(Please read the article if you want to know more about what was going on that year_
I wasn’t going to publish this so soon, but I believe it’s important to tell my story, because it explains why I write what I do. As I have meditated on this, it explains why Maggie is the way she is. Someone once wrote in a review of my first book, “Janet R. Stafford is Saint Maggie.”
I used to argue that I’m not. She’s too good. And there’s a part of me that is also Eli.
But I think I can see where, like a child, she has some of my DNA.
What follows is one of those DNA strands.
As I mentioned in the previous blog, a big jump in my growth as an individual occurred during my sophomore year in high school. When I walked into my Block of Time class (translation: English/Social Studies/History) for the first time in the fall of 1967, I found a young Black man standing at the front of the class. His name was John Pinkard.
Now, I have no idea what it must have been like to have been the only African American teacher in a school full of lily-white students. And I’m not saying that because of him I became totally woke. Far from it. Being “woke” is a journey and I’m still on it. A long one. But John Pinkard was one of the important people who walked with me on that journey.
I think one of the ways Mr. Pinkard hooked us was that he was funny. Hey, humor is a powerful ice breaker, as well as a mighty weapon! But he also was honest with us. We saw that he actually cared about what we thought and what we learned. And, additionally important, he helped us navigate the tumultuous school year of 1967-1968.
Here’s some highlights from 1967: The USA was in the thick of the Vietnam war. The hippie movement was in full swing – the “Summer of Love,” drugs like LSD and marijuana were openly discussed (and used). There were protests: a violent one against Dow Chemicals (maker of napalm) in Madison, WI. A more peaceful one, the “March on the Pentagon,” drew 50,000 protestors in October. Black Panther leader Huey Newton got into a gun battle when he was pulled over at a traffic stop. The Beatles released their album, “Magical Mystery Tour.” African Americans rioted in Newark and in Detroit (the Detroit riot lasted 8 days). That also was the year in which first successful heart transplant was performed in South Africa.
The first half of 1968 was equally as full. North Korea seized the USS Pueblo, for allegedly spying and violating territorial waters agreements. The Tet Offensive in Vietnam began in January in which Viet Cong soldiers launched surprise attacks on US troops. The US Embassy in Saigon was attacked and then the My Lai Massacre gave the US effort in Vietnam a public-relations drubbing. Activity by militant students was ongoing in the form of protests in support of Black Power and against the Vietnam War. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April. President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Student riots erupted in Paris, France. Sen. Robert Kennedy, who was running for president, was assassinated that June.
All we needed to hit us was a pandemic. That avoided us. Thank God.
I remember a couple of specifics about Mr. Pinkard as a teacher, but the one I’m going to write about is the most significant. So here we go.
One day the class got into a discussion about the Black Panthers. The crux of the conversation seemed to be integration vs self-determination and separatism. Most of us took the pro-integration stance, since everything we were hearing or seeing or reading about the Black Panthers felt pretty scary. Mr. Pinkard tried to lift up the reasons a group of African Americans might not want to integrate. Then – and I cannot remember the specifics of this part – somehow our teacher mentioned that he knew someone who was a Black Panther and that it was too bad that we couldn’t heard the ideas directly from him. And then somehow the idea emerged about inviting the Black Panther to our class.
Predictably, the administration of the school did not love this. But they did something amazing now that I look back upon it. They negotiated. They said that we could have the man visit us but it had to be on a couple of conditions: 1) that it would be in the evening rather than during public school hours; and 2) that a parent must sign a permission slip and must come with us.
And, ladies and gentlemen, that is how a wide-eyed, white, high school sophomore got to listen to and ask questions of a Black Panther during the school year of 1967-1968.
I wanted to go. I don’t know or remember what my parents said or didn’t say. But do I know that I went and my dad was with me.
My memories of our speaker was that he was intense, logical, knowledgeable, and patient. After a rather long discussion about the integration vs. self-determination/separation argument, he finally leaned forward, put his elbows on the table, and said, “Listen, imagine this: you have a hot cup of strong, black coffee. Then you add some cream. What happens?”
After a silence, someone finally said, “It’s diluted.”
“I rest my case,” he said and sat back. “We need to stay strong.”
I now know that he was using the same image also used by Malcolm X to make the same point. And I get it.
But I was in my mid-teens and was kind of annoyed. Indignant, I tried to think of a similar analogy. In my head, I was saying, “Oh, yeah? Well, what if you take a glass of nice cold milk? And what if you add chocolate syrup to it? You’ll get…”
Yeah… you'll get what?
A tasty treat sensation.
The chocolate syrup makes the milk more interesting and palatable.
And then somehow I got it. Integration might work for white people, but not necessarily for Black people. And maybe not at that point in history.
Again, I didn’t become woke from this. But I was learning to look at things from another person’s perspective. And that was invaluable.
And that is why I will always be grateful to John Pinkard. He gave me a great gift. The gift of listening.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder