In the hole he found direction
Seattle Times staff reporter
Sweat poured from my face, dripped down my coveralls and soaked every part of my body.
My eyes twitched, my mind raced, my body ached.
What time was it?
I glanced up at the clock on the wall about 15 yards away. All I saw was smoke - clouds of dark, billowy smoke - floating in the air.
I leaned over next to a co-worker and asked, "How many minutes we got?"
I still had two minutes of rest, two minutes to recover from the last 55 minutes.
For almost three years at the steel foundry I'd repeated this routine. I thought I had to. I was young, uneducated, socially and culturally deprived, angry and terribly confused.
But in recent months - weeks - days - hours - something more surged within me: a strong desire to reach my human potential.
How was I going to do that at the steel foundry?
I wasn't. I needed to take a step . . . soon.
The work was dehumanizing. And if I stayed here - if I failed to summon the courage to leave - I'd end up living out the rest of my life like this.
Manny understood this . . . this.
For 20 years he'd toiled at the foundry. For most of those years, he'd been in the "hole."
He knew just like me what it was like to sweat blood, to breathe oil and soot and dirt and dust each night, to sleep your whole life away because of sheer physical exhaustion, to be deafened by the clang and bang of two-ton hydraulic hammers, to lift 100-pound steel tubes second-after-second in what was nothing more than a human oven.
He'd told me a few days earlier, as I read a book during lunch: "Youngblood, you think you know what time it is, but you don't know nothing. Because if you did, you wouldn't be here throwing this steel, you'd be in somebody's school getting some knowledge so you could live like a man and not like an animal - the way we're living right now!"
His words frightened me, his truth consumed me. It was a truth I had been running from, off and on, for almost three years.
But what was I to do?
Unemployment in Detroit was high.
Shame and horror and terror choked the hearts and minds of the unemployed. Hundreds of people stood outside in the cold for hours to receive unemployment checks, just to be told they'd have to return two weeks later. And two weeks later they were told to return in another two weeks. And the same procedure was repeated over and over again, sometimes for months. Some people resorted to begging. Mothers with children to feed often screamed out in desperation; addicts sat cowering in corners, in the fetal position, waiting for clerks to call their names; fathers laid off from the automobile factories, their shoulders slumped and eyes locked to the ground, wept openly in line.
And for young black males - I was 21 - the unemployment rate was astronomical. I felt any job - even a $5-per-hour job at a steel foundry - was better than no job at all.
Most of my friends sold drugs. It was a basic form of existence for them. A "natural" hustle. Often, they urged me to do the same.
They'd say: "Why you gonna work for the man when you can make $1,000, $2,000 a day as a lieutenant for me? What's wrong with you? Are you crazy? What has the white man done for you?"
They could not understand what I'd understood from my mother, who told me over and over again as a child, "The most important thing in life is to reach your human potential. And since your potential is unlimited, then you must never stop trying to reach it. But you can't reach your potential by destroying other people's lives."
My friends did not understand that "big money" was not enough for me. I'd seen too much danger and destruction - more, perhaps, than I should have seen - growing up in the projects, and it brought me much pain and saddened me.
Yet I was equally saddened at the steel foundry.
The personnel manager had told me, when I walked inside the personnel office almost three years earlier and inquired about the clerk-typist position, that I was qualified.
But, he added, "You need to work in the `hole' for a few months first."
I believed him.
Three months later, he told me my work was so good in the "hole" that he wanted me to stay there a while longer.
I did. For almost three years.
Every attempt to get transferred out of the "hole" was denied.
Each time he'd tell me, "Just wait a little longer. I'm going to make you a clerk typist. But I need for you to work in the `hole' just a little longer."
I had lost all hope of ever getting out of the "hole," yet I couldn't shake this irrepressible urge to keep trying to reach my human potential. I just needed the right time.
Early one morning, I saw a violent fight in the "hole" and watched Manny go to pieces. He tried to kill another man. He'd lost his mind, like many men before him. And I was sure - absolutely certain - that if I didn't get out of there soon, I'd lose my own.
Still, I was frightened. I wanted to go to college, become a journalist, just as I'd planned when I was a 12-year-old paperboy. But could I do it?
I had come to believe, whether it was real or imagined, that the only reason I didn't get the clerk-typist job was because of my skin color. I felt trapped by history, my powerlessness, my blackness.
A few days later I picked up a book - "The Borzoi College Reader" - that had belonged to my sister. Inside were essays and stories, one of them by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was titled "Letter From a Birmingham Jail."
I had known of him. I had watched my mother weep the day he died, had seen my father and his friends and the older folks in the projects rise up in indignation and anger. I listened to replays of his speech - "I Have a Dream" - and had heard the "brothers and sisters" in coffee shops and at the bus stops and in the parks talk about how black folks died as a people when Dr. King was killed.
But before then I had never read a single one of his words.
I took that book to the "hole" with me, read it during each five-minute break and during my lunch hour for three straight nights.
In his essay, Dr. King talked about sacrifices and fear, action and inaction. He talked about "the Negro's" patience, and why "the Negro" could ill afford to wait any longer. He talked about "just laws" and "unjust laws" and why it was imperative to disobey unjust laws. He talked about civil disobedience and why he was willing to endure the hardships of imprisonment to destroy unjust laws.
He gave me courage, strength and guidance.
And I had never met him.
On the third day of this obsessive reading, as I sat waiting for the 3 a.m. five-minute break to end, I looked around the "hole."
Was this not my prison?
Hadn't I been patient - maybe even too patient - like the black folks Dr. King talked about in his essay?
Wasn't I told year after year to wait, be patient, give things a chance to work out, just like my ancestors, who had been forced to sit at the back of the bus and denied the right to vote?
And when the two minutes passed and the horn blared, signaling for us to return to work, I didn't move. It wasn't planned. I just didn't move. I was thinking about my life. And realizing, for the first time, that my life was on the block to be shaped - just like Manny's and Dr. King's - and that I'd better shape it myself. I knew, suddenly, that if I went back to the heaters, if I carried another 100-pound tube in the hole, I'd be there for the rest of my life.
"Fitten!" the foreman yelled, cutting into my thoughts. "What's wrong with you? Get to work. Get to work!"
I heard him.
"Didya hear me?"
I softly told him, "I quit. Right now." And I walked away.
"You can't quit," he said. "Come back here. I'm your boss."
I kept walking. And never returned.
I'd left the foundry behind.
It was Dr. King who'd helped give me the courage to take the first step.