“Niggers and Jews are ruining this country!” my father vehemently proclaimed some forty years ago.
We were doing dishes one Sunday afternoon, he washed, and I dried. Such times often occasioned serious discussion when I was growing up.
“Isn’t that what Hitler said?” I responded.
My father had to smile, being busted by his teenaged son, so to speak. He quickly put Hitler in proper perspective.
“Well, you don’t have to be a maniac about it.” But then he added, with serious comedy, “But I sure understand why he felt like he did!”
My father was born August 29, 1914, in Ohio—Defiance, in fact. His father’s family was originally from Connecticut, with important English ancestry. His mother was German, with grandparents from Munich. So, my father was a rather classic White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. This is the man who came out to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma during WWII and married an Indian woman—a Comanche, indeed, and my beloved mother.
My father, the young draftee at Ft. Sill, OK.
PFC Ned C. Yeagley, who refused to become
an officer, despite the Army’s hard hounding.
Whatever inconsistencies there may have been in him, he had the highest IQ on record at Ft. Sill, at that time. (And he claimed he was seriously hung over the day of the test.) He had therefore very high expectations for his very talented sons.
In later years, as it became evident that we would not fulfill his dreams for us, he was more and more open about his view of Indians. He finally concluded that the reason we failed was precisely because we were Indian.
My father’s young Indian girlfriend, Norma,
whom he married January 25, 1946; later,
she gave birth to me, their second son.
He once asked me and my older brother, Fred, if being Indian had caused us problems in life. Fred was silent. But I pronounced bravely and defiantly, “Not that I know anything about!” I was in complete and utter denial. (Fred told me later that he was in fights almost every day in high school. He didn’t like being teased about being Indian. He knocked the daylights out of just about everyone he knew, at one time or another. Of course, I was the sickly kid, with cancer and classical music to preoccupy me, so I didn’t have quite the passion for fighting my football-playing older brother did.)
Our response was not what my father really wanted, but, he continued.
“Well, I want you to know, I’m sorry.” He was sorry for the fact that we were Indian. At this remark, I was silent, too.
I can remember when we were teenagers, my father was complaining to me about his disappointments in Fred, and yelled, “He’s a dumb Indian!” I know he thought I was too, but, since I was listening, he spared me the same words.
It’s like he thought we were simply incapable. We didn’t have it in us to be what he thought we should be. In our adult years, our elderly father made known this assessment.
As a child, I thought being Indian meant we were supposed to be better than everyone else, better athletes, smarter, and even morally superior. We always were. But, later in life, these distinctions were not so clear.
My father was acutely aware of my Jewish connections. As a teenager, I was a noted classical pianist. In those days, Jewish people were the only ones pushing classical music in Oklahoma City. My father continually teased me about my Jewish friends. He even had Fred teasing me, too.
When I became involved with the black “community” at Oberlin College, my father was even more disturbed. I attended a small black church in Oberlin the entire four years I was there: the Park Street Seventh-Day Adventist Church. I’ll never forget it. I consider it to this day one of the most positive, formative experiences of my life. “Quit mooching off those niggers,” my father said. He was disgusted. I never told him about later years in Connecticut when, in social work, I was deeply involved in the lives of troubled young black youth.
Not long before Fred died (January 6, 2000), Fred expressed his disdain for my Jewish affinities, reprimanding the Jewish efforts for black people as something vain and pretentious. “The Jews are just trying to justify their own existence,” he said.
“No,” I said,” they’ve chosen to reach out to help the most needy, the lowest of the low. It is a noble intent.”
As most of my family conversations, that one didn’t really go anywhere. I cite these memories now for the simple purpose of demonstrating the fact that I did not inherit my thoughts. I chose them—under great duress. I earned my freedom.