“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?’”
Although Friedman now lives in Dallas with a wife and daughter, far from the combination too-much and too-little of his childhood, his voice retains some of his father’s Bronx background. Big, square-jawed and leather-jacketed, Friedman still manages to convey a two-tiered personality, redolent of the smoky bars where he performs his own blues compositions under the name Josh Alan, as well as the libraries and bookstores that nourish his writing side. It’s the part of him that worships Chicago’s Algren and Dallas-born satirist Terry Southern and the Beats and all the other literary refugees from convention.
“I still don’t know whose culture I belong to,” says Friedman. “I’ve always been attracted to bad neighborhoods.”
The teeming sexual chaos of Manhattan’s Times Square lured him in as a teenager. “It was still the Wild West, with prostitutes and peep shows covering every square inch,” he says. “Pimps would run a house for a few weeks, until the Mob firebombed it.”
The hurly-burly felt like home for Friedman: “I’ve never felt more comfortable—I could take a nap against the lamppost.” His “Tales of Times Square” came out in 1986, just as the mother of all vice districts was being gentrified and Disneyfied out of existence.
“Algren once said that when he was in New York, he couldn’t imagine being anywhere but Times Square,” says Friedman. “I was flabbergasted and delighted by that.” It was then he knew he’d found his literary soul mate, a masterful writer who oozed authenticity and shared Friedman’s own penchant for the wild side.
Where Algren threw himself wholly into his lowlife characters, Friedman takes a more distanced and ambivalent stance. Young Josh is certainly attracted to the freedom and action of Glen Cove’s rural-style ghetto, but he’s also terrified of the hostility that breaks out regularly and without warning—most memorably when he’s mock-lynched by a mob of black women out on the Back Road. The book is anchored in the perceptions of a reverse minority child who experiences himself as a perpetual Other, as an outsider even within his own home.
The book’s tone moves between the gritty and naïve, as the young narrator witnesses the harshness of life without ever quite achieving understanding. Its fifty-some chapters come across as snapshots in an album of mostly disturbing memories.
According to Friedman, the book began as a paper for a high-school social studies class. In modified form, “Black Cracker” was published a few years later in Penthouse, resulting in the well-publicized resignation of a black woman editor. The book’s use of dialect and palaver verges on caricature, but it serves to underscore the chasm between the two communities.
“My life mission was to finish the book,” says Friedman. This involved filling in memory gaps with information gathered from contemporary newspapers and official records. The result is an “autobiographical novel,” a memoir-fiction hybrid that Friedman assures me is at least eighty percent true to life, with some chapters crafted as a composite of several episodes.
“I’m covered by saying it’s a novel,” he notes. “It’s about something that might be called the myth of one’s childhood, the seemingly mundane experiences you accept at the time, but that influence you and become your story.”
Friedman’s “black cracker” years were his great adventure, distinguishing him from his peers. “No other whites went behind the scenes,” he says of his visits to his friends’ homes hidden in the woods. “It was like going to Coney Island. I still remember the smells.”
Asked why his parents enrolled him in South School, Friedman replies that he’s never really gotten an answer to that question. “I think my dad would have found it immoral to remove me just because it was a black school. And I have no complaints. I learned how to read and write, and I became a blues guitarist. I’m glad I left when I did—the whole situation was about to explode. When the kids got older, the shit really hit the fan. Integration was not a smooth transition.”
Sadly, there are few old friends left to keep up with. “So many are dead, and the rest have little to say,” notes Friedman. “All my closest friends died young, many from cancer—they lived next to a radioactive hellhole of a town dump. The truth is, you’ve got a lot going against you when you’re born in a ghetto. You’re usually not destined for a good life.”
In the book, some of Josh’s friends are beginning to catch on to that bitter and polarizing truth, which translates into a growing sense of rage and rejection. Toward the end, Josh’s best friend Bobo slashes him on the arm in a savage and unprovoked attack. Afterward, Josh joins the white kids in pitched battle against the blacks and subsequently is made to feel a member of the club: “I was finally a white cracker.” Young Josh is an anti-Huck Finn, choosing racial solidarity and the safety it entails over a more fundamental human connection. It is an understandable but dispiriting conclusion.
“Black Cracker” is honest to a fault in its depiction of a divided society, conveying the tension of the era through what Friedman calls “the hyper-moments of life.” Those moments capture an unexpected sliver of history, a time and place where Jim Crow met Levittown. But for this chronicle, that history would have vanished, as effaced from mainstream memory as the old neighborhood was hidden from respectable sight.
“Black Cracker: An Autobiographical Novel”
By Josh Alan Friedman
Wyatt Doyle Books, 298 pages, $19.95