Until the age of seven, I didn’t realize I was a dark brown skin little boy amongst a sea of white people in elementary school in San Jose, California in the mid 1960’s. Because my non-profit speaking partner (Matthew John Schmitt) and I are retracing our history of how we got to this point of forming a non-profit called The Table Setters regarding the subject of social injustices, race relations in the United States; and why we could possibly agree on anything in this day and age of the country more divided than ever. With that, we are both constantly trying to recall our past. For me, it’s remembering what it was like as a so called “Black Boy” making the journey to discover what others thought about me as I didn’t really know that I was black. This is a retrace of significant feelings and events that lead to this discovery. More so from observation of not realizing I was different without a mirror in front of me. Not because I wasn’t looking into mirrors, but because I was just going about my day. The mirror our racists society holds up was not self inflicted, nor did it really carry a reflection, it was more of a daily diatribe of horrible language and commentary used towards me in a derogatory racial fashion from the second grade on. Obviously, my white classmates were getting great lessons in all forms at home and, all of a sudden, the same kids I had been in K through 1st grade decided to practice on me, the “Black Boy”. It became painfully obvious, from teachers to students, that I was not like them. And I’m not just talking in the amount of God given melanin (thank God for it). And including myself, there was only one other black student from K through fifth grade who was very fair skin and frankly, he was likable. In a true warrior sense as Bob Marley says in his Buffalo Soldier Song, “Stolen from Africa, brought to America”. I fought against it physically and verbally, it was exhausting.

 
Marvin Wadlow Sr (PeeDee)

Myfather never talked disparagingly about white people, never! I’m sure that had a lot to do with my lack of recognition of my skin tone. I didn’t have that passed on generational biased based on systematic racism experienced by people of color — yet! Because my parents had multiple businesses that were created by them, I had been exposed to lawyers, insurance brokers, bankers, contractors, fireman, police, EMT, doctors, the milkman, the mailman, teachers, etc. But, the hero of my story that I’m telling you, and it wasn’t my father, even though I thought the world of him; it was that second black child in my school, the fairest child if you will. And, he actually experienced one black teacher that I didn’t have in the 1st grade. I knew one black teacher in high school during my four years. In community college I had no black teachers. In undergrad I had no black teachers. In grad film school in Los Angeles I had one black teacher. So, I think that’s two in twenty years, but only one of which I actually was taught by! My mother had different experiences than my father, and some emotions for her just “slipped out” in regards to the lack of black folks in authority in education.

Virginia Lee Wadlow (Mommy Dearest)

Virginia Lee Wadlow, my mother, had many stories of major injustices and every once in a while would let an epitaph like “those crackers” slip out. But going through elementary school, I really thought she was talking about saltine crackers. And the way I grew up living in a house, actually multiple houses right next to each other that we actually owned; I had no idea that the majority of other minorities didn’t have multiple houses, nor did their families actually own businesses like my parents did. So there was this clash of observations. No talk of bias on my father’s side. And yet, feelings that my mother didn’t quite see it that way, but not knowing the “code” words like I do now I had no idea of what she was talking about! That wasn’t until the world (white folks) slowly showed a mirror to me without me standing in front of one. The second grade was to be that racial baggage claim area. There were no other bags on this carousel, just mine going round and round waiting for me to claim the first racial luggage bag of many to come from age seven to this day. Seven, I was lucky. Some kids get to racial baggage claim at age two. This was about the time I met my hero, the fair skinned one, at my elementary school. To make thing worse, he was extremely well liked, and handsome. And thank God, at the time of the mirror being held up to my darker complexion, he was (and still is) my best friend, more brother. I have a saying, “were not blood, but were family”. I am sure he suffered in some of the ways I did, but he handled it differently.

 
Nate Turner 🙂

Meanwhile, I went on a Nat Turner (without a gun) rampage defending myself at all times. Bell rings, I’m on a mission to get to the next class without a fight which rarely happened. One thing though, I was no Ali or Mike Tyson. I routinely was underneath a “white boy” being pummeled as I watched this light skin black boy, yet again, pull another white boy off of me. I got up with verbal insults and quick quips ready to go at it again. That scenario happened at least six to ten times a week. All based on my complexion and several key words that would set me off!

Nigger

Blackie

Black Sambo

In my elementary school library collection

Black Sambo was interesting as it was an actual book that was read to me in front of a room full of white children by the school librarian, yes, she was white. I actually trusted her until that day! The librarian at the end of the wonderful reading of Little Black Sambo used me as a example and pointed out that the character in the book, as she walked around the room pointing her finger at different students, but landed on me and said, “looked just like Marvin Wadlow Jr!” As I could feel my little seven year old bodies blood pressure begin to rise, the Nat Turner was building up. The room let out a roar of laughter that could have filled a Kevin Hart concert in a stadium, it seemed to never stop. Beyond frustrated, and enough “black boy” sense not to hit a teacher, I ran out of the library and all the way home, 2.5 blocks to my house and burst through the door crying. Surprise, your black and outed, and there really never was a closet to come out of!

Black Sambo

Nigger

Blackie

The Wadlow’s

The story goes, as told by my father to others, as I listened at a house poker game party we had, as black folks laugh the way we laugh when someone else’s story causes racial tension. They use it as a great comedic self-deprecating humor. Even if your in the room and it happened to you, even better. According to him, Virginia Lee Wadlow, better known as Harriet Tubman, went to the school. “Let me put it to you this way”, my father said. “the librarian had to be locked in the principals office”. Also, as he explains it, he was called at one of his work sites as a free-lance janitor, and asked if he could come to the school to get his wife who was out of control and trying to assault the librarian by slapping one poor white office lady (even now, that feels good to say) and pushing aside several others as eventually the principal stood in front of the door and took verbal assault after verbal assault and a few fingers in his chest. Angry! I think that’s how they represent most black women in movies. Angry and black. That’s the complete stereotype at it’s best. Never any reason or cause, just anger! Reportedly my father told them they should call the police. Needless to say, Mrs. Wadlow was my defender of injustices against, systematic racism and all racial injustices against me. I never saw the Librarian again, my mother, as far as I know, was not arrested, and there lied my conflict when it came to race because up until then, I really did not think about being black. Therefore I thought of myself as being a part of Hillsdale Elementary School in San Jose, California, from 1963 to 1969. A student like everyone else.

Nigger

Blackie

Black Sambo

Thank You Agatha Christie! I also saw this in my library!

That was my first set of luggage. What I like to call my racial travel bags, they come in a variety of models, but only one color. Your color, black! The one travel bag turned into a suitcase, then two, three, and four suit cases and eventually fifty-eight suitcases. One for each year of my life that you must learn to travel with, check into the airport with, and manage throughout your entire life every day! And if you didn’t the consequences would be brutal to you, your children, and maybe your children’s children. And then, it finally hit me in the 8th grade after fighting it for years. Shit, I’m not like other white kids cause…well, your not white! Isn’t it “strange fruit” to say the following.

Freedom Riders in Birmingham with their luggage

“Jesus, why couldn’t I have grown up in Harlem?, then I would have known from the start!”-Marvin Wadlow Jr, 2017

Igot introduced to Harlem and being black during the next five to seven years through my actual real life epiphany that I had melanin in my skin that was different then 99.9999 percent of the rest of the kids in school who didn’t have as much; except my friend of fair skin who watched my back constantly. And movies quickly showed me the error of my ways. And my fair skinned black classmate who helped me maneuver through the world. Without him, I actually believe I would have been dead from any of the following words you can find in a psychology book or from war veterans:

Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD)

Psychological Damage

or the other Big 3

Nigger

Blackie

Black Sambo

 

Pick either one. I know it was cinema that also saved my life. The ability to tell a story. Or, the ability to tell a story through photography which became my 1st love along with movies. But photography was more tangible for me, even as a kid who thought he was white up until the Little Black Sambo table reading, what a great movie that was. I had no access to really make movies, nor someone to teach me. But photography turned into that as I took more risks with stills, then insisted that I tell stories that way as I won awards for my street photographs around the San Francisco bay area. Capturing people on the street in a multicolored world that didn’t look like the movies. Conflict again. But, it was my envisioning my photos coming to life in stories that catapulted me to where I am now. Through black exploitation films I could learn that I was in fact black, and this is how they treat us! I could at least go, “Ohhhh, why didn’t someone show me “Super Fly” before. Or, “In The Heat of The Night”, or some form of cinema that could have explained my circumstances better? This would have been a lot easier than me thinking, “hey, why are they treating me this way, I’m just like them”, when in fact, I wasn’t! But instead it was a constant barrage of those three words in one form or another, less Sambo for sure, more of the first two below. Film freed me to actually start being an activists who had my own thoughts about my own experience, which of course back then, you couldn’t find. And if you did, it was marked by major media outlets as being revolutionary because it was coming from The Black Panthers, Dr. King, or Angela Davis. But in my own mind, some of these films, and my own maturing process about being black taught me one thing, how to survive being called:

Blackie

Nigger

Black Sambo

Yes, comic relief was my own personal monologue of soundtracks used to sooth my wounds. Sarcastic comments that I actually said, but people were puzzled as to what I was talking about. This gave me relief through laughter from those horrible comments. White people would look at me inquisitively like, “did he just make fun of me being white, or himself being a:

Nigger

Blackie

Black Sambo

They had no idea! And then it was pleasing to have a high dosage of melanin. Was it easier to be black. No! That shit got harder and harder every year. But my internal coping mechanisms became more sophisticated as my vocabulary expanded and I dug deeper and deeper to learn about my true history which was not taught in any of my classes, ever at any level! This meant I was a survivalists in the most tiring of ways. Constantly staying ahead of white people with true facts about my heritage or all situations. In some ways my theme song was The O’Jays, Back Stabbers. At least I liked the beat and could remember some of the lyrics that pertained to portions of my situation. Even though it was a song about people closer to you trying to take your woman, of which I didn’t have one. I used it anyway as I could turn it on in my head as if I had a walkman, an iPod, or an Iphone. And then there was Soul Train. That was like a Phd level class in being Young, Gifted, and Black that made Peace, Love, and Soul amazingly creditable, and black life maintainable. 🙂

Ojay’s: Back Stabbers. “All the time they wanna take yo place, the back stabbers”

Then, in the middle of my Afro phase and black panther jacket phase a movie came out that messed up everything, Shaft. A dark skinned black man with an actual legal job. And, he carried a gun, legally. And, “honkey’s”, forgive me, “crackers” didn’t bother him. He actually had a license to carry a gun like James Bond, the white dude. He roughed up everybody (black and white), got the girl, a black woman, and here’s the real crazy part. Shaft actually went to the local police station on purpose to talk to detectives about a case he was working on. In other words, he was helping the police, solving the case, and getting paid. He actually investigated crimes. What! That was his actual legitimate job, like my dad! He had a real job. Shit! Messed up everything. All this time I thought I could just talk jive, walk with a limp, eat watermelon and rely on my favorite derogatory words:

Nigger

Blackie

Black Sambo

 

Shaft had the baddest theme song ever. Then another thing happened that blew my mind. The dark skinned black man who created that created the theme song for Shaft, Issac Hayes, better known to black folks as Black Moses, won this gold statue called, an Oscar for best original score for a movie.

“Shaft, Hotter Than Bond, Cooler than Bullet. If you Wanna See Shaft, ask ya mama” -Trailer Voice Over (not making it up)

 

And I lost my mind and said to myself, “Hey self, you “Jig”(a derogatory black name), your going to write movies someday…when your 58’”. And thats the bedtime story of how I thought I was white until Richard Roundtree (actor who played Shaft) messed it all up and created this smart as “Nigga” called Marvin Wadlow Jr. I love him and his melanin, I really do. I know you just can’t wait to meet him either. That jig is coming to a town near you just full of antidotes about growing up on the South/East side of San Jose, Ca, The Bay Area!

A Must Watch-90K at LA Coliseum for The Watt Staxx Concert (1973, the year he won the Oscar!)

“Can you dig it”

“Make sure to put your name on all your luggage so it doesn’t get lost!”

A must watch for the dedication he makes, and to see the look on that black usher’s face as he comes from the back of the bus during the Oscar celebration cause he won the damn thing!

dam·mit, ˈdamət/ exclamation informal used to express anger and frustration

The End – Marvin

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