MANSFIELD: Coming of Age in the Ghetto, A Father’s Day Tribute

Author’s Note: I first published this article in 2005. When, a year later, a publisher asked for permission to reprint it I reread it and made some relatively minor changes before sending it off. Since then, every year I go over the piece and make whatever changes I feel are warranted. It’s my belief that anything ever written by any writer improves with each polishing. So I revisit the piece every year to see if I’ve improved as a wordsmith over the last 12 months. This is the 2018 edition.

Few boys, I would venture to guess, can — upon reflection years later — recall the instance or incident whereupon they started to become men; where, when and what happened that caused them to take their first, tentative mental steps onto the bridge that would ultimately lead them across the yawning chasm separating soft, carefree puberty from the onset — the hardening — of eventual manhood. Fortunately for me, I can recall the date and time of the beginning of my personal transition and journey with such an evocative clarity I swear it seems as if the vignette played out only yesterday.

It was not something I did or that was done to me — but rather something I, in the waning moments of my childhood, was about to witness. It was to be one of those life-altering father/son lessons that have been transmitted down from generation to generation since the beginning of time.

The day had been stiflingly hot, even for a summer day in the rough neighborhood where I was born at home, above the poolroom that sat next door to the tavern and barbecue joint, all owned by my father. It was located on the northwest corner of Scovill Avenue and East 31st Street in Cleveland, now called Community College Avenue.

The corner across 31st Street was occupied by the only new building constructed in the area in the last 30 years, Silks Bar. Old man Bob Roberts had built it, and his son, a foreman with the city sanitation department, ran it. Silks was definitely more upscale than my father’s joint, King’s Tavern and Grill, which was pretty dumpy by comparison. But my father’s business never seemed to lack for customers. Due to the proximity of the two watering holes — and the poolroom and ’ho stroll to boot—this was one of the busiest corners on the entire black East Side of Cleveland back in the day. At times the intersection literally teemed with people.

Day was fading to early evening and the “Corner,” as it was widely known throughout the community, was crowded with people just hanging out, trying to get some relief from the stifling heat and chatting amicably with each other. It was a Friday, the beginning of the weekend.

I, at age 12, was leaning on the fender of my father’s Cadillac that was parked directly in front of his tavern, listening to him, always raptly listening. He had me in his thrall as he told me about a fishing spot he was going to take my brother and me (and usually a bunch of other kids from the neighborhood) to the next day. It was someplace we’d never been to before. Always regaling me (and just about everyone else he came into contact with) with yarns and tall tales of his abilities with a rod and reel, he was saying the fishing there was so good “you had to hide behind a tree to bait your hook.” If I’m a good bullshitter (as some are wont to say) then I certainly came by the craft in an honest manner. My father was world-class.

Oftentimes during the day and early evening hours — while there was still light enough to see — there would be a crap game on the side street (my bedroom window was right above, so I learned colorful and salty language at an early age) but the police never caught anyone shooting dice since there was always a lookout posted on the Corner to shout “raise up” before a cop car could get within a block of the gamblers. But this night there was no crap game — just three or four hookers (knowing it was payday) plying their trade — and people mingling.

So there was no need for anyone to yell anything when the cop car pulled up and actually jumped the curb with two wheels, forcing people to scramble to get out of the way to avoid being hit. Two big, beefy Irish cops got out of their patrol car and began walking through the crowd, swinging their nightsticks at people’s knees, forcing them to scatter.

“Move it, move it,” the cops said, and people began to slowly move away — or at least out of the range of the nightsticks. Some of the men and a few of the women too were grumbling (albeit half under their breath) as they moved, complaining that no one was breaking any laws, so why were they being forced to disperse? I automatically began to move, even though the cops were not that close to us yet, but they certainly were heading in our direction.

My father, who had huge, strong hands grabbed me on the upper arm and said, “Where are you going? Don’t move.”

Now, no one was going to openly challenge the authority of the police; not in my neighborhood, not in the mid-’50s. When a cop said move, you moved, no questions asked. The bigger of the two cops came our way, and I was, as the saying goes, feeling trapped between a rock and a hard place — between the cop who was ordering everyone to move, and father who was saying not to. While I feared the cops, I respected my father more, and respect won out over fear. I didn’t move.

Nearing us, the one cop, Murphy, said, “You too, Mansfield,” (my father’s name was also Mansfield) “move it.”

My father, who had been looking dead ahead, not to the side from where Murphy was approaching, turned to face the cop full-face, and in the calmest of voices, but loud enough for everyone to hear, and looking directly into the big cop’s eyes, said, “Murphy, I’m leaning on my car, in front of my business, talking to my son, and if you try to hit me on the knee with that nightstick I’m going to take it from you and shove it up your ass.”

My father then slowly turned his head away from Murphy (who was beginning to turn what would eventually be a bright shade of red) in a dismissive manner, as if to say, “Go ahead, take your best shot, do whatever you got the guts to do, ’cause I ain’t scared, I didn’t mumble, and I definitely ain’t moving.”

My whole universe froze; everyone who had been moving away stood stock still as if transfixed, waiting to see what would happen next. I’d never seen anyone challenge a cop before, and I doubt if any of the other folks on that corner that evening had ever witnessed it either, at least not with the person living to tell the tale. This was uncharted territory we were entering, and no one knew what the outcome would be. But, if the past were to serve as an indicator of what was going to occur next, it could get real ugly on the corner of 31st and Scovill that evening.

White cops just didn’t take that kind of talk off a black man, any black man — no way, no how. And my father, just as resolutely, was clearly in no mood to take anything off of any cop he felt was disrespecting him. Something — or someone — was going to have to give, or there could very well be a very loud explosion. My father always had an Army-issue Colt .45 automatic pistol hanging out of pocket, under his bartender’s apron.

Being largely sheltered — at least to that point in my young life — from the sting of racism by a strong black father, I didn’t have the pent-up hatreds boiling inside of me the black adults who were witnessing this event unfold must have harbored. Those hatreds were spawned by the daily insults — both large and small — that had to be stoically endured by virtually all blacks just to make it through the day if they functioned in the white-owned and controlled world. Society and their parents had taught them it was much safer to simply “take low,” as the old folks used to say, to be less — non-threatening — to cast your eyes down, and, when you are told by someone in a position of authority to move (most often someone white), you just moved. Period.

But my father wasn’t moving. His stand on this hot summer night wasn’t — I don’t think — planned or premeditated; and he certainly wasn’t seeking to become some kind of martyr, living or dead. No, I think, these many years later, he was — consciously or unconsciously — teaching me a lesson about manhood simply by being a man. Transfixed, I watched … and I learned … and I’ve never forgotten.

Murphy, who was taken completely aback by my father’s forthright words, was totally at a loss as to what to do. They didn’t teach this at the police academy. Niggas just moved when they were told to move — that was just how it went down in the ghetto. And then, after what seemed like an eternity, Murphy turned on his heels, and with as much gruffness in his voice as he could still muster, said to his partner, “Let’s go,” as if they had very important business elsewhere.

It was at that exact moment I started to grow up — that I started on my journey to manhood. It was from that point forward I began to measure all of my actions in life by one simple question: What would my father do? And, while I have certainly at times strayed from the path he attempted to set for me, I have never lost sight of the values, the pride, courage and the sense of manhood he implanted in me — simply by being a man. To this very day (even though my father is now 38 years in his grave), he — as it should be — remains my guiding light, my conscience … my bright, shining hero.

My father never spoke of, or in any way referenced this incident; that simply wasn’t his style. His words and actions spoke loudly enough and there was no need to revisit or in any way embellish the vignette that took place on that hot summer night. I don’t think that he ever considered the incident particularly as bravery on his part. It simply was a magnificent manifestation of who he was, how he viewed himself: as a dignified human being worthy of respect.

The incident nonetheless became part of the lore and legend of our neighborhood — growing exponentially over the years with virtually every retelling: the time Mansfield, a black man, stood up to Murphy, a white cop. While he might have taken his stand simply as a lesson for me in how to be man, everyone there that evening (and some people who weren’t even there but later heard about it) claimed the incident for themselves: he was taking this stand for them too, for each and every one of them. He had, by simply standing his ground, reclaimed for them a little piece of their dignity, some of the humanity often taken from black folk in America on a daily basis and sacrificed on the altar of the ugly gods of institutionalized racism.

I would see my father stand up for himself — and for others — many times over the years in the rough and tumble Cleveland neighborhood where I grew up, but it was this incident, in my twelfth year, that marked the beginning of my personal journey to manhood. It took place in late August of 1955, and four months later, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks would refuse to give up her seat on a Birmingham bus. Looking back over the past 60-plus years, I often wonder if the two events were somehow — in some metaphysical or spiritual way, connected. To this very day, in my own mind, I like to think they were.

I love you Dad, and thanks.

From CoolCleveland correspondent Mansfield B. Frazier Frazier’s From Behind The Wall: Commentary on Crime, Punishment, Race and the Underclass by a Prison Inmate is available in hardback. Snag your copy and have it signed by the author at http://NeighborhoodSolutionsInc.

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