The Micro-Aggression’s of “Junius Kellogg Never Had a Bad Day”
About four years ago, when I embarked on writing or rather reconstructing the remarkable life of Junius A. Kellogg, I must admit I was a rather clueless and unaware white writer. That it not to say I was raised in privilege, or that I had a supremacist attitude, or even that I was ever politically, philosophically or spiritually filled with hate. Quite the opposite. I would also say that I have no delusions as to what it is to be a black man in 2019. I remain white and my frame of racial awareness is still white. However, as I have written about Junius there are four unmistakable influences that have at least shaped my awareness: I am Jewish, and understand bigotry; many years ago, as a NYC paramedic my territory was Harlem; to write this book I have interviewed many “black voices;” and as the great-uncle of three beautiful, mixed race nieces, I am constantly aware of trying to make this angry world a little nicer place for them. Therefore, I have tried to become more aware and sensitive.
As I began writing and researching Junius, I became aware of as to how he was always portrayed in two dimensions. For example, One of my least favorite descriptions of him is that “he never had a bad day.” I had no idea of what that meant. Who doesn’t have bad days? Nevertheless, as I began to explore his life I was open to the fact that Junius was a rare eternal optimist; a man who always smiled and was happy. I was to learn it was both a racist and a simplistic description, a happy-go-lucky Bojangles [Bill Robinson] caricature. And, I might add, history has misjudged Bill Robinson, in his own way he was way out front of the civil rights struggle.
Junius experienced many tragedies in his life and those tragedies shaped him.
To begin, he grew up in a very segregated society where everything was separate and unequal. When he entered the U.S. Army, he experienced de facto segregation where tensions could boil over to race riots. As I have learned, his basketball years at Manhattan College were marred by racism from within — and outside the program. Some of his teammates, like his friend Bob Otten, were welcoming. Others were racists who disparaged him long after the program. To think he smiled all of the time because he was happy is foolish. It was a smile he gave to the fools.
When he had his tragic accident essentially paralyzing him from the shoulders down, he was visited by the Christian Brothers at Manhattan College. While he put on a brave front to many, the Brothers who comforted and counseled him saw a man in deep depression.
When he was pulled into the Army for a second stint, he had an affair with a woman that resulted in a pregnancy. The woman wanted nothing to do with Junius, and it may have been an affair while she herself was married. He did not meet this son until he was in his 60s, long after it mattered.
He lost his father right before his marriage. His father was younger than 50 and died of diabetes and heart disease in part, because he had substandard medical treatment. He saw his mother work herself to the bone to support the family. He married in 1959 to a beautiful, intelligent woman who would separate and then divorce him after 10 years. She fell into the role of his caretaker, she wanted children he always knew he could never give him. After their marriage ended, she never talked to him again.
As a quadriplegic, he was not only dismissed by general as a black man but as someone living with a spinal injury. Bias against the disabled exists to this day. Junius saw the injustices every day.
While I would not desire to turn his life into a Country & Western song, I want to illustrate something to anyone with a passion for non-fiction writing and biography in particular. Junius had good days and happy days, that is true, but he had gut-wrenching awful days as well. To not see it, to ignore his bad times in order to paint a pretty picture is a false narrative.
In the end, while the things that have happened to us may not define us, they have clearly shaped us.