I grew up in the South. South Jersey, that is; but South Jersey in the 1970s was sometimes indistinguishable from below the Mason-Dixon line.
When most people think of New Jersey, they think of a monolithic blue state, one of the bluest of the blue, inhabited by a very urban mix of heavy-accented Italian-Americans and snooty BMW-driving yuppies. But south of our own ‘Mason-Dixon’ (Jerseyologists can’t quite agree where that line is; some claim it’s Interstate 195, others say it’s the bridge over the Raritan River on the Garden State Parkway), it’s a whole different world. Instead of suburban housing tracts, pine barrens sprawl for miles in every direction. Instead of six-lane highways clogged with commuter traffic passing sulfur-reeking refinery smokestacks, all-terrain vehicles rumble down sandy dirt paths skirting cranberry bogs and salt marshes. While finance types dressed in suits and carrying laptops make their way into Manhattan up north, outdoor types wearing orange vests and carrying rifles make their way into the woods to hunt deer in the south, the autumn air violently punctuated with the crackle of gunfire every hunting season.
My parents were very much of that northern world; the brash, domineering daughter of Brooklyn Jews and the mild-mannered son of a brave World War II aviator. At the time they got married, the rising cost of living in the smog-choked north was driving tens of thousands of city-dwelling northerners south, where they could make new, better lives, enjoying clean air, pristine beaches and freshly-built tract homes for a fraction of the cost of up in the Big Smoke.
Bob and Linda chose Barnegat, a speck on the map of Ocean County whose population nearly quintupled in the 1970s due to the flood of northerners seeking safer, cheaper, cleaner, greener pastures. They also chose to do something daring for a white couple in the early 1970s—they adopted a half-black, half-Mexican baby born down in Texas to a teenager who could either become the first in her family to attend university or stay home and raise a baby. A young woman couldn’t do both in 1974. And so it was that little ‘Hank’ (my foster guardian called me that because Hank Aaron had just broken Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record that spring) from Dallas became little Brett from Barnegat. I didn’t understand it until much later, but adopting a dark-skinned baby boy was a very courageous thing for a white couple to do in 1974. Especially in South Jersey.
That courage was tested on August 11, 1979, the day I learned about racism. The Ku Klux Klan had a long history of activity in Ocean County, and on that sweltering summer day a month before I started kindergarten a group of Klansmen decided to have themselves a rally and march, white hooded sheets and all, through what was until then an idyllic neighborhood of cookie-cutter homes and childhood racial harmony. In attendance was neo-Nazi David Duke, the national Klan leader from Louisiana, who declared his presidential candidacy right there just steps from my house. I don’t know if those rabid racists specifically chose our little corner of the world to march through because they knew our mixed-race family lived there or not, but I have always wondered why David Duke and the Klan picked Settlers’ Landing, of all places, to stage their hate-in.
Mom, who was overprotective to begin with, was terrified. Although I was quite curious about the angry ghosts slowly marching up my street waving a Dukes of Hazzard flag, she quickly hid me and Raechel, my little sister, from view. Those weren’t ghosts, they were worse than that, and that was no Dukes of Hazzard flag they were waving. I don’t remember being afraid; the whole ordeal was novel and vaguely thrilling, and the ghosts were gone almost as soon as they’d appeared.
But racism, like a ghost, doesn’t die, it just goes on haunting. In the years that followed, I experienced more than my fair share of it. The adopted half-black, half-Mexican kid growing up in South Jersey was constantly teased and taunted: for being what I would later call ‘Blaxican,’ for being Jewish and for being just plain weird. A nerd. Awkward as a rapper in a rodeo. It didn’t help that I was one of only a handful of black kids in a sea of white.
Mom meant well but she was sometimes part of the problem. When I’d run home crying about how Tommy Hare or some other kid beat me up and called me “nigger,” “spear-chucker,” “porch monkey,” etc., she’d comfort me by telling me, “you’re not black, you’re brown.” I also remember her warning me when I was very young that when I grew up I would have trouble finding love because neither black nor white girls would accept me. But like I said, she meant well, and it took a special sort of courage to adopt me in the first place. A supportive family structure helped. Her father, a gentle giant of a man named Sidney Rappaport, would walk me through his South Florida retirement community where other old-timers would point and stare. His retort: “What’s the matter with you, you never seen a little boy before?”
Sidney and mom are long gone. So is the Klan, at least in South Jersey, as far as I know. I haven’t really been back there in 25 years. But I will never forget that hot August day in the summer of ’79, when I learned for the first time what racism and the Confederate flag were. That’s one of my earliest memories. I’ll also never forget watching that Confederate flag finally being lowered today at South Carolina’s State House, where it stood as an act of anachronistic defiance, with no regard for basic human decency, for far too long.