At a time when the president of the U.S. is African American and one of the best-selling rappers is white, it can be hard to remember that not so long ago the issue of integration in the U.S. was divisive and contentious enough to cause violence and even murder.
The story of how the country got from where it was – say, in 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled on the Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas case – to where it is today is chock full of big landmark events, the kind that get played up on PBS and The History Channel.
But the story is also filled with millions of smaller, more subtle moments and lesser-known individuals whose lives were shaped by this history.
In his memoir “The Edge of Whiteness,” Brooklyn native-turned-Jersey-City-resident Joe Montaperto attempts to give voice to some of these smaller moments by recounting the desegregation story of his Roselle, N.J. high school.
The tale he recounts is from the perspective of an awkward outcast caught up in the changing times of the mid-1970s.
Montaperto ultimately had to figure out who he was as an individual.
“I come from an Italian family and everyone on our neighborhood was Italian. It was very homogenous. Everybody was like me,” he recalled in an interview with the Reporter last week. “When I was 11, my family moved from Brooklyn to Roselle where we were, like, the only Italian family.”
He said he felt like an outsider. The Italian population was small and WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) were in the majority.
Angels with dirty faces
Describing the day the family moved to Roselle, Montaperto writes in his book: “Disbelief and instant alienation flood over me as we arrive. It was like we had somehow driven onto the set of “My Three Sons.’…No sooner had we pulled up to 506 West 3rd Avenue [when] my cousins, Skinner and Ricky, whisked me off around the corner to meet their friend, Michael Marone. Almost immediately, we’re surrounded by what appears to be a gang of ‘bullies’ – although the only reason I’m able to surmise this was because I had just recently seen the James Cagney movie ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’ on TV. There must have been at least 15 or 20 of them, probably all around our ages, between 11 and 13 years old. All wearing these longshoremen-type caps lowered down over one eye. They actually had dirty faces, too, and runny noses.”
The ensuing exchange between the cousins and the “bullies” excluded violence but was fraught with a lot of intimidation. Such was Montaperto’s introduction to Roselle.
However, he said this less-than-warm welcome to his new home paled in comparison to the months he spent getting picked on the year his high school was desegregated.
The way he remembers it, the black students sent to his high school – who were a minority of the student population – quickly became a dominant force to be reckoned with. White kids like Montaperto who couldn’t hold their own, he insisted, became literal and figurative punching bags for the new students.
“I was no match for these guys and every day in the hallway I was targeted for something, some kind of abuse,” said Montaperto.
Tired of being a target, Montaperto said he took up boxing the summer after ninth grade. His muscles and bulked-up frame earned him new respect – and new friends – when he returned to school in the fall.
“After that I started hanging out with all the black kids and because they were my friends. Through them I started getting exposed to all this black culture,” Montaperto said. While his white classmates were listening to Boston and Led Zeppelin, Montaperto was jamming to Parliament Funkadelic and Kool and the Gang. Like many young black men at the time, Montaperto briefly flirted with Islam after reading the “Autobiography of Malcolm X.”
“I started wearing black clothes, jewelry like the black guys were wearing. Just looking at me, a lot of people thought I was Puerto Rican,” Montaperto said, admitting he liked being embraced by what he perceived as the dominant culture in the high school.
He later fell in love with an older Puerto Rican woman who had an abusive boyfriend. While Montaperto wanted a serious relationship with her, she chose the other man.
Of course, like all people who navigate the edges of multiple cultures, Montaperto sometimes caught flak for these choices when he went home to his family and the Italian-owned restaurant where he worked. (In the book he alleges the restaurant had ties to organized crime.)
“They would give me a hard time because of what I was reading and the music I liked and I would get into all these arguments, especially with my father,” Montaperto stated. “That’s why I call the book ‘The Edge of Whiteness,’ because I was, like, on the edge of the black culture, but I wasn’t black. But I didn’t really feel totally part of my own culture, either. I was on the edge of being white, too.”
As is often the case in such situations, Montaperto, now 53, had a bit of an identity crisis and ultimately had to figure out who he was as an individual – without the gold chains, the music, the girlfriend.
“The Edge of Whiteness” won’t appeal to every reader, not even those who have an interest in this period in history. African American readers, for example, may find the black characters in the book very one dimensional and may be put off by them.
But, to paraphrase former Gov. Jim McGreevey, everyone has their own personal truth, and Montaperto is trying to speak his person truth in this book.
“The Edge of Whiteness” can be purchased online at Amazon.com in paperback and in electronic form.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.