WHO LOST AN AMERICAN?
by Joel Gilbert, as told to Noel Ignatiev
I was born in 1973, and grew up in Port Huron, Michigan, a town of thirty thousand people. The north end of town was pretty much for the wealthy or the upper class, and the south end, where I grew up, was mostly white, working-class people. There were some black folks, some Hispanic folks, but not many. I have one older brother, a younger sister, and a younger brother.
One of the first things I can remember is my father beating my mother. My father had a good job as a truck driver for the local dairy, and he was making pretty good money. He was trying to establish a middle-class life, and he just couldn't deal with the pressures, so he would take it out on my mother. We had a big family and we ate a lot. My mother went shopping and spent a lot on groceries. My father was upset at her because she bought this four-dollar box of cereal. It was sugarcoated and he had this thing about sugar. She came home, and he saw this box of cereal, and took the box of cereal and smashed it and threw it down the stairs, and then beat my mother, screaming that we couldn't afford it, and that us kids shouldn't have that kind of cereal. The next morning when we woke up, we saw him sitting at the table. He had gone to the basement and got out the cereal box and was eating the cereal. Seeing that just twisted my insides. It made me hurt so much.
I can always remember seeing my older brother getting beaten. Once my father told him to take out the garbage. My brother was maybe seven or eight at the time. While he was trying to drag the big garbage bags, my dad yelled at him to bring him his wallet. My brother did that, but he got distracted and forgot to take out the garbage. When my father saw that, he picked my brother up by the neck, and dragged him down a flight of stairs, and stuck his face in the garbage, and started screaming at him. Then he threw him up a flight of stairs and started kicking him into the bedroom. He took out his leather belt and beat him. That stuck in my head for a long time.
From the moment I was born I knew my father hated me, but I knew my mother loved me. I recall an incident, from when I was about five. My father was burning the trash in the back yard and I had this little twig—you know how little kids are fascinated by fire—well, I was trying to get this twig to catch fire, and he kept screaming at me, "Get away from the fire," and I wouldn't get away. There was a plastic Crisco bottle in the fire, and it blew up, and spattered hot oil on my hands and face. I was scared and thought I was going to die, and he told me to shut up, and took me up and put cold water on my hands and face. My mother wanted to take me to the hospital, and he said no, it was my own fault, and he couldn't afford another hospital bill. For five hours they were putting ice on me and finally my mom wrapped me in a blanket and sneaked me out of the house and took me to the hospital. They said if I hadn't got there I would have been scarred permanently.
When I was in first grade, my mom got a divorce and we movedto a different house. My father would come around and bug her and demand that they get married again. I remember coming into the room from my bedroom and he was standing above her and she was sitting there with tears running down her face. He had a monstrous grimace, and she told me to go back to bed. One night he came to the house when my mother was listening to the stereo, and she wouldn't let him in. He forced his way in and threw the stereo out the window. I heard all this, but I was too scared to get out of bed.
My mom got a court order to keep him away, and the police would come and sympathize with my father. Those policemen weren't out to protect us. The courts wouldn't do anything. He owed my mother a lot of money that we could have used to eat.
My mom knew she had to get away and we moved to Ann Arbor, two hours from Port Huron. There was no way he could drive down there the way he used to. We would visit him every other week, and he would buy us clothes and toys, but he wouldn't let us take them home when we left.
While we lived in Ann Arbor, my mom had two different jobs. She worked at an insurance company and also at a bar. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment, not much space or privacy, not too much to eat. We had good times, though. Our family got really close, and my older brother and I looked after each other, and after our younger brother and sister. We didn't have a television so we went garbage-picking and found one. When we wanted snacks we would scrounge up change in the house and buy candy. We entertained each other, and would go for walkstogether. I learned to cook and scrub pots and pans when I waseight years old. My mom was always good to us when she could be. But she started drinking and developed a problem with alcohol. We lived with her in Ann Arbor for about two years, and then she couldn't afford to keep us any more. At that time my father owed my mother about five thousand dollars in child support, and she essentially traded us to him. They worked it out with the court so that she wouldn't have to pay any child support but would get us back after two years. A lot of this I found out later.
So we moved back from our mother to our father, and that's when things got really bad. When we moved in with him, he was working a lot too, so the system we had set up when we lived with our mother continued. My brothers, sister, and I were all very close. We had to watch over each other. We cooked, we cleaned, we entertained each other. I looked up to my brother more than I did my father. I had little respect for my father. He had never been able to control us when we were all together and we thought he had no right to now. So he beat us. Most of it was directed against my older brother and me, because we knew what was going on and hated him. My younger brother and sister were too young to understand and he left them alone.
He'd beat me every day, for anything from not cleaning a dish properly to not getting a grade in school. After the physical beating was over, the emotional abuse would start. He would tell me that he loved me and that I was a bad kid, and that he didn't want to do what he had to do, but he did it because he loved me. So I was very confused about myself, and what this man represented to me. I didn't understand who gave him the authority to treat me the way he did. And that whole time he was taking us to church each week. He was a devout Christian. Tothis day he seems like the nicest person you could meet, in public. But behind closed doors, he's a monster.
I had always been rebellious in school. When I moved in with my father that rebellion continued. I was in a new school, and I didn't like the situation I was living in, and so I was a troublemaker. I was an outcast because I was a little on the weird side. Essentially I went on my own, and did my own things and stayed to myself. My brother had a paper route and I would help him with that. I would hang with some of the older people on the route, and talk to them.
The friends I had were all into playing war games. We'd go and get plastic guns and play in the woods, and talk about military strategies. I started getting interested in World War II. I read a lot about it. Reading was an escape for me. I think it was history that drew me to reading, because I loved to go into another time. I started reading about Nazis, and the more I got into that the less I focused on the other parts of the War. I got interested in the different things Hitler was doing. The more I read about Hitler the more powerful he seemed to me. I could relate to that power. I felt helpless, like I had no power, and I felt that through his message I could get power.
I knew that Germany and the U.S. had fought on opposite sides in the War, but that didn't matter. I didn't like the American way of life. I was unhappy with what I saw. At that age I had realized that my father was working a lot. He would come home from the day's work and wanted to see things clean. And if they weren't clean he would take it out on us. I didn't understand why my father had to work so much, and why whateverhappened at work made him angry enough to come home and hit me and my older brother. Also I didn't like being pushed around and humiliated by my teachers because I was different. I had trouble learning and they called me dumb. I realized that school wasn't going to do anything for me, my father and mother weren't going to do anything for me, the community I lived in wasn't going to do anything. So I looked to other places. I would watch TV documentaries on Hitler and they would talk about how he built the autobahns, and how he and Dr. Porsche produced the Volkswagen bug, which really fascinated me because I liked that type of car. They were able to put everybody to work, and give everybody a car, and build themselves up to the point where eventually they could take on the whole world in a war. I studied about how they went into Russia, and how they were able to roll in there until the cold and the Russian fighters fought them back. It seemed like they had so much power. Like at the Nuremberg rallies, where it seemed that they had hundreds of thousands of people doing the same thing—their right hands to Hitler, and he wasable to command them to do anything he wanted. I would daydream about that being me, here in America, about being Hitler or somebody of his strength and power.
I realized through my studies that he had killed six million Jews. But at that point I was starting to get connected with the grandfather of one of my friends. He lived alone a few blocks away from my house, and I'd go over and talk with him. He was an anti-Semite. He had a whole room full of books and magazines of different white supremacist and anti-Semitic groups. Even though he didn't claim to be a Nazi—he actually disliked the Nazis—he liked to read up on what they were doing. He talked about the Establishment, by which he meant international Jewry controlling the world through capital. He said that there weren't sixmillion Jews killed. He gave me a pamphlet that said there was no Auschwitz, that during the War it was a factory that produced clothes for soldiers, and that towards the end of the War Hollywood flew into Germany and turned this wrecked factory into a filmset with gas chambers to make it look like six million Jews were killed. I was thirteen or fourteen and I didn't know what to believe. This guy said that the Jews controlled Hollywood and had faked the whole thing. He sculpted a lot of my ideas to what the Nazi Party believed, that the capitalist system was createdby the Jews and that they were doing that to get rich. He started giving me books about the Rockefellers, and he traced how DuPont was all Jews, and I went along with it because I wanted something to believe in.
I knew one kid from a Jewish family. We were living in Ann Arbor, and he was one of my friends, and I would go over to his house--this was maybe in the third grade--and he was an only child and lived in this huge house. His mother and father were gone all the time and he had a maid, and video games, and big models of dinosaurs. I loved dinosaurs and I asked him where did he get all this stuff, and he said his parents just bought it for him. I couldn't believe it. One of his toys amounted to all my toys and I was amazed at all the shit he had. When Christmas time came he celebrated Hanukkah, and I would go over his house and for every day of Hanukkah he would get a box of toys, and all I would get for Christmas would be a few toys, and I only had one of these days and he had seven of them. That was in the back of my head when I began hearing all the anti-Semitic shit.
I don't think I hated black folks. One of the people on my paper route was black. The family was so nice to me, and I would give them free papers because they didn't have much money, and they would give me coffee or cookies. They were in the same economic situation my family was in and I would hang out with the son. I didn't hate black people but that kind of fit into the whole Nazi idea. I was supposed to hate them.
This period of my life developed over two years of living with my father and being beat around by him, and the school, and just fed up. I thought this was a way out. I had only one other friend who was into Nazism. He was a kid in high school in the ninth grade, and he was from a worse situation than mine. He would come to school dirty, with his hair messed up--so did I, but not like this kid. He had only one pair of pants. His father beat him openly, black and blue marks. My father wasalways smart enough not to leave any marks. This kid and I started talking. He liked to use the word nigger more often than I did, and he hated Jews, even though he didn't know any Jews either, and he said that his uncle was a white supremacist. He was a lot like me: he hated his folks, he hated school, he hated the town we had to grow up in.
I watched Oprah Winfrey on TV and there were skinheads on her show and I was cheering them on. In the back of my mind I realized that they were fools, but I wanted to get in touch with them. I didn't have any names or addresses of people to contact, but if I did I would have. At that point in my life I could have become a full-fledged Nazi. I was ready for it. If there had been some group around I could have joined, I would have.
What turned me around? At the time I was getting interested not only in the Nazis but in other things, like the Weathermen and the Chicago 7. People were telling me about SDS, because I grew up in Port Huron and people knew that the founding statement of SDS was adopted there, in the park my family used to go to in the summer for picnics. I knew I was radical, that I disliked the system, that I disliked my parents and the school system. I got interested in Charles Manson, because I knew he was radical, and killed people, and wanted to tear down the system. I was looking for alternatives to the Nazis, because there was something inside me that told me it was wrong. A lot of that was my Christian beliefs, that asked me why would I hate black people? I mean, my next-door neighbor was black, and he was a good guy. And then I didn't know any Jews, so why would I hate them? Even if the world was run by Jews, what did that have to do with me?
I bought Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, and read that, and I was starting to get into the Black Power movement, and my mom asked me if I had ever read Malcolm X. And she asked, why didn't I get a copy of that? And so I saved up some money and bought a copy. This was before the whole Malcolm X craze, and I sat down and read it. I read about the white supremacists who burned down his house, and killed his father, and tore apart his family, and I thought, if these folks could do that just because of his skin color, then that couldn't be the answer at all, no way. The more I read about Malcolm X and his life, the more I identified with him. I felt so bad that whites had treated him the way they did, but at the same time I knew that whites were treating me the same way. The funny thing is, at that time I didn't finish the book. Since then I've read the whole thing, but at that time I had the habit of starting books and not finishing them, and I didn't get past the part where he returns from Mecca.
From there I considered myself a black nationalist. I started looking for people who were like Malcolm X. Maybe I could hook up with them, and find a way to escape from the oppression I felt. I hated whites. I would talk about the god damn honkies, or whatever. I hated the little town I grew up in, and I thought that when I grew up I would move to Detroit or Chicago and join up with some people and come back and wipe the place out.
I was always in trouble, and my father didn't know how to handle it. When we were still living in Ann Arbor, my mom wanted to help us deal with everything that was happening, so she started taking us to family therapy. When I moved in with my father he took me to the school therapist and then he took me to psychologists. I would tell them what was happening. And then they would organize family sessions, and I would sit in the room, with the therapist in the middle and my father on the other side, and they would make me repeat what I had told them in private. And I would do it, and my father would just shake his head, and they would believe him and not me. And so I was this rebellious kid who was making up lies. And after the sessions he would scream at me for saying things that were not true. He was in his own denial. I knew I didn't want to be a man like my father. He wasn't a man, he was a coward. I later found out that his father did the same thing to him, and who knows what his father did to him. This is the kind of thing that goes on and society just doesn't see it. And the thing is, I had several differentfriends in school who had the same problems. I knew one kid who killed himself because his father beat him.
I moved back with my mother when I was about sixteen. I switched schools and had to make new friends. I was a complete outcast because I was different. I tried to fit in but I couldn't. People would make fun of me and I was depressed all the time. I stopped going to school. I began seeing a new therapist. Finally I put myself into the hospital. I told the therapist that I needed a place where I could be safe. So she worked it out so that I could go to a mental hospital in Detroit.
I was there for three weeks and that screwed me up worse than before, because they put me on all kinds of medications—the first one was prozac, then they put me on lithium, then on haldol, and another drug. The drugs gave me neck spasms, and I couldn't swallow, and I could hardly breathe. Just recently have I learned that these drugs have killed people. They were about to send me to a bigger institution where I would have been for at least a year, where I would have been doped up more on their shit. I cleaned up my act and played straight for a couple of days, and then I went to my psychiatrist and said I was ready to go home. I promised to continue taking my drugs, and he let me go home. I went back home and kept getting more depressed.
I was suicidal from age twelve on. My older brother actually attempted suicide when he was seventeen. And then he went into the army and that really fucked him up. So there were all kinds of things that could have happened to me. I could have killed myself, I could have become a Nazi, I could have been in a mental institution for the rest of my life. I dropped out of school and was working at different jobs which didn't last. I was still living with my mom, but I would spend a lot of time at friends’ houses, staying drunk and getting high. We were living on the north side at that time, where a lot of the rich kids lived, and I would see them driving Mercedes, and wearing expensive clothes, and that didn't make any sense to me, because I had only three or four outfits and got most of my clothes from the Goodwill. Finally, when I was justturning seventeen I decided I couldn't go on like this anymore, and that I was going to understand why my life is so fucked up, and do what I needed to do to destroy the church, to destroy the family, to destroy the cops, the courts, the schools, and to destroy psychiatry. I turned vegetarian, because I realized that the meat I was eating represented so much of the system. People beat their wives, beat their children, and kill animals and eat them. When the Gulf War was building up, I marched together with some people from the local community college, on a peaceful march from the town hall to the local recruiting station. Looking back, I wish I had stormed a cop the way I wanted to. At the same time I was scared, because I knew that seventeen-year-olds could be drafted, and I didn't want to go to the army or have anything to do with that war.
I was looking through the Detroit and I saw ads from a peace group for people to canvas against the Gulf War. I called the office and told them I was good at knocking on doors and talking to people, because of my paper route, and that I wanted to move to Ann Arbor. They told me to come down for an interview, and so I packed up my bags, told my mom I wasn't going to live off her any more. I said goodbye to my family and moved to Ann Arbor, with twenty-five dollars in my pocket. I didn't say goodbye to my father because I didn't want to have anything to do with him. That was on January 18, 1991, two days after the Gulf War started--a cold Michigan winter, and I gave five bucks to a friend to drive me there.
I had a place to live, with five guys who were friends of a friend, students at the University of Michigan. The first day I got there I found a girlfriend. She was going with this guy who lived there, and I was only seventeen, and we hit it off and began hanging around together. The second day I got a job, and the third day I found an apartment. It was a shared apartment and didn't last long, because I couldn't pay the rent, but I moved in with a friend after that.
Working with the anti-war movement was an incredible time in my life, because I learned a lot about the lies the government told. I started canvassing door-to-door. We were talking about how since the cold war was over the government should take money out of war and put it into a peacetime economy. I was reaching a lot of people, but I also met some who were pretty negative. I remember one time when I was canvassing a subdivision near Detroit. It was a cold, snowy night©©I almost had frostbite on my fingers—and this guy got out of his car and left his lights on and came up to me. He was about a foot taller than me, and he got right in my face and asked me if I was the one who was going around talking against the War. When I said I was he told me that his mother was at home crying, because his brother was over there and what I said scared her. I told him I didn't mean to scare her, that I was just trying to spread the truth. Well we talked and I don't think I convinced him, but he calmed down. I went to the demonstration in Washington and that was big-time for me, because I got to see this movement happening. I had a good time in Ann Arbor, going to demonstrations--nothing too radical, because I was kind of scared, and I didn't have money for bail, so I just did your normal protesting.
When the War ended I didn't have anything more to rant about, so I got in touch with the local drug scene, and with some local Deadheads, and began hanging out with them. I began to travel, and towards the end of the summer I came to Boston, and my friend from Ann Arbor was living there, and he introduced me to my now-girlfriend. I went back to Michigan, but she and I stayed in touch, and I decided to move to Boston. I moved with four goals: the first was to have a relationship with my girlfriend; the second was to get a job; the third was to find a place to live; and the fourth was to go to college.
It was winter. I don't know why I choose winters to move. I slept on the street in Harvard Square. There was a strong group of kids who would go garbage-picking together, and chip in for food, and take care of each other. Even while I was homeless I had a job, but I would go in to work tired every day. It was a tough time, and I asked my mother to send me money for a train ticket home. She sent it to me, but just as I was about to go back I found an apartment, and so I gave the ticket money to the people I moved in with. And then I found another job, temping for good money, and I found a better place to live, and my relationship with my girlfriend got better.
I still wanted to go to college. I enrolled in Roxbury Community College, expecting to find the black radicals I was looking for, so we could work together and smash the system. I am one of a handful of "white" students at Roxbury. I enrolled in some really good classes, but unfortunately I didn't find the people I wanted to hook up with. It wasn't as radical as I was hoping. In fact, there are hardly any radicals.
I went in with the idea that no matter what happened, I was going to educate myself, and I was going to make friends. I think I've done both of those things. At first I was a little scared. I didn't know how people would take to me, but I went in with a respectful attitude. I never tried to act in any special way, but just to be myself. After a while, people could see that, and started to return the respect. This year I'm on the student government association, and I know a lot of the students and faculty. I spend a lot of time and energy integrating myself into the community. There are people there from all different parts of the Caribbean, from central and south America, from all parts of Africa, and those are people you can learn from. I don't think I represent the normal whites they see. Most of the kids there come from economic backgrounds similar to mine, and we have a lot in common. Never has anyone told me to get out because I didn't belong, or anything like that. People take their time and try to get to know me before they judge me.
I've lived in a lot of different parts of Boston. I lived in Somerville for a while, which is pretty white, and I noticed a lot of racist tendencies from people there, and I didn't like living there at all. I lived for a while in Dorchester, with two roommates. One was from Zimbabwe, the other was from here. He had both black and white family, and had to deal with the white part of his family. I learned a lot from that. I lived for six months on the line between Roxbury and the South End. It's a very poor area, a lot of drugs, with a lot of Puerto Ricans and other Hispanic people. I took the same approach there that I took at RCC. I'd sit on the stoop and smoke with the guys, and shoot the shit. I found we liked the same type of music, and had a lot in common. It got a little too rough for my girlfriend and me, so we moved. I live with my girlfriend now in Jamaica Plain, in a very mixed area—a lot of blacks, a lot of Hispanics, and the whites who live there tend to be cool. It's as much of a community as I've experienced in Boston. Other parts of J.P. have been gentrified, but I'm not part of that. I don't represent whiteness any more, and so there's no way I can gentrify anything. For the most part I feel at home with black people. I've got plenty of black inside me. And I think most of the whiteness I grew up with has washed away.
One of the reasons my girlfriend and I were able to come together is that she saw I'm not like the average white male. I don't want to boast on myself, but I think I'm more mature, because of my experiences, than the average person my age. She is a few years older than I am, but that is just like color—it doesn't mean anything. She isn't as political as I am, but we share a way of looking at the world. I hope that as I evolve politically we can grow together.
I heard about Race Traitor from a friend. He is writing a dissertation on how the fundamentalist right attacks gay people. I was over his house and he was showing me some of their literature. Then he showed me a copy of Race Traitor, the first issue with a picture on the cover of some white kids pushing over a school bus. I looked at it, and I asked, "What is this, more right-wing garbage?" And I started reading it, and I said, "This is insane." And he said, "No that is sanity." I started to read it and I couldn't make any sense out of it. He told me to take it home and read it and make sense out of. And so I took it home, and read the editorial about abolishing the white race, and when I was finished I said, "This is me. I'm a race traitor." That editorial explained a lot of what I already believed.
I read that issue three or four times. I didn't know what I could do, but I wanted to get involved in the publication. So I wrote to the address in the magazine, and gave my phone number, and that's how the connection started. Since then I've read both issues, and I've given it to other people I know.
I'm interested in history. Right now I'm reading a book on the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. That blows my mind, how people came together and started a revolution, and were able to develop workers' councils that were so powerful that the government was nothing compared to them. They had found something that doesn't come up too often. They had learned how to organize themselves instead of having somebody else organize them. If it hadn't been for Khrushchev sending in the Russian Army and massacring thousands of people, the workers' councils would have carried Hungary out of the mess it was in. I'm also reading stuff by C.L.R. James, who I knew of before because of my class at RCC on the Caribbean. I'm getting into reading Marx and Engels, tryingto understand their point of view. I read a lot of things about them before, but now I want to hear it from the horse's mouth. It's tough to read. Because I'm interested in revolutionary ideas, I'd like to form a collective with other folks who have ideas similar to mine, so we can study together, organize together, and tear some shit up.
In another year I'll have my associate degree from RCC. From there I'd like to go to U.Mass for my B.A. Eventually I'd like to go on and do a doctorate. The pieces of paper don't mean that much to me, but they are things I can use to take care of myself, and besides, I'd like to have the knowledge. I'd like to get involved in community organizing. I've gotideas for a small publication, to share the knowledge I've acquired with kids my age who haven't had the opportunity to study. And I'd like to establish contact with other people around the country who feel the same way I do.
Race Traitor has already helped me do that. I want to learn more about what the Nazi organizations are like in Boston, and around the country, and even in the world. They are getting organized too, and I'dlike to do some damage to them. I can understand where a lot ofthe young Nazis are coming from, because I was at the same place. I would also like to confront them directly.
I like to watch movies for entertainment. Thee are a lot ofmovies out there that address some of my political beliefs. Ijust recently saw "Blue Collar." It takes a look at three workers at an automobile plant in Detroit. I think it does a good job at showing how plant management and the unions fuck with people's lives. Music is very important to me. I grew uplistening to all kinds of music. Some of my favorite bands wereThe Dead Kennedy's and Crass. I still listen to a lot of the same music, but I tend to listen to more hard core rap now. One of my favorite rap groups is The Goats. They're very political and share a lot of my views. Sometimes I watch MTV, and I can see how they try to socialize kids, by taking subversive bands and commercializing their music.
I want to destroy this so-called white society. I don't want any more kids to grow up like I did. I don't want to see psychiatry being used to hurt people. I don't want to see cops beating down anybody, black or white. I don't want to see families destroyed the way mine was. The kid this society gave birth to and tried to socialize has rebelled.
Noel Ignatiev is editor of A New Notion: Two Works by C.L.R. James: "Every Cook Can Govern" and "The Invading Socialist Society".