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James T. Harris

Negroes With Fishing Poles

More Stories My Father Told Me

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“One nigger, two niggers, three niggers… Three niggers!” That is what the little American of European descent shouted as my father and his two friends emerged from a broken down blue Rambler. Three grown men from central Mississippi called the “N word” by a young boy in central Wisconsin in the early 1960s.

Can’t get more racist than that, right?

I barely remember my father’s "toe-up" hoopty (I do recall how proud he was when he upgraded to a new Buick), but I will never forgot the ugly story my father told me when I was a child about how a fishing trip in beautiful, scenic Wisconsin, almost got him and his friends in serious trouble.
“One nigger, two niggers, three niggers… Three niggers!” That sounds kind of old-school redneck, doesn’t it?  Like the first lines of a Ku Klux Klan nursery rhyme… 
My father and all of his Mississippi friends loved to fish. They formed a whole community around fishing. My childhood memories are filled with my father and his Mississippi friends partying, hanging out, playing cards and fishing… always fishing. And if any of them caught a mother load, they shared the load with each other. It was that way with everything. Greens, turnips, onions… whatever they grew, they shared. Whatever they bought, they split. There was a lot of Mississippi in Milwaukee in the 1950s and 60s. They came north for work and brought the culture of the South with them.
In the pre- “I have a Dream” era, however, racism wasn’t a north or south thing. It was an American thing and it wasn’t covert.  Racism was overt, obvious and omnipresent. Racist sentiments were natural; almost expected but NEVER welcomed. My father initially had to flee his hometown in Mississippi when he refused to cower at the use of ‘that word.’  All three of these men who were called “nigger” by that boy were veterans. They’d seen action in the Korean theatre. I’m told war has a way of changing a man. Well, it changed my father. After returning from duty in Korea, some teenager in Louisville, Mississippi, almost lost his life for mistaking my father for a nigger. 
But this was a child, and my father was now older, wiser, and married with children... (Me!)  
“One nigger, two niggers, three niggers… Three niggers!”
My father was the first one to emerge from the car. It was the third passenger to emerge who actually engaged… went after the kid. My father and passenger #2 stopped him, restrained him actually, and said the words that have impacted my life. “It’s not his fault. He’s a child. He had to LEARN it somewhere!”  (racism: a learned behavior, a culture, not an institution, not a government program, but a thought… planted in the heart!)  ”Well, then let’s go kick his father’s ass!” The three men laughed.
Of course that didn’t happen.  My father and his friends went fishing and the boy went home, never really understanding why the third “nigger” was so angry. 
That was 50 years ago. So much has changed…
My father and his friends continued to go fishing until the day they didn’t. Almost all of them have passed on now. My father, one of the last, is now in the last stages of Alzheimer’s. He shares his meals with many men, who decades past, probably planted those very seeds in the hearts of their sons. The irony slaps me on each visit.  
I never taught my sons how to fish but I have shared the stories… the community of sharing, caring, and how out of the overflow of the heart… the mouth speaks. I wish I could go fishing with my dad and his friends one more time. I miss their stories.

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