Posts Tagged ‘Police Brutality’

Reid My Mind Radio: At the Intersection of Black and Blind

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

Many would assume growing up blind in the 1950’s & 60’s had its challenges. What about growing up Black and Blind attending a segregated school for the blind?

Robert Lewis at work at the Radio Reading Network of Maryland

In this latest Reid My Mind Radio you hear from the Executive Director of the Radio Reading Network of Maryland, Robert Lewis.

We talk about;

  • Attending a segregated school for the blind
  • How being blind saved his life
  • Playing music with Stevie Wonder and much more.

Plus in the special podcast edition, we include some of his personal music suggestions for those times when you just need a lift!

 

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Transcript

Show the transcript

TR:Happy New Year!

I know some of us are not feeling that happy in 2017 and possibly longer. I don’t know like 4 years!
Well, as long as we’re not six feet under or my personal favorite stuffed into an ern sitting on a mantle… we’re good and we can make things happen.
We can fight…fight the power!
But first a new Gatewave piece I know you’re going to like and some extra immediately following!
Hit me!

[Audio: RMMRadio Theme Music]

 

TR:
Meet Robert Lewis, the Executive Director of the Radio Reading Network of Maryland. With over 35 years in the business, he is more than qualified to run the network. We’ll hear more on that, but it’s his life experiences that are truly compelling and offer a glimpse to what it was like growing up as an African American attending a segregated school for the blind.

 

RL:
I went to the Maryland School for the Blind, here in Baltimore Maryland. It was a wonderful place to go to school. I started there in 1954. It was a nice school but in the very beginning there was one side for the blacks and one side for the whites. And you were not allowed to sleep on the white campus . The two races went together for school but after that we would go our separate ways the first couple of years that I was there. That’s the way they had the whole setup.

Things were done to you or things were done that would not be tolerated today.

In the beginning they wouldn’t  buy Black kids Braille writers and things of that nature until like 50’s or more like in the 60’s. They started doing some things for Black kids that they didn’t do before and they would do them for the white kids.

You would be surprised what we had to deal with  in the 50’s and 60’s in a blind school.

 

TR:
The discrimination, limited social interactions, like at parties.

RL
As soon as we started to dance with one of the  white girls, the party was over. That party was ended!
They weren’t going to have that.

Society makes people prejudice. If they had left us alone it would never had happen, but because the teachers and because of the house parents and so forth  letting you know that you were black, who cared?
The students didn’t care!

The Lion’s Club used to come out and deal with us.
And at one time the Lion’s Club did not deal with Black kids.

 

TR:
the discrimination lead to varying degrees of abuse.

During a school Halloween party, a member of the Lions Club was responsible for guiding Robert to his chair.

 

RL:

He grabbed both my arms and walked me backwards to the chair.
I’m a 6 year old kid and this is a full grown man and he was squeezing my arms as hard as he could to try and make me cry and I said to myself he’s trying to hurt me but I’m not going to let him know that it hurt. So I didn’t and after he got me to the chair he pushed me down with a little bit of force. That was his way of saying well I don’t really like doing this or I don’t like Black people and I don’t like Black kids.

 

TR:
There was the even more abusive punishments dealt out by those charged with protecting and educating blind children.

 

RL:
Some of the Black kids were punished to the point that we had to stand out in the hall at night with no clothes on.
First we didn’t understand it but then we realized that the person that was doing that may have had a little problem on the side.

 

TR:
The discrimination continued as Robert traveled outside of the state competing with the school Wrestling team. He recalls, they couldn’t eat in restaurants.

 

RL:
We went to one restaurant and the lady said you got to eat as fast as you can so we can get you out of here before the owner comes  back because if he saw we had Black people here he would fire me!

 

TR:
In North Carolina, it was more than getting a meal.

 

RL:
Guys jumped out of the car and came over and they were going to beat us
all up.
We had no idea … What is this all about? Is it because we are blind; no, it’s  because you’re black and you’re blind!

 

TR:
Eventually, the segregation came to an end. The children lived together.

At first the parents were very upset about it and they didn’t really want it but  in order for the school to get money from the state, they had to integrate the school.

 

TR:
Remember, Robert described the time he spent at the Maryland School for the Blind as wonderful. Discrimination and racism were just a part of his school life.

We had a lot of terrible things that we dealt with but  we also had good things because we had a lot of white friends that we went to school with that would do anything in the world for us.

Maryland School for the Blind had one of the best wrestling and track teams in the country so we went all over the place.
We learned so much and we had so much fun as far as the students together.
We had a really good soul band good jazz band.
I grew up with the Beatles . I grew up with the platters. I grew up with Elvis Presley.
Some of the kids that were white, we learned their music and they learned ours.
I would come home and my sister would say here comes the little white boy!

 

TR:
In some sense, Robert really does straddle two identities. Not black and white, but rather black and blind.
The intersection of the two present a fully unique experience.

As a young African American growing up in Baltimore Maryland in the 1950’s and 60’s , Robert observed the events taking place in his neighborhood from a different perspective.

 

RL:
I heard one day when the police came out and they sicked the Shepard on the neighborhood and one guy named frank grabbed the dog around his neck and killed him.
You could hear in the wagon, you could hear the beating he was getting.

 

TR:
The wagon he refers to is the police patty wagon used to round up and transport suspects charged with criminal acts.
Robert says that the recent episodes of police brutality in cities like Baltimore aren’t new.

RL:

When they would beat the kids in the wagon, you could hear the wagon going up and down. if they wanted to find out  if you were telling the truth they would take a phone book and put it on top of your head and then hit it with a police stick. And there were no scars. What they would do is open the window.  they’d say you can tell us what we need to know or you can jump out the window. or take the beating.

 

TR:
Once , the additional identity of being blind could have possibly saved his life. As a young boy traveling in the car with his family, he recalls when an officer stopped his father for speeding.

 

RL:
the police was giving my father a ticket and I reached out to touch his gun and the policeman stepped back and drew his gun to shoot me. My father said oh please don’t shoot my son, he’s blind. And the policeman said oh he’s blind? So he took the bullets out of the gun and put it in my hand and let me play with it . He said, I’m not going to give you a ticket I’ll let you go this time. He said, but every day  for the next week I want you to buy your son an ice cream cone and every night for the rest of the week he’d come by the neighborhood and say did your father  buy you an ice cream?

 

TR:
By no means was Robert’s childhood full of violence.
residing on the school campus during the week, he returned home on weekends.

RL:
Man it was fun because I could come home and tell  them what I learned as far as in school, but then I could get on the roller skates and skate up and down the sidewalk and ride my two wheel bike. My grandfather was a mechanic, I had my hands inside automobiles. My mother would take me to the five and dime store and let me buy a toy. She treated me just like she did all of her other kids. My cousin Mack Lewis had a boxing gym in Baltimore. He was a very well-known manager of boxing. He would train Larry Middleton Vincent Pettway… some of the big time boxers. I would go over to the gym and listen to the guys box. I’d go around listening to musicians. I went over to the stable and rode the horses. I could honestly say I felt just like any kid that could see because I really think I had some angels looking out for me. I really enjoyed hearing things and dealing with things that I dealt with  you know in the neighborhood. Friday nights and Saturday nights was a great time because everybody had a good time. They had crab feasts. They’d walk up and down the street.

 

TR:{In conversation with Robert.}
So you were not at all isolated. You were definitely part of the community  it sounds like.

 

RL:
I was part of the community, yes!

 

TR:
Community, in his neighborhood, school and even activities that lead to lifelong passions like music.

 

RL:
I got my start playing marching band music. I played Sousaphone in the band. I played the Base Drum and from there I went to a complete drum kit. Being totally blind and a drummer, drummer’s completely different than other musicians. When you go and tell people you are blind and you play drums … I told one guy and he said I mean, I could see you playing the horn, but ain’t no way in the world I can see you playing the drum set cause you blind. How you gonna find the drums and the cymbals. I play an 18 piece drum kit! I’m a very good drummer.

I played with 15 and 18 piece bands.

I played with Stevie before.

 

TR:
So we’re clear, he’s talking about Stevie Wonder.

 

RL:
He came to the Maryland School for the Blind and we played  together.

 

TR:
Today, Robert is back on the campus of the Maryland School for the blind.
Not with the school, but rather in his job with the Maryland Radio Reading  Network, a radio reading service for the blind and others with print disabilities.

 

RL:
I started as a board operator and I’d go to work and people would whisper and say is he blind? This is a radio reading service but they had no blind people working there. I started as a board operator and moved up the ladder and I became the Executive Director.

 

TR :
Some of his responsibilities?

 

RL:
Fundraising, directing,   , setting up all the program, fire those that need to be fired or hire the people that need to be hired.

 

TR: {In conversation with Robert}
What would you say are the aspects of your specific experience  that have either helped or make your job more challenging?

 

RL:
The hardest thing is proving things to people. Proving what you can do.
If I ask someone for money and they’ll say to me well what do you do at the station? How do you know if you’re on the air or not? Or how do you know what time it is? And after a while, all of these stupid questions just get to you but, you can’t let people know they’re getting to you because they really don’t know. So you have to answer those questions as polite and as nice as you can do it. You have to be nice to people and after a while I wouldn’t say you get tired of being nice, sometimes you get tired of the way people talk down to you

I love my job and I like what I’m doing. If I sit home retired I’ll probably weigh a thousand pounds.  so I’m trying to avoid that  or find something else to do probably go into some music, but right now my whole job is what I do now with the radio station and part-time  stereo sales.

 

TR:
This is Thomas Reid
{James Brown’s “Say it Loud”
“Say it loud, I’m black”
Simultaneously…
RL:
Your Black and Blind…
James Brown’s “… And Proud!
{}

for Gatewave Radio…

Audio for Independent Living!

[Audio from : KRS1 “We’re not done” “We’re not Done”… “Check this out” from “You Must Learn”]

 

TR:The intersection between disability and race, gender and other identities is something I’d like to explore more.

It’s now part of my own life experience and with people with disabilities being the largest minority group, it’s probably an effective way to promote disability related issues.

If any of these apply to you and you have a story to share or know of someone who does, please send me an email…
ReidMyMindRadio@gmail.com.

It was a real pleasure speaking with Mr. Lewis and I hope to do so again. I can just imagine all of the other stories he could share.

In fact, there are more stories that were not included in the Gatewave piece.

Sometimes it’s hard to explain the level of ignorance people display in response to blindness or disability.

Some of the stories can be entertaining, but often they’re confusing. And as I like to say, you can’t make sense from nonsense.

As you heard in the end of the Gatewave  piece, Robert sells stereo equipment part time. After selling some equipment, he called the customer to check in with him two weeks after the sale.

 

RL:
He said, as long as you live please don’t ever call me. I said, don’t ever call you again? He said no, because I have to have eye surgery next week.

TR:
Ohhhhhh!

RL:
… and I know it’s only because I bought that equipment from you.

I said to him, did it rub off?
{laughing!!!}

He said please never, NEVER, never call me again!

I said, OK!

 

TR:

Recently I was reminded about someone who I knew for years, who didn’t say this to me but definitely treated me as if I were contagious!

And like Robert said…

 

RL:
Ok!

 

TR:

I wanted to end the conversation  on a positive note because we all know those haters are going to hate and ignorance is out here!

Plus it would only be right especially profiling someone who has been through all that he has and refers to his experience as wonderful. That’s an optimist folks!

I asked Mr. Lewis to give me some music recommendations. I thought I’d pass them on to the podcast listeners who enjoy a variety of music.

 

RL:
I don’t really listen to a lot of the new stuff.
If you’re a gospel person I consider the older gospel like Aretha Franklin or James Cleveland to be outstanding. If you really want to get into the going back into the world and listening to oldies but goodies and things of that nature think songs like “What’s to become of the broken hearted”. robins had some really good stuff out. “The Masters Call” It talks about a situation that a guy got involved with and was able to find god. When I’m really down if I want to hear something nice I listen to “Palisades Park” by Freddie Boom Boom  Canon which really is a very nice song to give you a little bit of upbeat or some things by gene Pitney  or things like that really will help you, inspire you music wise. Just getting a boost. Even down to Leslie Gore. I don’t mean songs like “It’s my party” but I mean really good songs that she did that were just outstanding; “Love and spoonful”. The Temptations had an unbelievable bunch of songs that really move me. I mean I love music. There’s so much music that that I really really enjoy. When you look at big bands sounds. I think one of the best instrumentals that I ever heard  in my life was Jimmy Smith’s “Mojo”. And only because no one plays an organ like Jimmy Smith. No one can move their hands and feet like he does; God bless the musician! He was unbelievable!
If you listen to that song and you listen to his right hand what he’s doing with his right hand is beyond what a musician can do. I enjoy so much of the old stuff. I mean Mandrill. I like a horn section. I love tower of Power. Ray Charles’ band moved media also have to put Jimi Hendrix in that line up. There’s so much harmony in some of the groups that came out of England. Crosby, Still, Nash &young. To me Cold Blood has an unbelievable band. They have Lydia Pense who sings for them. Oh my God that girl can sing!
James Brown’s band was fantastic. More so than his singing. His band was as tight as they come. But Ten Wheel Drive is also another tight band to listen to. And also Gail McCormick and Smith. They took the version of the Shirelle’s Baby it’s you. They have a horn section there that is fantastic. There’s nothing like 8 or 9 horns playing together like that . Like Tower Power does… My dream someday would be to play a song with Tower of Power or Ten Wheel Drive. These guys are tight!

 

TR:
Now before you go to your choice of music apps and begin listening to some of these suggestions, do yourself a favor and head over to your podcast app and subscribe to Reid My Mind Radio. It’s good for your mind, your body and your soul!

Peace!

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