you aren't just as good as a white person, and to do that you have to become better, make more of yourself--from less.
African Americans see ourselves as a minority in our own country, without any sense of Europeans being a minority in the world. How a handful of Europeans could have done that to the entire world, for so long, I'll never understand. Maybe I have to do more reading. In my old age I'm also trying to make sense--moral sense--of the insanity of today's Washington, and what it's got to do with my story and all our stories, our human American story. I want to understand how people are once again so silent, when we're changing the tax laws to put the burden on working people, when we're cutting back on government programs, when we're bombing people senseless without declaring war, when we're coercing smaller countries. And everyone is quiet! The religious leaders, the business sector--everyone is quiet.
Even in the early fifties we were still pretty quiet about the Jews who had recently been exterminated in Germany, and the drunk Senator McCarthy destroying people's lives by innuendo. We were mostly quiet about the lynchings and mutilations of black folks still taking place down South. Still, in my postwar Harlem, the Hotel Theresa, the Savoy, and so many other places that were off limits to blacks opened up to become part of a brief Renaissance that black people could actually enjoy. Unfortunately, some of them made a point of retaining the pretensions of the whites who had preceded them. While I was working at the Hotel Theresa, even people who were not guests of the hotel would ask me to page them, so that people would know that at least they were in the lobby.
Like I said, my people hail from Accomac, Virginia, the land where the seeds of America in black and white were well planted before we were uprooted north. Being half-white meant nothing to my great-grandfather; being one quarter white meant even less to his son Charlie, for whom I was named. Once it was decided you were black, and weren't passing, it didn't make any difference what your complexion was, except perhaps for other blacks enslaved by the mentality coded into the old Negro signify: "If you're white you're right, if you're brown stick around, if you're black get back." These things were said in jest, but when I first went to Washington, D.C., in 1971 no less, the remnants of this mentality were still clear with professionals in my age group. I saw how the neighborhoods--the black neighborhoods--were broken down by wealth and color in a black-majority city that didn't even have the pitiful measure of home rule it has today.
I was forty, and I used to say that I couldn't comprehend how the black mind could be so bent as to adopt these prejudices. But now I understand. It was what Grandfather was trying to tell me all along. But my perspective, coming of age in Harlem in the decade following World War II, didn't afford me a good angle on the truth.
AND I HAVEN'T HAD A BAD DAY SINCE. Copyright © 2007 by Charles B. Rangel.