The buzz was sometimes bitter, sometimes complaining, sometimes boasting, always shot through with a quick line of laughter. The subject of white folks was never far away: Man, Akbar said one day, you see what they doing now? They talking about making kayaking and synchronized swimming Olympic events. Everybody knows Black people don't like the water. Just another racist scheme to keep us from those medals.
Yeah, man, replied Little Bit. You right. Why don't those white people make double Dutch jump rope an Olympic event?
Exactly, and I'll tell you why. Akbar again. Because Mali and Kenya and Ghana'd be up there on that stand, little Black angels giving a black eye to the festival of whiteness.
Yeah, man. Thunderbird now. Or, why not Olympic dominoes? Then you'd see my sweet ass up on that stand, saying, What's the word?
Your sorry ass could not climb the stairs.
Pride, rebellion, laughter.
In the middle of that long, hot summer, something red and violent swept through our neighborhood—to some it was an urban uprising, a rebellion, to others Black anarchy, a ghetto riot. I had an ancient gold Oldsmobile we called the Boat, and I drove a daily shuttle to the hospital with the injured, or to the grocery outside the blockaded area to buy staples to distribute free from our office. Everything was smoke and fire, rumor and incitement.
Stories swept up the street faster than fire: cops on Superior Street beat a woman on her way to church, and on St. Clair a cop shot a boy point-blank and called him "nigger." But on Euclid two cop cars were burned to a crisp, a bank was trashed, and money was blowing in great gusts down the street. True or not, each story was embraced and passed along, each somehow true simply because it was believed.
The strange thing was to live in an atmosphere simultaneously terrifying and deeply energizing. The mood was festive one minute, like a giant community picnic, everyone laughing and sharing and handing things around—although the things being handed around weren't hamburgers but stolen goods, passed through broken windows—and the next minute there was the sound of shots fired from somewhere, or the sight of flames leaping suddenly to life, and we would all turn and scatter. One afternoon I saw thirty or forty people—young and old, men and women, the respectable as well as the neighborhood characters—together pulling to tear a grate off the large plate-glass window of the supermarket. No one urged caution, no one objected.
And that night Donald Hall, a kid who worked with the Community Union but would, in a year, join a Black nationalist group and change his name to Jamal Daoud, showed up at our apartment, singed and smoky, and took a shower and left with fresh clothes from Alex.
There was talk of pigs and honkies, yet the action was still in some ways selective, in some sense restrained. When a dozen storefronts were smashed in, it was remarkable that Tony's Pizzeria was untouched—Tony had lived with his family upstairs for years and was well known and well liked, and he was poor like everyone else.
Returning from the hospital one night after curfew, Alex and I were surprised at a checkpoint on Lakeview Avenue, stopped at gunpoint, spread-eagled on the pavement, searched and released. The baby-faced Ohio National Guardsman who, sweating and breathing heavily, searched me, looked wide-eyed and terrified. So was I.