Delbert Wagner and Percy Haynes made black beautiful for me

When I was a sprig, I was taught that black equaled bad.

patti dawn swansson
patti dawn swansson

That had nothing to do with skin color, though. It had a lot to do with cowboy clothing. The bad guys on Saturday afternoon Horse Opera, you see, more often than not wore black hats. The good guys wore white lids. Or brown. Or grey. Anything but black.

The Lone Ranger, for example, wore a white hat and sat in the saddle of a stunning, white steed (Hi-yo Silver! Away!). His white hat never knew a speck of dark stain. Even after roiling about in the muck and guck during hand-to-hand combat with the black-hatted bad guys, the Lone Ranger’s Stetson was whiter than a saint’s soul. And, of course, Kimosabe would eventually gun down the outlaws with silver bullets, not those copper things the bad guys used.

Religion also played a part in my black-is-bad upbringing.

Subjected to the questionable but unchallengable natterings of the 1950s and early-60s Roman Catholic Church, fear-mongering nuns cautioned that for each sin I committed there would arise on my good, white soul a spot. A black spot. The more grievous the trespass, the larger the black spot. The way I had it figured, stealing a cookie before dinner earned me a black spot no bigger than one of the tiny freckles on my cheeks, whereas swiping a pack of baseball cards or a candy bar from the corner store got me a black spot the size of a hockey puck. Bad, bad, bad, bad Patti. I was convinced that my soul looked like an ink blotter. I suppose it still does.

But black blotches on one’s soul, like black hats on cowboys, was pure symbolism. At no time during my formatives did I equate good and evil or personal worth to the hue of one’s skin.

Oh, sure, the Catholic con was very much about white-skin-is-good-skin. I mean, the Virgin Mary, the saints, the angels…all lily white. Even depictions of Jesus were white (still are), a confusing and misguiding bit of business. I’m quite certain that the historical Jesus’s skin tone would more have resembled that of President Obama than that of Pope Francis. At the very least, Jesus would have had a tan to die for, given that he spent the final few years of his brief adult life baking beneath the hot Middle East sun while roaming the countryside or wandering the desert. Ditto his dozen disciples, also usually depicted as white dudes.

Misrepresentation of reality aside, the nuns and parish priests couldn’t pull their white wool over my eyes. I knew better because of the few people of color who came into my life at an early age.

Delbert Wagner represented Ground Zero for me in race relations and revelations.

I recall my parents inviting Del to break bread with us. A wonderful man and quick to smile, he was a very talented jazz musician and dancer and the first black person I had ever seen up close and personal. I was five, perhaps six years old and Del was sitting across the dinner table from me. I couldn’t stop staring at him.

“Is something wrong?” my mother asked.

“He’s a black man,” I replied. “He’s not the same color as us.”

The grownups laughed at the impish simplicity of my discovery. But once I had established and confirmed that Del and I didn’t share the same pigmentation, it became a footnote of no significance. I gave it not another thought, instead going about the task of gobbling up my mashed potatoes, green peas and roast beef.

Percy Haynes
Percy Haynes

Similarly, my parents would, on Saturday nights over the years, deliver us to Haynes Chicken Shack on Lulu Street in Winnipeg. The proprietors were the husband-and-wife partnership of Percy and Zena Haynes, Del’s step-father and mother. My, oh my. Mmmm, mmmm. What a treat. The food was unmatched. Ditto the atmosphere. There’d be more black folks in that small room than I ever saw in my entire neighborhood. And white folks, too. Yet there were no black and white folks. There were just people, dining and having a good time listening to Percy play the piano and, on occasion, Zena croon. Once our order was taken, Percy would join us at our table.

This, keep in mind, was during the 1950s and early ’60s, a period when racial unrest was amped up and Rosa Parks was pushing civil rights toward the front of the bus in the southern U.S. That seemed so distant, though. In another galaxy.

In my corner of the world, white cops weren’t using fire hoses and German shepherds to terrify peaceful, marching black civilians, and I somehow managed to blot out the paradoxical reality that my father would invite Del Wagner to our dinner table one day then refer to one of my favorite entertainers, Sammy Davis Jr., as a “dirty, little, n_____ Jew” the next (yes, my dad was that disgusting).

My older brother, Richard, took drumming lessons from Del. A buck 50 an hour. A black man and a white kid. No big deal.

To me, there was racial harmony and I harbored a healthy fondness for the few black people I had met.

I now realize, of course, that that belief was a Pollyanna-like blend of naivete and youthful innocence, yet it’s an idealism that never did abandon me to wander off into the forest.

I tend to think this explains my great difficulty with divisiveness. I don’t get the concept of exclusion just because. I don’t get the concept of one person disliking another just because. I don’t get the concept of one person wishing, or inflicting, harm on another just because. I don’t get the concept of one person slandering another just because. Not if the just because is skin color, faith, gender or sexual orientation.

Delbert Wagner and Percy Haynes were my first black influences and role models. They were like the mighty oak, whose many branches are accepting of all the birds of the sky. Just because.

I thank them for it.

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