It was true that he lurked outside the A & P and true too that he stared. When one glanced away from him, Russell had moved from his typical base – a shuffling path among the shopping carts just outside the electronic doors – to walking right alongside your car. It was startling how he seemed to have teleported the distance. Mom always locked the doors when we saw Russell in the parking lot.
“Some say he’s harmless,” she’d say. “But I don’t know…”
We were terrified of Russell Green. A tall black man of indeterminate years, he was a fixture of our childhood. At least on days when we went grocery shopping. Looking back, I can’t think of a single thing he ever did in our presence to evoke our response to him. Except perhaps to be born black – something that in the south is a handicap and a risk in the eyes of many.
Mom once said she’d heard he was quite a scholar in his youth, but that he’d been roughed up by some boys (I always assumed they were white) and had taken a blow on the head. Her tone implied it was pitiable, but she still locked up the station wagon when she saw him. I didn’t know what to do with his backstory when I was a kid, but in the years since I’ve colored it until he is almost a mythic martyr. I imagine him as a slender youth, dressed in a cardigan, wearing smart glasses like Malcolm X. The light glints off of the frames as he sits under a tree, writing an essay for school. His mother is Oprah Winfrey and she nails it in a calico apron, a modern day queen sitting in makeup for three hours to give her the dry elbows of a hotel maid.
The truth is it is hard to imagine it differently for me. My understanding of the black struggle has been spoon fed to me through the lens of too many white film makers. Perhaps the legend of Russell was partly true – that he was good in school. But maybe he would have wanted to use those smarts to get a job at IBM and not to change the world in protest. That would not occur to me because when white storytellers tell black lives, they talk about blacks who changed America via the remove of a dais and a microphone.
When I try to put the pieces together about Russell – and maybe it is fetishizing to even try or an exercise in lancing the boil of childhood’s racism – I come up short. He was a black man and some said a mad man and he was a lurker and a looker, but more than that he was a stranger. The fact that he spent his time skulking or loitering the parking lot of the grocery store gave him an unglamorous fame and because of that he sticks out in my memory. To be fairer still, the A & P was in his neighborhood and he never bothered anyone, never hurled insults or begged favors. He was just there. In an odd way, showing up on the regular gave him name recognition, a perverse argument in favor of the marketing stratagem of consistent exposure.
Nowadays it might not happen so, if for no other reason than that the grocery store would be on the outskirts of town in a well-lit suburban haven on the other side of too many highways for the lost or the deranged of neighborhoods to wander upon. The A & P of my childhood was on South Street, but all the white grownups I knew called that area Nigger Town. This because this short road of small stucco houses – being evermore bought up and leveled for strip malls and burger huts – was where black people lived. It had no jurisdiction of its own, no real autonomy and independence from the mechanisms of a white establishment. So while there was nothing to threaten the status quo on these three blocks except perhaps one mad man walking the rows of the parking lot, daring to stare at white families in their wood-paneled station wagons – it clearly needed a name to delineate it from the rest of town, to demarcate the differences between us and to levy upon the darker skinned a moniker meant to demean.
Then black artists took that same word and made it their own. Still white people chafe not that it exists but that now it is wielded by black hands, spoken by black lips, linked to new cultural moorings by black ingenuity and will. We hear the debate: why is it okay when they say it? I will not speak for black people to answer; they have their own voice. What little I can do is to peel back every ignorant thing I ever learned to expose and dismiss it, one remembrance at a time.
In the minds of my people, Russell was to be feared and to locked out, but it has become clear to me in my life that the real social menace was on the inside of the glass all along.