Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Black Domers: Seventy Years at Notre Dame, published by Corby Books. It is available for purchase on Amazon.
LBJ was president. The Great Society seemed within reach. Suddenly Negroes were in vogue, at least at the nation’s elite colleges and universities; these institutions pursued and then wore their newfound diversity as a badge of honor. I did well (enough) on the SAT and a national achievement test targeting minority high school students. Dozens of letters arrived pleading for my interest. More than a few made it clear that forwarding a completed application was a mere formality for my acceptance.
Notre Dame also expressed interest—or, perhaps,“curiosity” is a better word. The then all-male school dared tell me, a devoted Cornhusker, that it seriously desired to know if I was worthy of being a Notre Dame Man. I considered such a challenge from that over-rated football school as a quasi-insult. I also found it irresistible. I like to think that we both won.
Not all my lessons happened in class, nor were they limited to sharpening the intellect. My biggest lifelong lessons? Advancing civil rights was not just a matter of catching the six o’clock news, cheering heroic acts of civil disobedience from afar or praying from the sidelines. Notre Dame taught me that it was as much a personal struggle as a political battle.
What else? That the most valuable gift is the strength to trust oneself, to take the leap of faith. Without that, strength, love, commitment, courage and a sense of self-worth are unattainable goals.
It was a ten-day road trip, meandering by bus through the Deep South, my first venture below the Mason-Dixon Line. Rural Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia — even at the time I couldn’t recall which state was which day. It made no difference to me. As a Nebraska boy, the very thought of the Deep South made me queasy; it was as foreign as Bangladesh or Pakistan. Grateful and proud to be a member of the Notre Dame Glee Club traveling squad even as an underclassman (unknown by me at the time, but only by virtue of Notre Dame President Father Theodore Hesburgh’s command) I was nonetheless still nervous about traveling to and through “another country.”
Peering out of the bus window, I suddenly understood where the term “heat wave” came from. It was so damn hot and humid that I actually saw wave after wave of mind-numbing heat submerging the land as far as the eye could see. I gazed, taken aback, at the sheer number of black folk working the fields. They appeared so still and silent, so resigned, not even bothering to glance up at our bus. It’s for that reason that I recall them as faceless, drained of any curiosity. The more I took in the scene rolling by the harder it was to cope. I don’t mean intellectually but viscerally — my throat tightened while my belly began to mimic wave after wave of that oppressive heat.
“Those are my people out there,” I thought. “My people!”
This was a hard realization. My grandma, aka Grammo, had raised me to be “separate and apart.” The small, orderly farm community where I was raised didn’t so much accept as allow its tiny colored population. To be a Negro and violate community norms was grounds for permanent expulsion, especially for us colored boys. So in addition to staying absurdly neat and clean, I needed to be on my best behavior at all times. There were certain things I was never, ever to do: disobey Grammo’s unforgiving curfew, show anger in public, accept rides home from classmates if white girls were also in the car. It wasn’t that Grammo taught me to distrust so much as to be extremely cautious. If she were a politician she would have been ahead of her time: “Trust but verify.”
Unfortunately for me, the only white folk who met her standard for trust were regular churchgoing adults who had been “baptized in the blood of the Lamb.” I not only grew to be unusually observant of my immediate surroundings, but also to be exquisitely, awkwardly, self-conscious.
As for the colored townsfolk clustered with us be- tween the railroad tracks and the county fairgrounds, well, I was encouraged to be friendly with them but not to become friends. Not that they weren’t in the main also good and decent people, but because Grammo was intent on letting this town, still laden with its heavy German heritage, know that we were especially “deserving.”
Our modest, manicured lawn, fragrant flower beds, trimmed hedges and broom-swept sidewalks out-Germaned the Germans’. If Grammo thought well of her colored neighbors, she sent Gran’pa over to help with their lawns. She felt a special obligation to Mizz Sophie, who lived just a block away, but I’m sure that, at least in part, that sense of obligation was because of the immense girth that rendered Mizz Sophie largely immobile, and because of her inordinately skinny husband’s decided preference for drinking and smoking over horticultural pursuits.
In my world, separate and apart meant spending hours in my room trading confidences with imaginary friends, reading, and listening to AM radio. After sundown I could get KOMA out of Oklahoma City and, on a good night, WLS from Chicago. As much as I loved to read, I loved music even more. The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Chad and Jeremy, Petula Clark, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas — these and other beloved artists transported me to glamorous locales — Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, New York, San Francisco. (“If you’re goin’ to San Francisco be sure to wear some f lowers in your hair…”) I was absolutely convinced of my million-dollar vocal talent because, by singing along with the radio, I just knew that I was as groovy as any big-city boy. When I sang with Marvin or Petula, we were one voice. Best of all, while indulging in those sacred Top 40 Pop moments, I was no longer separate and apart, no longer exquisitely and awkwardly self-conscious. I was too cool.
But now, here I was in the Deep South, very aware that on this miserably hot day, separate and apart meant being separated only by a window, some metal and a swiftly moving set of tires. I felt overwhelmed with guilt yet enormously relieved that I was able to glide past my people. I certainly didn’t want to be out there laboring under that too-hot sun knowing that the next day meant only another swim in that dirty brown swelter. Right outside the window were guys who shared my birthday but had no future — unless spending a bleak dull eternity working the fields could be called a future. But for the grace of God…
Because it offered an occasion for me to become “one voice” on campus, the Glee Club served as an anchor; joining with others for a daily sing-along was the one time of day that I didn’t feel isolated. Although the club’s director impressed me as a bit scatterbrained and somewhat aloof with everyone, I had the distinct impression that he had a particular distaste for me. Maybe it was because I didn’t have a million-dollar voice after all. Perhaps it was because there might have been a directive straight from the Golden Dome that any Afro-American trying out for the club was to be granted membership. Or it could have been that during my first couple of years in the club, I was the single black face in an otherwise lily-white group. Perhaps it was all in my head. Despite my powers of observation, it was sometimes difficult for me to figure out when it was a matter of “them as them,” “me as me” or “me as an African American.”
Nonetheless, that night, dressed in tails, looking like high-class penguins, we were putting the finishing touches on a concert somewhere in Mississippi. As a final encore, fellow second tenor Adrian D. (what an astounding voice!) had a moving solo in a Negro Spiritual. The director shot Adrian an “it’s-show-time” look and then, announcing the spiritual’s name, remarked that it was about “some darkie” praying that God would take away his burdens.
You could have heard a pin drop after that intro. Unable to breathe, my teeth clenched, my hands now fists, shock somersaulted into fury. I partly whispered, partly lip-synced the chorus, every eye in the audience on me despite Adrian’s moving solo. During that eternal moment — it still churns in chest — I stood stark naked on that stage, pretending to sing.
Afterwards, back on the bus, two or three of the bolder clubbers assured me that the director “didn’t mean it,” but excusing him only made me angrier. No one challenged him about it. No one sat next to me on the bus that night. But I wanted just one, just one, clubber to murmur, “He’s an asshole for saying that.” I wanted someone, anyone, to acknowledge, “You know, that wasn’t right.” Judging by our maestro’s indifferent demeanor, he hadn’t given it or me a second thought (or even a first one for that matter).
Still painfully exposed, I kept staring out of the window into the dark futilely, praying for just one sympathetic voice, just one knowing look or a comforting arm around the shoulder. True, it wasn’t merely my right but my obligation to speak up for myself, but I lacked the courage. Besides, that would have broken Grammo’s rule to neither express hurt nor show anger in public. Nonetheless, boyhood training aside, if there was ever an occasion to display self-reliance, this was that time. But all those muted voices and averted looks fused with my unwanted seclusion to convert my indignation to dread. So I just sat there. Stone-faced. Silent. Alone. At a total loss.
Then I thought of my people working the fields that day and realized that I was never really separate and apart from them. For me as for them, it was after dark in Mississippi — but I was far from home.
John Banks-Brooks came to Notre Dame in autumn 1968 from Hastings, Nebraska. He majored in government and was a member of the glee club. After graduation he earned a master’s and a law degree and worked on Capitol Hill. He eventually became a public affairs and communications professional. He lives in Springfield, Illinois.