John Updike: On Race and Being American

(3-minute read)
Grampa Up.

Grampa Up.

Today, we look back at the insights and perspective of one thoughtful White American on his society’s racial culture, and his worried-grandad prospectus for two young Blacks that he loves like family, because they are.

In Updike’s Self-Consciousness: Memoirs (I reviewed it here), he knits together six themed reflections on the life that he lived. In nearly all of them, the world being what it is and the United States playing the role within it that it does, he refers to the question of race, even if only obliquely. One of his essays, though, addresses it straight on: “A Letter to My Grandsons”, second-last of the six, speaks directly circa 1989 to the two young boys born from the union of Updike’s eldest daughter and her West African-born husband, who “are about as black and white as people can be”. The boys’ names are Anoff and Kwame, and who knows who and where and what they are today? I wonder what they make, as grown men, of the 48-page public rumination that their deceased and famous literary grandfather bequeathed to them, to say nothing of the country left behind by his and subsequent generations.

For my taste, too much of the letter was preoccupied with obscure and distant Updike-side genealogy. It made for dull reading. However, other parts were electric, for me, and these are the places where the writer frankly assesses the American racial culture and bares his fears and hopes for his beloved young grandsons’ place within it. Updike was an honest, perceptive and profoundly eloquent writer, in 1989 and before, and until his death in a subsequent century. Here is a small chunk of what he left behind for his dark wee darlings to read when they came of a suitable age;

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Better Read Than Never: John Updike’s SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS

(10-minute read)
(If 10 minutes is disheartening, I just took a shorter look at a particular section of Self-Consciousness, the one addressed to his biracial grandchildren, in my He Said/She Said compendium of pithy quotations. It’s about growing up Black in America, by a loving White granddaddy.)

I haven’t been a huge John Updike fan, but he’s growing on me. Naturally, I read Rabbit Run,

My local library's edition.

My local library’s edition.

the first of what became the “Rabbit” tetralogy following the life course of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. For me, it was pretty much required reading, since the protagonist had been a high school hoops star and basketball profoundly colours his youthful experience. I liked it, though I wasn’t crazy about Harry. Despite periodic and ephemeral resolutions, I never did get to the subsequent novels. I will. The closer in age that I get to Rabbit at Rest, the final chapter, the more Mr. Angstrom seems like a character I should know better.

The second Updike novel I read, The Centaur, really was required reading: to keep my brain alive during a period of professional drudgery, I took some Lit courses at the University of Ottawa. Unsurprisingly, Updike appeared on the American Novel course, though the choice of The Centaur was less obvious. Perhaps because I read and re-read and wrote about it¹, I love and know that novel better than the one about the basketball hero-turned-typically-jaded-American. My affection and enduring memory of the thing might have had to do, too, with the father-son tension and the high school cum mythological dream-park setting; sonsRUs, certainly, and I still haven’t finally left the halls of eternal adolescence. I coach high school hoops still, after all.

¹ It’s academic stuff, but not terribly unreadable. However, I have placed electronic drones around the text in case some undergraduate thinks to plagiarize. You will be shocked, assimilated, and outed to the Weenyverse, if you do. Reading the essay won’t hurt, though. Reading the NOVEL would be downright healthy.

But recently, not long after seeing the great and gracious radio voice of the superb literary interviewer, Eleanor Wachtel, embodied on an Ottawa stage, I heard her 1996 interview with the famously media-shy Updike. (He died in 2009, at 76.) Wachtel interviews are always extended, thoughtful, generous expositions of the minds and hearts of many of the greatest writers we’ve had. John Updike was no exception, though I was mildly surprised to find what a humble, gracious and thoroughly engaging voice his was.

Young, and with yellowed fingers.

Young, and with yellowed fingers.

Perhaps I’d been swayed by some of the backlash against the privilege of the white male Authorial Voice of the mid-20th century. One of the nastiest was the dismissal of Updike as merely “a penis with a thesaurus”, but a pervasive view is that, though a big-seller among literary fiction-writers, he was over-rated simply because the voices of women – especially women of colour – had been suppressed. Time will tell, I suppose, but this cuts two ways. As unpopular as it may be to say it, there must be certain much-praised contemporary writers who benefit from the opposite current: the explosion of interest in and production by the previously under-published and under-privileged, those other voices from other cultural rooms that we now (wonderfully) get to hear more from. Some of these, I suspect, will have their ecstatic reviews and audience responses tempered by the sifting hands of critical hindsight. There’s nothing wrong with that.

To return to Updike, his was a voice that I was moved and inspired to hear, and hear more. He didn’t do many interviews, certainly not such revealing, appealing and lengthy ones as he had with Ms. Wachtel. I was moved particularly by a thread of their conversation in which he shyly but eloquently offered that he had always been interested in unnoticed little corners of life: odd bits of geography, obscure perspectives, his childhood view from under the kitchen table. (The ego-mad writer in me, inevitably I suppose, thought Hey, I got me some corners. But then, who doesn’t?) It was a gentle, humble, profound, a personally revelatory reverie, and I also felt that it was part of Wachtel’s genius that got him to speaking about it. I thought I heard a little wonder in his voice, that he’d been nudged to notice a slightly new perception of his own work.

That could’ve been sheer imagination, but it was one of several minor heart-quakes that urged me to read more Updike, especially his 1989 Self-Consciousness: Memoirs. It goes to odd corners. It is no standard autobiography,

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Bouncing Balls. Family. (And Segregation.)

It wasn’t bleeding-edge journalism, I’ll grant you that, but it had heart and an unusual perspective. It was a sweet story, and I liked it in part because I’ve lived (some of) it. What sticks with me, sticks in my craw, I guess, gums up my mental gears, is the story behind this story-behind-the-story. I’m afraid that I understand this story a little too well, and I’d love to be proven wrong. But. The sports world is often a profoundly segregated one.

Chris Mack is the men’s basketball coach at Cincinnati’s Xavier University. The X is no Kentucky, Duke, or Kansas, not what UCLA once was – legend-spawning, dynastic power programs in the world of college hoops. They’re good, though, having gone to the Sweet 16 (notching two NCAA tournament wins) three times in the past six years, one of those under Mack. That is only the background to the charming tale told by Gregg Doyel in his on-line column, though. Unlike coaching gypsies – the most notable being the ever-restless Larry Brown, now coaching his 47th team – who flit from job to job, one step away from their next firing/opportunity, Mack may be at Xavier for awhile. He is intimately tied to this university (he played there) in his hometown, and for other reasons that the article makes clear. I love it, and had I had the clarity to focus my coaching ambitions more narrowly, more competitively, I hope I would have done it Mack’s way and had his good luck, too.

The upshot is, at any rate, that he isn’t going anywhere. (Three of his predecessors at Xavier used their success with the Musketeers as the launching pad to one of the Big Jobs.) He’s got kids, and he doesn’t want to let his high-profile, high-stress job eat him as it has swallowed, well, almost every guy who’s tried it at the feverishly workaholic level of a major-level head coach. So, when he’s not on court, recruiting, breaking down film, doing his local radio gig, gladhanding with boosters, or unable to sleep because his team can’t shoot free throws, Chris Mack coaches his third-grade daughter’s house league basketball team.

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The Rich, the Poor, and the Playground

I have known for most of my life, at least in a shallow way, that extremes of wealth and poverty are toxic to world unity and peace. The Baha’i teachings have insisted on their elimination for something close to 150 years. I accepted the tenet as fact – alongside the necessities of defusing all prejudices, widening all loyalties, and rethinking all assumptions – as an idealistic young man, no more than a boy, really.

During my privileged, Canadian-born lifetime, the gap between rich and poor has only widened, and now I live in a country hell-bent on leading the world in this dubious marker of development. (My understanding is that the Excited States of America is still in front by a nose, but China and Brazil are

Sorry, this is a bit graphic. Yes, that is Chairman Mao on the 100-yuan note, China’s largest denomination (about seventeen bucks Canadian). Families live on that for a month.

closing fast. To the winner goes the spoiling, the rot, the instability, but the runners-up will know it, too.) Lately, I’ve been  brooding on the reasons for my steadily – sometimes violently – growing disillusion with sports, at least at the pro level.

Stratospheric salaries for the best horse-hide whackers and roundball  bouncers (and all their sweaty peers) are, of course, a cliché these days. Spaniard Pau Gasol of the Los Angeles Lakers will make $19 million next season, and he’s far from the highest-paid jock. I made a good and steady North American income for nearly 30 years, and my take was somewhere between a mil and $1.5 million, I figure. Such comparisons are so banal that nobody really talks about it anymore, which is why I just did.

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Sports Writing Worth Reading

Well, YES, he said immodestly, but I’m not talking about my own stuff here. Give me credit for some level of humility! (But it’s true,  there is a lot of good jock journalism in the box to your right.) I mean Dave Zirin, an American writer I read fairly regularly. He writes on the “Edge of Sports”, and insists on making the connection between athletics (especially the professional variety) and real life, unlikely as that may seem. He keeps hollering that social justice and the Great Big Sandbox are related to each other, that they MUST be.

Zirin is worth reading, even if you don’t normally open the sports section. For example, the article I got through subscribing to his service sent me an article that addresses the history of racial injustice in American sport, and suggests one small symbolic way to address it. (His web site is here. I’ll post an excerpt from the article in It’s All About Sports! right here.) If you are a sports fan, I defy you to answer the three trivia questions that he asks; I couldn’t. There were more barriers to be leaped over – still are – than the one with Jackie Robinson’s signature on it. I commend this to your interest, as Dave Zirin would say, in struggle and sport.

“Those Animals Over There!”

There’s a curious new pastime being developed in Caledonia, Ontario. Every once in awhile, but mainly as the feature attraction of a long holiday weekend, two groups of people get together for a not-so-sporting competition. In other times and places, it might have been a game of lawn darts or horse shoes. To be thoroughly contemporary, it ought to be beach volleyball with lots of photogenic young bodies and extremely happy beverages. But nobody’s selling beer with these recent, bitter small-town scenes.

Another long weekend brought another long staredown between Caledonia citizens and their counterparts from the Six Nations reserve. (And on both sides, no doubt, were some “ringers” who don’t get enough front-line action! in their own communities.) The Aboriginal protesters insist they’ll be camped on that proposed subdivision until land claims negotiations are complete. Townsfolk are tired of having their sleepy ‘burbs disturbed. And now a judge is rattling the windows: Hey, I made a ruling. Why isn’t anybody doing anything about it?

And another line has been crossed. Not that it hasn’t been muttered before. Not that it wasn’t probably among the verbal grenades lobbed on Monday, but I don’t think anyone in town had yet offered up such an Ideal Soundbite for Canadians to digest with their breakfast cereal. Something’s got to be done! is the essence of the cry from all sides. One good citizen of Caledonia, though, living too near the confrontation to stay entirely sane, has flavoured the stew with this morning’s radio rant about “those animals over there!” Oh, my. Those animals.

How many of these statements would our blustering friend (my former neighbour) agree with? Indians are not human beings. We should just round ‘em all up and throw them in the pound. (Er, jail.) I don’t care what they’re complaining about, I have the right to rising property values. I have the right to choose the kind of people I want for neighbours. I am proud that my children know how I feel about these freakin’ savages. I want something done NOW, and I don’t give a shit about the consequences…

He’s frustrated, and may already regret his words. It’s not an easy time for any of the players in this sad spectacle. I lived in that town for much of my life, and I’m no stranger to impatience. (Consider the ironies, though. The contenders — and I’ll say it again, there are many more sides than two there — all consider this a matter of the law. The contest is played out by people who had nothing to do with creating the centuries-old problem. And now the townsfolk are being made to endure just a taste – slowness, intractability, the feeling of one’s home under siege – of what Aboriginal people have known for decades upon generations…)

But the mutual taunting, the racial one-downsmanship, and the lust for battle that parts of the crowd demonstrate? The eagerness for any kind of satisfaction, no matter how trivial or temporary? It all forgets one essential thing. It’s what Mr. Lawrence, one of the wise old heads of the community, knows. He shook his head at the silly, scary playing of the long weekend Blame Game back in May, and told me this: We have to remember one thing. No matter what happens here, no matter how people behave, Caledonia and Six Nations are still going to be neighbours when this is over. In an ever-smaller world, so are we all.

A Little Nightmare Down Home

It’s a sleepy place, with a languid river running through it. People have nice lawns and enjoy quiet. But in 1996, I was taking my new wife, a city girl, home to live in my little town, and she was worried. “Does anything happen there? Will there be any interesting people?” I understood, but my roots were deep and everything was there – my mother, my kids, and teaching and coaching at my alma mater high school – so we packed up our honeymoon kit (and the caboodle) and moved back – to Caledonia, Ontario, “a Grand place!”

Prodigal son that I am, I’d always thought so, but I’d also come to see how suburban sprawling my childhood village had become. (Caledonia is three times bigger now, yet its downtown has suffered. There are three stoplights and two Timmy’s on the main drag. Too much!) Diana fit right in with my family and bore up well under all that local history, but she found interesting conversations hard to come by, never mind excitement. Now that Caledonia and its eternal neighbour, the Six Nations reserve, are at the centre of Canadian attention, Diana flings her hands in mock dismay.

“I lived there for six years and now it gets interesting?!” I know how she feels. I spent the better part of my life in Caledonia, and wish I was there now. I always tried to convince my students and my children (and myself) that Real Life is right where we live; there’s no magic source of delight and importance Somewhere Else. Well, town and reserve teens can’t complain about boredom now, and I have the small sour pleasure of not having to explain that I grew up “in southern Ontario, near Hamilton, you know, about an hour from Toronto”. (I also lived and taught in Hagersville during the Great Tire Fire. It’s small-town vindication of a weird and ironic sort.)

Here’s the thing: I know these people, on both sides of the now-famous barricades. For our shared six years in Caledonia, Diana and I lived around the corner from them in the town’s first condominiums. They had been built by Jack Henning (father of John and Don, the developers stuck in the current dispute) about 1970. Then, to this chauvinistic north-side kid, they seemed a ridiculous distance south of the river, since the downtown, the arena, older homes and the original stoplight were on my side of town. Now, the Zehrs and Canadian Tire superstores that appear in newscasts are farther south still, along with the new rink, library, high school and streets (Laird, Tartan, Douglas, McKinnon) in this Scots-flavoured town. Dear old Caledonia Baptist, my north-side childhood church, has its new south-end sanctuary right next to the disputed housing development.

John Henning played first base in the age group below mine, and was the first kid I knew to have a proper trapper. (Rumour was that it cost forty bucks. John had the country habit of spitting and rubbing in its pocket between pitches; it stank to baseball heaven.) He was a rookie on the Caledonia High football team in my glorious senior year – we won several games after years of being pounded – and became a touchdown machine when the Blue Devils dominated.

Listen: John and I, like his brother Don and generations of white kids from Caledonia, shared science labs, hallways and playing fields with kids from the upper end of Six Nations who came to town for high school. I played four years of football with Ben Thomas and Alfred Logan, and was a teammate of various Hills and Bomberrys, Porters and Thomases. So were the Hennings. I wonder how these young men from a parallel world, guys we “went to war” with as adolescent athletes, have felt about those barricades.

For too long, they separated a quiet town and the proud and struggling nations that have watched it grow, from a single mill, along the banks of their cherished Grand River. The barriers were tangible, often tense and angry, but they weren’t exactly new, just obvious. It used to be that, if you wanted to, you could pretend such divides didn’t exist. I’d spent enough broiling afternoons running the bases at the Ohsweken fairgrounds, enough road trips with Martins and Montours, enough basketball refereeing at J.C. Hill school, that parts of Six Nations were clear (and dear) to me. Until I got to high school, though, much of it was mystery. Some still is.

For some Caledonians, though, it has been easy to live as if the reserve wasn’t there. That time is over, and that’s not all bad. Suspicions and stereotypes have deepened, and buried antagonisms have surfaced right on TV. (To think it all happened on Argyle Street!) However, this is also an opportunity to build understanding of a more than merely tolerant kind. (“Tolerance”: something we have for bad smells or uncomfortable shoes.) We need to better know and cherish the tangled history along the banks of that lazy river, and the needs and hopes of the communities that share it.

I was back home on Victoria Day. I was among the hundreds waiting by the barricades. I hoped for calm; some didn’t. I was ashamed by the lobbed insults, sorry for the cops, and sickened by the certainty of greater violence. I cursed the damage to community relations, and my own helplessness. Diana and I drove to Ottawa that night with foreboding, awakened grateful that riots hadn’t enflamed a darkened town, and were astonished that the barricades came down later that day.

So peace is possible. So Caledonia is an interesting place. (Who knew?) It’s a piece of geography that speaks of Canada, and the months and years to come will tell us a whole lot more.

A slightly edited version of this piece appeared in the Forum section of the Hamilton Spectator on May 29.

Caledonia Gets Interesting

Back in 1996, when I was dragging my new wife back to my little town, she was worried. A city girl, she wondered, “Does anything happen there? Will there be any interesting people?” But my roots were deep and my sons were there, as was my job teaching and coaching at my alma mater high school, so we packed up our honeymoon kit (and the caboodle) and moved back to Caledonia, Ontario. “A Grand place to live!”

I’d always thought so, but influenced by my Diana, an environmentalist and Jane Jacobs admirer, I’d come to see how suburban sprawling my childhood village had become. (It’s three times bigger than when I was a boy, but its downtown struggles. There were, as of our 2002 move to Ottawa, three stoplights in town. Too much!) And my bride did find it dull, and though there were lots of JamesHowdenHistory and family there, interesting people were hard to come by, let alone excitement. Now that Caledonia and its eternal neighbour, the Six Nations reserve, are at the centre of Canadian attention, Diana flings her hands in mock dismay.

“I lived there for six years and now it gets interesting?!” Well, my blissful life sentence in Caledonia was commuted after thirty years, so I know what she’s talking about. And I’d like to be there right now. I know these people, on both sides of the barricades. For our shared six years, Diana and I lived in the town’s first condominiums, built by Jack Henning (father of John and Don, the developers at the centre of the current dispute) in the 1970s at what then seemed an absurd distance south of the river; the town’s business area and its older homes were all on the north side. Now, the Zehrs and Canadian Tire superstores that have been appearing in national newscasts are farther south still.

John Henning played first base on Caledonia baseball teams the age group below mine, and was the first kid I knew to have a proper trapper. (Rumour was it had cost forty bucks. John also had the country habit of spitting and rubbing in its pocket while he played; it stank to baseball heaven.) He was a rookie on the Caledonia High football team in my glorious senior year – we nearly won the league after years of being a patsy against larger schools – and became a touchdown machine as the star running back when the Blue Devils actually won.

And John and I, like his brother Don and generations of white kids from Caledonia, had the experience of sharing science labs, hallways and playing fields with guys from the upper end of Six Nations who came to town for high school. I played four years of football with Ben Thomas and Alfred Logan, and was a teammate for shorter periods with various Hills and Bomberrys, Porters and Martins. So were the Hennings. And I can’t help but wonder who, among these young men from a parallel world with whom we all “went to war” as adolescent athletes, might now be on the other side of that barricade.

It’s a divide between the town and the proud and struggling nations that have watched it grow from nothing along the banks of their cherished Grand River. Today, the barrier is vivid and tangible, tense and angry, but it is not new. It just used to be quieter. It used to be that, if you wanted to, you could pretend it didn’t exist. For some Caledonians, like many Canadians, it was easy to live as if the reserve itself wasn’t there.

That time is over, for now, and that’s not all bad. There’s great potential for entrenching suspicions and stereotypes in the heat of this conflict, but – and call me naïve, if you like – there is also the chance in this standoff to build understanding: of the tangled history along the banks of this lazy river, and of the needs and aspirations of the two communities that share it. It’s an interesting place now. It’s a piece of geography that shows us a great deal about Canada, and what happens in the days and months to come will tell us a whole lot more.

[This entry was later expanded into a Hamilton Spectator Forum piece that you can find here.]