Penthouse Retrospective

by Studs Terkel Originally Published: October, 1980

The American Dream | 40 Years Ago This Month

When I finished St. Mary’s, I was among the city’s top ten and entitled to a scholarship. Some brother friar comes along, looks at me in puzzlement, and says: “What the hell are you, Japanese or somethin’?” I said “No, brother, I’m colored.” He took my paper and tore it up, right there in my face. I went back to public schools. That was the end of me and Catholic church.

In ’35 or ’36 I got into Ford as an electrical apprentice. They didn’t have any black electrician at Ford. I was assigned to the motor building, and there I heard talk about he labor union. I’d go around William’s barber shop, where I got my haircut, and it tuned out to be a hangout for black UAW organizers. And all kinds of philosophy and arguments over who was the greater man, Booker T. Washington or Frederick Douglass or Du Bois.

I knew three aspects of black life. I knew the working-class part. I knew the slicker, the gambler. There was also a middle class that I became alienated from. My mother and father were both light skinned. Blacks in the early days in the South took their values from the whites. The admonition was: always marry someone lighter than you so you’ll be whiter. That’s a way of escape.

Before I went to Ford and started messin’ around with all those labor guys and thought I was goin’ to college, I was pledged to a black fraternity. It was a society, exclusive-type club, light-skinner. They were the social dictators of the college age group. I was invited to a dance, a signal honor. I took my friend to the dance with me, a dark guy. The black society people, the elites, we called ’em, took on the mannerisms of whites. They danced stiffly, not naturally. Everybody’s dancin’ naturally now. (Laughs) My friend was the best dancer there, havin’ a regular ball. The guys resented Frank and were mad at me for bringin’ him. He was too dark. We wound up in a fight, and that was the end of me and black society.

If these kind of people were going to college, fuck college. I didn’t want to be a gambler and shoot dice all my life. So I got involved in the labor movement and for the first time hearin’ a philosophy that made sense to me: unity between black and white.

By ’37, I’m a member of the union, very subterranean. At that time Ford had a goon squad. They called ’em service men. They couldn’t be distinguished from the workers. One of the first things we did when we organized the plant: made ’em put those in uniform so you could tell ’em.

They’d be in greasy old overalls, and they’d count how many minutes you sat in the goddamn can. The work was so rough, guys got old before their time. If you were workin’ at 45, you were lucky, ’cause when you slowed down the production line, out you went. You’d go to the toilet, not to take a shit, but just to rest. There was no door, no privacy. I’ve seen guys go in the damn toilet and get five minutes’ sleep. The way they did it: they’d take a newspaper and learned how to tap their feet while they were sleepin’. The service guy comes through and sees him with the paper and tappin’ his feet and figures he’s awake. It’s funny what humans can do to survive.

They put a guy across from me, a big son of a bitch, musta been about 280, six foot three. He knew I was union and kept baiting me. There was a conveyer line that ran between my rollin’ machine and his. I had a steel pipe that I used to clear the machine when it became jammed. This guy zeroes in on me. If he got his hands on me, there is no way in hell I could have survived. I could see he starts across the line at me. I picked up that damn steel pipe and laid it across his head. I stretched him out on that damn conveyer, and it carried him and dumped him into a freight car. (Laughs) It didn’t hurt him that much. Five, six stitches and a few lacerations. They ran my ass outa there. (Laughs) Officially, I was fired for fighting. The real reason was my union activity.

I went to the post office and began to organize a union. There was a six months’ probationary period. Son of a bitch let me work 5 months and 29 days and fired me. I was a volunteer organizer for UAW. Worked on the Sojourner Truth housing protest. In and out of several jobs, had to eat. I went in the army February 1942.

They set up this Jim Crow Air Forces OCS School in Tuskegee. They made the standards so damn high we actually became an elite group. We were screened and superscreened. We were unquestionably the brightest and most physically fit young blacks in the country. We were superbetter because of the irrational laws of Jim Crow. You can’t bring that many intelligent young people together and train ’em as fighting men and expect them to supinely roll over when you try to fuck over ’em, right? How does that go? Sowing the seeds of their own destruction. (Laughs)

After the war, back in Detroit, I became an international rep for the United Public Workers Union, which was eventually run out of the CIO as subversive. It included the garbage men, the hospital workers, all city workers. The same guys I negotiate with today. (Laughs)

I came from the East Side; so I knew everybody in Detroit. Detroit was a pretty small place and then grew suddenly. Most of the guys who became leaders came from my neighborhood. Another thing made me better known. The red scare was on, the witch-hunt. The House Un-American Activities Committee came to town. These guys would come to a city, terrorize it, put a goddamn stool pigeon on the stand. He rattles off a list of names, and that person is fired, hung in effigy, blacklisted.

Either the American Dream has changed a lot since we first learned about it, or some people have some truly crazy dreams these days.

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