AN UGLY TRUTH
Prejudice is everywhere—and always has been!
We all have encountered bigotry in one form or another whether personally, as an observer, or as a willing participant. It is my sincere hope that I can contribute something worthwhile to the hypersensitive issue of prejudice.
Some will be skeptical, and others outraged, feeling that I don't have the proper pedigree to truly understand discrimination in the context they're relating to--I AGREE! I can only express my experience as a beneficiary and observer of prejudice—that it is an abomination, an insult to God, and a disgrace to mankind no matter whom it touches!
I can equivocally state that prejudice is not practiced by, or limited to, one race, gender, color, or ethnicity—for it has been universally employed by all cultures since the beginning of time. That being said, I should further qualify that in America, there has been no culture more devastated by the relentless oppression of prejudice than the Black community. When human beings know something is wrong, vulgar, and indefensible, yet it continues, outrage will ultimately follow. When there is no hope, no viable solution, revolt ensues! Despair and desperation fuels anger. Hate embraces both! We must stop the suffering of the people with our silence and our rage.
We are born with a basic intuition that instinctively leads us to react cautiously, and possibly negatively, towards that which we see or perceive as different, even dangerous. This sense can be nurtured or diminished by the environment we are nurtured in along with the opportunities to socialize with those from various ethnicities, sexual proclivities, and religious affiliations different than ours.
OUR CHILDREN ARE THE ANSWER
It has always been my belief that each newborn is a God-given opportunity for the world to change in a positive way. We should look to the children for they are our greatest opportunity for a better tomorrow.
I find children are more open-minded than adults concerning differences. They seem to be color blind, more inquisitive, and willing to engage with other cultures; whereas, older members of the family might already be influenced by racial bias, homophobia, and religious paranoia learned in their youth at home.
I'm not addressing venomous, hate speech, but instead, the more prevalent and snide slurs and jokes passed down from prior generations that demean and marginalize those we see as different. In many cases, this demeaning speech isn't based on any actual interaction or knowledge, but solely on stereotypical misconceptions based on one's appearance and/or cultural differences.
It's paramount that parents and teachers introduce and familiarize children to the varied nationalities and cultural differences that surround us when they are very young. Educators should teach a course of study that reflects the wonders of the many different cultures that make up Americans, including their varying backgrounds and customs, honestly depicting the hardships and struggles they have had to, and continue to, overcome.
Being enlightened and educated, as well as concerned as to why our schoolmates look and act differently, will bring about understanding, familiarity, and, ultimately, normality and acceptance. It is a necessity for our youth to see that being different is the norm in our ever-shrinking world. Separatism and isolation breed a social ineptitude that is destroying us! Most prejudice is learned at home and reinforced on the streets in like-minded communities with similar ethnicities!
Many of the schools today are employing a drastic and erroneous course of study directed at our youngest minds. This curriculum is more of an indoctrination based around the social science of Critical Race Theory (CRT) which states that racism is ingrained in the fabric and system of the American society. CRT identifies that our power structures are based on White privilege and White supremacy which perpetuates the marginalizing of people of color!
This provocative approach in educating our children that White people have been responsible for all of the horrific wrongs people of color have endured is reckless, flawed, historically inaccurate, and will perpetuate division, confusion, shame, guilt, and anger of our youngest minds further separating us.
As I was putting together a memorial of my family members who served in the military, I came across a picture of my maternal grandfather in his Navy uniform from World War II. I was so excited to include his portrait in my Memorial Day tribute!
I found myself searching for his name only to realize I couldn't remember it. Was his name John or William? I simply didn't know.
Thinking back, I became aware this wasn't the first time I experienced this confusion. I remember a night in my early teens, in our apartment on Sherman Avenue in the Bronx, when I noticed my mother quietly weeping. I asked my sister why mom was crying and she explained that her father had died. I asked if he was our grandfather and she replied, "I guess."
We had never met my Mom’s Dad, Mr. Rooke, because he didn't approve, nor accept, his protestant, Anglo-Saxon daughter marrying a Catholic, Puerto Rican man; therefore, he never wanted to meet us—AND NEVER DID! He had almost entirely eliminated our mother from his life which is so very sad and pathetic. Although I never met my grandfather, I do remember waiting outside on the stoop once when my mother went in to see him. Prejudice added to the dissolution of my mother and father’s marriage, the separation of the two families, and ultimately ended with Nancy, my twin sister, and I in an orphanage.
It's difficult for me to articulate how I felt being given away at only eight-years-old. Prejudice was the catalyst to this life-changing event.
WOODYCREST—"The Home for Friendless Children"
Staff at Woodycrest cared for adolescents, pre-teens, and teenagers until they reached eighteen years of age. I lived in the dorm for boys from eight to eleven with over 20 other young boys—Puerto Ricans, Blacks, Whites, one Asian, and a German boy who arrived shortly after I moved in.
All we knew, and all we needed to know, about each other was that we were all hurt, confused, lonely, and often scared! We were brothers from absent mothers, soulmates in loss and pain. We all knew we would never experience anything more crushing than being discarded. We shared the shame of losing not just everything, but everyone we knew and loved. Disrespecting one another because of our differences or the color of our skin was irrelevant for we survived together in the emptiness of our new lives, some of us sharing secrets children shouldn’t have!
After leaving Woodycrest, Nancy and I returned to our apartment on Sherman Avenue with our Mom. It was a primarily Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx. I loved it there! People either accepted or tolerated the varied cultures that flourished around them, but only their children truly embraced their encounters with other ethnicities, learning to live and sometimes even love their differences!
The children were helping to make the neighborhood a better, more comfortable place to live. I still believe that the prejudice they encountered primarily came from their families’ attitudes and predisposition on race, religion, and separatism. I wouldn't be surprised if several families, no matter what their ethnicity, had some prejudice against one or many other groups. Each block was a cultural experiment—not just with people of color, but also from varying nations including Ireland, Italy, Puerto Rico, Germany—a new world, a melting pot of civilization!
In the 1950s, our neighborhood didn’t have any aggressive or hostile bigotry, and none of the shameful horrors, perpetuated against people of color. Nor was there any ignorant or intolerant hate speech being spewed from the lips of those more archaic than the dinosaur. Instead, it was a more subtle and hidden bias that survived behind closed doors, only to be shared with family and friends and most likely overheard by their children! I wouldn't be surprised if some were uncomfortable with their parent’s bias.
THE BAR MITZVAH
Herbie Rosenkowitz Bar Mitzvah
I had a best friend named Sheldon Schlossberg We loved sports as well as playing on the streets or in the schoolyard. When Sheldon was 12, he began preparing for his Bar Mitzvah which would be held when he was 13. On a few occasions, I accompanied him to the synagogue where he was learning a prescribed course of study in Judaism. I had gone with other friends when they were preparing to become a man in the Jewish religion and had also been to their Bar Mitzvahs.
When Sheldon's parents informed him that I was not welcome to attend his Bar Mitzvah since I was not Jewish, it deeply hurt and embarrassed him. He could barely face me and, ultimately, it altered our friendship. I too was embarrassed for I would be the only boy from our tight-knit group that wouldn’t be attending. I knew the decision came from his parents and not my dear friend, Sheldon. (An interesting side note: Years later, as an adult, Sheldon Schlossberg legally changed his name to Don Schlossberg!)
When I was about 13, there was an elderly man who enjoyed leaning out his first-floor window adjacent to the sidewalk. I occasionally noticed him engaging passersby. This day, he beckoned me over and asked if I could dial a number for him as he was having difficulties with his phone. I still remember how he would confuse the letter “O” with the number “0”.
He appeared to be a religious man of faith and wisdom. He always dressed in black with his payot or payos, also known as sidelocks or sideburns, flowing down from the side of his yarmulke atop his head. He also wore a tallit or toles, a fringed, poncho-like garment.
In a thoughtful, yet superior manner, he proceeded to explain why some residents in our neighborhood had treated me differently. At first, I was put off, but I knew he meant no harm so I remained and listened to him. He continued explaining the horrific ordeal the Jews had gone through a little more than a decade ago. The essence of his dialogue concerned his race and that they were rebuilding their lives and families. He then stated that boys like me didn't fit in that scenario. Jewish girls should not be with goyim, those who didn’t follow the Jewish faith.
Whatever his reasoning for sharing these thoughts with a 13-year-old, only he knows, but I felt he believed it was a mitzvah, a good deed or kind act, for him to enlighten me. Actually, I thought he was a bit of a nebbish—a pitifully, ineffectual man—instead of a mensch, the stand-up guy he thought he was! He actually caused me to experience some shpilkes, states of impatience and/or anxiety. I did learn that men of faith and religious commitment are not immune from ignorance!
I had heard some of my neighbors call my sister a shiksa, or non-Jewish girl, and me a goy, but in their context, the term felt like a slur and definitely mean-spirited. Those individuals were usually yentas, or gossips, and definitely not the norm.
I love the Jewish people—their strength, intelligence, religion, humor, and their beauty. My first relationships were with Jewish girls in spite of the resistance from some of their parents. I married a Jewish girl and have a wonderful daughter Charlotte being raised in the Hebrew tradition.
“In Your Face!”
When I was in junior high, or middle school to some, I was looking for a place to fit in and also expand my basketball game. I went to Harlem’s Kennedy Center, to Hilton White’s South Bronx playground on Cauldwell Avenue, to Rucker’s Park on the weekends, and to a local gym in a nearby Black neighborhood. Initially, it took some time before I was any kind of an offensive or defensive threat, but I was able to hold my own. More often than not, I was accepted and judged on my ability to play.
A year later, many of the athletes knew me and we looked forward to competing. One evening, I was having a particularly good game when a big man, about 25 years of age, felt I had embarrassed him with an offensive move I had made. He threw me to the ground stating, "You don't belong here and you better get your f#*!’ing White ass out of here." I was 16 and only weighed 155 pounds or so, but I knew if I left, I could never come back. At that point in my life, being accepted not only as an athlete, but as a person, was far more important to me than taking a beating from this man. Being marginalized was beginning to wear on me! Fortunately, some of the older guys told him that if he couldn't keep up with the kid, he should go home. It opened my eyes that being in that neighborhood had also caused some tension. As in my neighborhood, once again there were those who felt I didn't belong.
During my 1964 summer break, after finishing at Hancock College, I was getting ready to attend Cal State LA where I would play for Coach Bill Sharman! I participated in what I perceive as a milestone in my basketball life when four Jews, a Puerto Rican, and an Italian entered The Hilton White Basketball Tournament. This three-day, eight-team event featured the powerful Bronx Falcons. They were favored to win and included Willie Worsley, Nevil Shed, and Willie Cager who would be part of the first all-Black starting five to win the NCAA Division One Championship with their Texas Western Miners teammates just two years later!
When we walked in the gym, you could feel the tension. Not a word was exchanged between the athletes as the spectators just looked at us. It hadn't crossed my mind until that moment that five White guys were going to be competing with all-Black teams in their neighborhood gym in the South Bronx. This was going to get real!
We won the first two games and were going to play against the Falcons in the championship game. Hilton White, their coach, had put together some of the best players in the Bronx and Harlem. It was an honor for me just to compete with them! The championship game was as physical an event as I had ever been involved in. Either team could have won, but somehow, we did! I hadn't realized I was the high scorer in the tournament until reading the coverage of the tournament in The Daily News and New York Post. In fact, I had scored 62 points in three games averaging over 20 points a game!
My memories of those games, along with the interactions with the spectators and other athletes, will always be treasured ones. Respect, common goals, open hearts, and the opportunity for all to get to know one another removed any preconceived notions of who, or what, we truly were.
That tournament led to an invitation from the Harlem Magicians for both Murray Zinavoy—DeWitt Clinton High School All-City Honorable Mention—and ME—All-Divisional, All-League, and All-City Honorable Mention—to be on the team that would play against the Magicians in venues around Harlem!
It was nothing like the Harlem Globetrotters and Washington Generals where the game was choreographed for a predetermined outcome. Instead, it was Street-Ball where every trick, dunk, and amazing play were vigorously contested. I admit that at times it was scary being one of only two White people in the gym. We heard our share of honky, Casper, and cracker remarks, but talent once again removed many barriers. Gratefully, sports and athletic ability transcend intolerance!
I could have potentially been involved in an unethical endeavor playing against the Harlem Magicians for I was being paid! If I had continued participating in college sports at Cal State LA, it would have been an NCAA violation. Deep inside, though, I knew my basketball life was coming to an end. The only reason I considered putting Columbia Records on hold was to play for Coach Sharman and continue, for as long as possible, to play the game I loved and committed to most of my young life! As fate would have it, Coach Sharman called later that summer to inform me of his departure from the college ranks to coach in a new professional league. It was time for me to leave competitive sports so I could give the music business my full attention!
LEAVING THE BIG CITY
In 1961, there were about 1.5 million residents in the Bronx. I had chosen to attend college in California to reunite with my father and the Negron family. Santa Maria was a town of twenty-one thousand that consisted of primarily White, Mexican, and Filipino families with a small number of Black and Asian families. I was excited to experience living in a small town.
A few months into the first semester, one of my dorm mates told us about a live music concert and dance being held in town. We all went and enjoyed the music and meeting girls! As I was dancing with a girl from school, I caught the eye of a beautiful Mexican girl who was dancing with her girlfriend. She smiled and I said, “Hi.” Later, I decided to ask her to dance. As I was walking towards her, I realized only the Mexican kids were congregating in this area. When I asked her to dance, she looked at her girlfriends with a concerned look, but they encouraged her to dance with me.
Shortly after we hit the floor, reminiscent of the gym dance scene in West Side Story where the Puerto Ricans and Whites took offense to Tony and Maria dancing together, I found myself surrounded by her friends as my dance partner was escorted away. The tension ended when some girls pulled me away and started dancing with me. They explained it was not a good idea to cross the invisible line that separates the different groups to ask one of their girls to dance. I got it, like in the Bronx!
Another interesting side note: Almost two years later, having performed at many of these dances as well as having some radio success with The Sorensen Brothers under the name of Chuck Rondell—I sang at her girlfriend’s wedding!
Chicano-Filipino White band!
During my first year at school, I was asked by Frank Salazar, The Music Man—promoter of local dances, shows, and concerts, if I would perform with The Sorensen Brothers. (Frank and the Sorensen’s were ultimately responsible for my recording contract with Columbia Records as well as my music career.) While performing with them, I caught the eye of Johnnie Perry, leader of The Biscaynes, a primarily Mexican band.
With them, I did concerts and “Battle of The Band” events all over the Central California area. Their music was actually closer to my roots and I truly enjoyed playing with them. I recall an incident at an out-of-town dance when some audience members were loud enough for us to hear their nasty, ethnic slurs as we performed. Orgy, our Filipino saxophone player, had enough and confronted the bigots. A brawl broke out that was ugly and caused by ignorance, intolerance, and learned bigotry!
FAST FORWARD TO THE PRESENT
This is a complex and sensitive subject far above my pay grade, but I am appreciative for the opportunity to have voiced my feelings on this volatile issue.
To truly move towards eliminating racism, forgiveness must be a reasonable request—a spiritual understanding that mercy, not hate, be realized for hate only begets more hate, and payback engenders payback.
We, as a society, must embrace a spiritual enlightenment based on the principles of grace, forgiveness, and accountability if we are to move forward with a new pair of glasses so we may clearly see the way to ending bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hate!
Teach our children, teach your children, to love all of God’s children!
SOMETIMES WE MUST LOOK BACK TO MOVE FORWARD!
Is it naïve to hope for forgiveness?
Are peace and love antiquated fantasies?
With our nation struggling to find common ground so we may move forward in ending racial injustice, it is my fear that, in spite of the reality, while the hearts and minds of the masses are united and demanding change that this moment may become a remembrance, an epitaph of a wasted opportunity to end the hideous silence that has allowed prejudice to thrive!
I am frankly anxious and bewildered why the serious factions working towards equality and change in the Black community have allowed those with only hate and revenge in their hearts to
become their loudest voice?
Are those who seem to only want their pound of flesh squandering this long overdue moment?
Is it wise to be branding everyone, and everything, as racist, thus diluting the ugly reality of this words' true meaning; therefore, negating it to the equivalency of:
If everyone is unique, than no one is unique!
In Memoriam: I recently lost one of my dearest friends, Mr. Herbie Rosenkowitz!
A part of who I am went with him! RIP my dear friend.