By Hugh Iglarsh
“Welcome to Colored School,” says the back cover of “Black Cracker,” Josh Alan Friedman’s account of his strange, split childhood. In the early 1960s, Friedman—the son of noted humorist Bruce Jay Friedman—attended South School in Glen Cove, New York, as pretty much the only white kid in “the last segregated colored school on Long Island.” From first through fourth grades, Friedman would leave his comfortable suburban home in the morning and spend his days in an ancient schoolhouse, located hard by the Third World-style shantytown that contained Glen Cove’s African-American population. It was an impoverished neighborhood “that could have been transplanted from the Carolinas,” long since razed and replaced by public housing.
The book is Friedman’s search for “my old Black self, the inner nigger of my youth.” His choice of language and title is revealing, suggesting the ongoing conflict—not to say warfare—between the two sides of his identity. In addition, Friedman is a Jew, characterized by one of the local greasers as “nothin’ but a nigger turned inside out.”
No wonder the very young Josh Friedman pictured on the cover has such a deer-in-the-headlights look to him.
I had a chance to converse with the grown-up Friedman recently. He came to Chicago to attend the annual birthday party of his hero, the late local novelist Nelson Algren, who had spent a week with Friedman’s family in the mid-sixties. “My dad said, a great writer is coming to stay with us,” recalls Friedman of the long-ago visit. He remembers a scruffy, middle-aged man who got up early every morning to chat with the housekeeper.
“My parents were crazy about him,” says Friedman. “They threw a wild party in his honor on Fire Island that resulted in about ten divorces. I woke up to a half-naked woman in my room. Nelson thought it was too much—he said, ‘why do people have to be like that?’” Read the rest of this entry »