Friday, August 28, 2020

Memories from Wisconsin

On August 23, Jacob Blake was shot 7 times in the back by a cop in Kenosha, Wisconsin. This reminds me of some of my own experiences with racism in that state when I lived there: Nothing as horrific as the Blake case, but “interesting” even so:

In 1968-69, I had my first job as an assistant professor at a branch campus of the University of Wisconsin. - Stout, in the godforsaken town of Menomonie.

I had just gone through a nasty divorce. I was broke, miserable and lonely, renting an apartment in the snowbound college town. My girlfriend Nicole lived in Chicago. I tried to visit her most weekends and holidays.

To save money, I advertised for a roommate to share the rent. Several students applied. I ended up selecting Clark Dawson, a fine young black guy.

Clark dated a white girl. Her name was Sylvia and she was an attractive, intelligent, soft spoken, brown-haired, bespectacled girl. The first time Clark brought her back to the apartment, I recognized her immediately, because she had taken my introductory Sociology class.

At first I thought that Clark had brought her home for a study session, but my roommate promptly dispelled that misunderstanding by saying, “Hi Prof. Kando (he still didn’t call me by my first name), let me introduce you to my fiancĂ©e, Sylvia.”
To tell the truth, I was briefly taken aback. Not because I disapproved, to the contrary. All my life I have had the unswerving conviction that the future of mankind lies in the total integration of the races at all levels, social and biological. However, the percentage of interracial couples was still infinitesimal in 1969, certainly in the upper Midwest. I was just surprised by a statistical anomaly.

I liked both Clark and Sylvia a great deal and I only wished them the best. Soon, the three of us were close friends. When Sylvia came over to the apartment, we would have drinks and chat for a while, before going about our separate business.

One afternoon, Clark came home alone, visibly upset. He said, in an agitated voice, “Those motherfucking rednecks! I wish I could kill them!”

“Whoa! Calm down,” I said, “tell me what happened?”

“Shit man!” Clark began to explain, “I’m walking home, minding my own business, and this pickup truck corners me. Then, two guys jump out in front of me and block me. Then one of the assholes says, ‘Boy, you stop seeing that girl if you know what’s good for you, or else.’.”

“No shit?” I said, stunned. “They told you to stop dating Sylvia?” “Right,” Clark said, “and they meant business, too. One of the them grabbed me by the collar and said, ‘You see that shotgun in the pickup there boy? Think about it boy.’.”

“Fuck,” I said, getting angrier by the minute. “I didn’t know the KKK was big in Wisconsin. Tell you what, Clark. We are not gonna take this lying down. First tell me exactly what happened, what the motherfuckers looked like, the whole nine yards. I’m sending the whole sordid story to the university newspaper today. Once the shit hits the media fan, these assholes will crawl back under their rocks.” 

So Clark described the incident to me in detail. The two guys had accosted him right in front of Fritz’s hardware store. They were driving a Chevy pickup and wearing hunter caps and the red plaid winter coats worn by half the men in rural Wisconsin. Two shotguns were hanging in the back of the pickup.

Three days later, the Wisconsin State College paper printed the article. Clark and I wrote it together, and the byline said ‘Clark Dawson and Tom Kando’ The title read: KKK ALIVE AND WELL AT WISCONSIN STATE.

Of course, there was no proof that it was the KKK or that the yahoos had anything to do with the college. They were just as likely to be two local idiots. There were plenty of racists around.

* * * * * * *

Over Thanksgiving recess, I drove to Chicago to see Nicole. The windy city is about 350 miles away from Menomonie. Many of the students -most of whom came from all over Wisconsin - were going home to their families for the holiday. I gave rides to two of them in my beat up Volkswagen. One was a black guy from Kenosha and the other one a white girl whose parents lived in Madison. Madison and Kenosha were both on the way to Chicago, so this was no trouble.

So we get to Madison and drive to the girl’s home to drop her off. Her parents invite me in for a drink before I hit the road again, but they refuse to let the black student into their home! Astonished, I refuse to go in as well, of course.

Anyway, maybe the two men who had threatened Clark weren’t members of the KKK, but I didn’t care. It’s not like the KKK was likely to sue me for libel, was it?

As I predicted, the incident died down after the article appeared. Clark and Sylvia continued to date and they were never threatened or molested by any of the townspeople. Whoever the racists were, they ‘crawled back under their rocks’, as I had phrased it.

© Tom Kando 2020;All Rights Reserved

  leave comment here