Wednesday, December 29, 2004

I grew up in a town on Long Island called Wyandanch. It’s pronounced “WHY-un-danch”, but I liked the way my Hungarian grandfather would say, “Vee-un-DON-chee-ah”.

Wyandanch was the chief, or sachem, of the Montauk Indians. (Sachem and Montauk are yet other towns on LI.) He was a strong, brilliant leader of his people, and that impressed an English soldier, Captain Lion Gardiner, another striking figure. In the 1630s, they created a bond, partially out of necessity for survival as they were surrounded by more warlike tribes on Connecticut and Rhode Island. But the two also became friends, practically brothers. Kinda like in Dances With Wolves, but we can only assume Gardiner had more personality than Kevin Costner.

However, Wyandanch’s partnership with the white man caused problems from both sides. His fellow Indians saw this as a betrayal of their people. And other English settlers on Long Island never really trusted the Native Americans. They created false rumors of rape and conspiracy which led to further persecution. An outbreak of smallpox in the 1650s wiped out a huge number of the Montauk people, including Wyandanch himself. Shortly after that, the remaining members gave up thousands of acres to a group of settlers. Centuries later, a New York State judge decreed that the Montauks were not a recognized tribe, and had no claim to the land of Eastern Long Island, a battle which is still ongoing. Today there’s no reservation there, just shopping malls, rich celebrity homes… and the setting for The Great Gatsby or Weekend at Bernie’s.

I grew up with some rudimentary knowledge of the history, but I got a lot of those details from here. When I was a kid, the town’s namesake had a different connotation relating to race relations.

If you say “Wyandanch” to a Long Islander, it’s kinda like saying “Harlem” or “Compton”. Wyandanch is largely a black neighborhood. The northern end of it, however, was a new suburban community in the early 1970s. Lots of young white middle-class families moving in, like my parents. My development was mostly Jewish and Italian Catholic. As a kid, I thought Protestants were the minority in the U.S.

But since the rest of Wyandanch was black, some of the families in our community didn’t want to be associated with it, and petitioned to have the name changed for our area. We became “Wheatley Heights”. It’s ridiculous because: a) I don’t who the fuck “Wheatley” was; b) there were no friggin’ heights in the area; and c) if you mailed a letter to my street address and wrote “Wyandanch, NY”, it’d get there just as easily as if it were sent to “Wheatley Heights”.

So, whatever. We lived in Wheatley Heights. But we went to elementary school in Wyandanch. There were a lot of black kids there, too. Our school was the only one in the district with this large minority -- about 30% African-American -- the other elementaries had almost no people of color.

Well, some of our neighbors in Whitey Heights didn’t seem to like that. They came out with a petition to have the black children distributed equally among the other schools.

My mom asked them why. Why should these kids, many of whom could walk to school, suddenly have to take a half-hour bus ride to and from another school where they don’t even know anyone? Not to mention be even more of a minority?

The petitioners explained it would cut down on the racial strife among the students.

Racial strife? My mother remarked how every time she visited our school, she saw the kindergarteners having to walk down the hall double-file. The little five-year-old black boys and girls holding hands with the white ones. All the way up to sixth grade, there was no racial strife. Mom refused to sign it.

The petition never passed, perhaps largely due to her objection. And I suppose that pissed some people off. For weeks, our house would get crank phone calls. As soon as my parents answered, they heard some low voice muttering, “Nigger lover, nigger lover.”

I was unaware of this at the time. When my mom told me about it later, I was shocked. Hm, where was this supposed racial strife coming from...?

She asked me then, “You never had any problems with the black kids in school, did you?”

Sure I did. And with the white kids. I had friends and enemies, acquaintances and rivals, some white, some black. But the lines were never drawn based on color. My best friends were usually the kids I could play with after school, i.e. my neighbors, so they were mostly white, but location was the only reason.

I’m not saying I didn’t notice differences, but I mostly marveled at them. First of all, I thought afros were so damn cool. When you’re little, you’re very tactile, you have no qualms about touching everything. I remember this one boy in first grade had a huge red afro. You just had to put your hands on it... Whoa, it was spongy and bouncy. Our hair was all shaggy and straight. No matter how much you combed your coif, it never stayed in place. But those tight curls seemed so low-maintenance. And if they did need to tease it out, hey, a lot of people had their picks wedged right there in their ‘fro. Convenient.

Also, their names were more exotic. All the parents in my neighborhood gave their children boring ol’ Matthew, Lisa, Debbie... It was nice to have a Kasim, Koshina and Africa in our attendance.

Finally, there were some cultural distinctions. But I’m not sure if it was the African-American children being influenced by their older siblings and parents, or if we all were affected by pop culture. The TV shows and music and movies of that era. Let’s Do It Again with Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier... “Sanford and Son”... I remember writing a fan letter to Donna Summer. Yeah, that’s right. Shut up, ya big dummy!

In fifth grade I wrote this story, a variation on Cinderella. Except instead of white chicks, the characters were all black dudes. It was titled “Sidney Ellis”. (I didn’t know about the Jerry Lewis movie Cinder Fella at the time.) Sidney overcame his evil step-bruthas, thanks to the sudden appearance of his ultra-cool godfather. Though I didn’t use the word, I think he was basically a pimp, with the zoot-suit, wide-brimmed hat and magical cane. With a flourish, he decked Sidney out in a three-piece polyester suit and told him, “You’re gonna be the baddest cat at that discotheque.”

Sidney said, “Like John Travolta?”

“Screw that honky!” The godfather said, “Get your ass to that disco!”

I realize today that the story wasn’t politically correct. But I know that even then, I wasn’t intending it as any kind of representative stereotype... and the kids in my class knew it, too. Even my teacher didn’t have a problem with it, but he made me change that line to “Forget that jive turkey. Get to that disco.” Shit, censored by The Man.

Not sure if I’m stretching a point here, but it’s sad that my hometown was the seat of centuries of ethnic tension, albeit in different forms. What I got from growing up in a community with a little cultural mix wasn’t any kind of racial strife bullshit. Just some awareness of diversity and perhaps a little more creativity.


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