Traumatic Tattoos

Main Street (Aultman Avenue) in my adopted hometown of Ely, NV. I left my birthplace before six months old, and Ely is where all my memories live. It’s a calming image in these violent, unjust times. Ely is the single most remote city in America. 238 miles to Las Vegas, 247 to SLC, and 364 to Reno. Back then the BLM most locals hated was not “Black Lives Matter,” but the Federal “Bureau of Land Management,” stewards of 87% of Nevada’s wide open spaces.

It was here — in direct experience, and via TV imported on microwave repeaters from Salt Lake City — that I learned everything I would know about African Americans, until I left at eighteen and encountered black people more extensively in places that were not as isolated, 250 miles from everything.

It would be untrue to say I never met any black people in Ely. Bill Woods was the court reporter when my dad was White Pine County District Attorney from 1975-1978. Bill lived, with his wife Mary and daughter Anna, one street over from us on “The Terrace” — a post WWII subdivision of small, ranch houses on the hill overlooking the town. (You can see The Terrace houses toward the right-center of this picture, at the dividing line between dry-brown grasses and purple mountains’ majesty.)

We had a few occasions to tag along with Dad, visiting Bill and his wonderful family in their home through the years. I also delivered his newspapers for three years, collecting the subscription money each month, face to face. Bill was unfailingly not condescending — talked to me like a person, an adult. Mary was one of the nicest women I ever met, and Anna one of the happiest and outgoing kids, though she was 5 years older than I.

The other black family in my time in Ely was that of police officer June Carter. I didn’t know him at all, but he was around, visible, involved with busting up a few high school parties in the hills. His name crossed the lips of many high school peers, sometimes in racist epithet. Today, I find it unsurprising that both of the African American families in Ely were involved in the justice system.

That is my sum total exposure to black people before I was 17. I was certainly never taught (as a child) about the Golden Triangle slave trade, and its impact on the blackness of the Carribean, so I will not count or name the Ely family adamant they were Puerto Rican. Older and “wiser,” seeing the abuse piled relentlessly upon the everyday moments of being African American in this country, I now understand (can assume?) why they identified that way.

It would, however, be a shameful lie to say that this constitutes the entire experience shaping me and my attitudes.

Grandpa called Brazil nuts “N****** Toes.” He died when I was 12. The doctor who put thirty-five stitches in my face at age 8, told the most atrociously racist joke I’ve ever heard, passing time as he worked and I lay traumatized on the emergency room operating table.

He couldn’t remove all the rocks and dirt from the lacerations that consumed the left side of my face — debris installed by my face-first crash into gravel-strewn pavement, from the handlebars of a bike.

To this day I display a faint, but visible arc around my left eye socket. Doctors call such visible scars a “traumatic tattoo.” Invisible is the more devastating traumatic tattoo — the deeply carved scar/rut of that prejudicial… no, pornographic* joke, told to an 8 year old by a respected adult authority.

(*I don’t mean pornographic sexually… rather, in the sense of “having a mediated view of a real thing I had not experienced,” shoved into my brain, coloring the lens through which I would see every black person thereafter. I had been tainted, prejudiced for all future encounters by this “pink elephant” in my brain, no matter how much I tried to NOT think of it. In much the same way a young man exposed to sexual pornography might think it shows how women “really want to be treated,” or “what they really like.” The same way such a man would have love and respect tainted, forever, even if he recovered to some degree. There is no erasing pornographic imagery, regardless of its nature. If some of you are lucky enough to suppress or erase your memories, I am jealous.)

There were also the media exposures of that time — Uncle Remus’s “Bre’r Rabbit” and “the Tar Baby” taught in my Catholic grade school. Disney’s “Song of the South.” Heckle and Jeckyl, the cartoon Black Crows. Good Times. Huck Finn. The Jeffersons. To Sir with Love. The Flip Wilson Show. Brian’s Song. Doctor J. Huggy Bear, the pimp on Starsky and Hutch.

Limited positive representation outside of music or sports, rarely reinforced by news. Images delivered on TV News typically hewed toward inciting fear, reinforcing criminal stereotypes.

I vividly recall the 1978 televised announcement by Spencer W. Kimball, the head of the Mormon Church, saying God had revealed to him that black people could be priests. As a devout Catholic trained to accept the Pope’s infallible proclamations, I remember being shocked at the amount of discussion this generated in our heavily Mormon town.

By high-school, playing sports for the White Pine County Bobcats, the head golf-pro and occasional substitute coach had taught us a multi-player, putting/gambling game he called “N***** Roadies.” The rules? “If you lose, you pay everybody who beats you.”

In basketball, we had to face “Vo-Tech,” the Las Vegas Vocational/Technical School’s all black basketball team. “Face” doesn’t sound right. They smoked us. On multiple occasions there was nothing I could do other than turn and watch one of their players dunk on yet another hapless Bobcat. But I heard the ugly chants directed against their team, cheerleaders, and fans, bussed in to Ely for the game.

I only report my memories of the time. I do not justify or excuse them — the entire Vo-Tech team were completely exotic to me then, in a way any new experience is. And, as with any new experience, I looked for cues how to integrate them with everything else I knew. Funny that word. “Integrate.” I found no local cues suggesting I should integrate.

Today we see the opposite of integration is not “segregation,” but “disintegration.”

Forty-six years after the bicycle crash I look at myself in the mirror. I can still see Ely’s dirt around my left eye. I still hear that joke echo. One hundred and fifty-five years since Abraham Lincoln tried to stitch the Union back together and was murdered for the effort, I still see the dirt of our nation’s original sin, as police choke the life from yet another black man, and rain rubber bullets, tear gas, and truncheons on citizens protesting police brutality.

Traumatic tattoos never disappear, even if they fade and soften. I wish I could eliminate those early impressions on my face and mind. I wish we, as Americans could heal our disfiguring scar. Or even have the guts to look at it in the mirror.

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Stay tuned for further tales from my treasure-chest of oblivious and naive upbringing, in matters of race, and a few “too-late-in-life” epiphanies.

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