In October, after many years without a visit, I spent four days in Cleveland, my hometown. Specifically, I spent most of my time in Parma Heights, a suburb on the west side of the city. That’s where I grew up, in a house my brother and his family now occupy. Parma Heights and the adjoining, much larger suburb of Parma, were solidly white enclaves in the 1950s and 1960s, inhabited almost exclusively by Slavs and Italians. My parents (a mixed couple: Polish and Irish) were conventionally contemptuous of blacks and most other racial and ethnic groups, and I never knew African Americans with any degree of intimacy until I went to college.
I had lunch one day during my visit with one of my high school English teachers, Suzanne Murphy, who has since retired from teaching but who, almost 40 years ago, branded in my cerebrum this rule of usage: “Roasts are done. People are finished.” I’ve never made that mistake again. I had heard, the way one hears so many unsubstantiated things that with time turn into fact, that another of my English teachers, Tom Dunford, had long since died. When I mentioned this, Suzanne replied, “Oh my, no. Tom is quite well, though I haven’t heard from him lately.”
When I was a senior at Valley Forge High School, in the fall of 1969, Dunford offered a one-semester course that was controversial and revolutionary (for one student, at least) for its time and place: Afro-American Literature. Dunford obviously enjoyed being provocative. I remember him as short, slender and balding, with big horn-rim goggles. He was the only teacher in the school with facial hair – mustache and goatee – and the only one I can remember even mildly cursing in the classroom or bringing up the names of writers not part of the immediate curriculum, like Hemingway and Faulkner.
Our reading list is still impressive: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Native Son, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, a collection of Langston Hughes’ Jess B. Semple stories, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The only title on the list I continue to read and enjoy is Ellison’s, but for a 17-year-old dedicated to books and pissing off his parents, that modest shelf of titles was dynamite. Never before had I considered that blacks might shape thought into language. I didn’t deny it was possible but never devoted much thought to the idea. This will seem extraordinary to young people living in a post-Civil Rights world, but almost the only blacks I, never a sports fan, knew anything about were musicians or criminals, though Carl B. Stokes was elected mayor of Cleveland in 1967.
I wrote a research paper about Invisible Man, and I dimly recall an argument between Dunford and a boy in the class – something about the worthiness of the Civil Rights cause and weren’t they, after all, just a little too uppity? Otherwise, the classroom itself is mostly a blank. What I remember is the sensation of reading books by people whom: A. I was not aware could write. B. Lived lives very different from my own. C. Seemed to anger a lot of white people, who were also unaware they could write. That’s a potent message for a young person to learn about the threat sometimes posed by the written word, and probably one of the reasons for my sustained commitment to reading and writing.
I called Dunford while I was in Cleveland. He, too, has retired from teaching. He’s in his 70s, still reads a lot, especially fiction and history, and enjoys taking road trips with his wife. He remembered me and also remembered my father, who was an auxiliary police officer and often worked dances and other events at my high school. He remembered the Afro-American Literature class well – and this surprised me – because he taught it only a couple of times. The interest just wasn’t there, he said, though I suspect there were other reasons. It couldn’t have been easy job, even for a white guy in the suburbs who enjoyed provocation.