A few beers with Herman Carter at the Cock n’ Bull
by louis with Herman Carter
From Vol. 2 No. 1, 2000
Although it seems lately that a younger crowd is filling the Cock n Bull Pub on Ste. Catherine St., you can still spot some of its legendary regulars there sometimes. One of these is Herman Carter. Herman has taught at Dawson College most years since 1971. He also goes to Mexico every year to further his studies in his specialty, Mexican history, and more particularly, Pancho Villa. He’s interested in Pancho Villa the revolutionary, and plows through the many myths and legends in search of the real person behind them. He intends to being publishing some of his vast knowledge about Villa in the near future. Here’s some of what we talked about at the Cock n Bull one evening in June 1999.
FP: You mentioned you grew up in Virginia, in the 40’s.
Herman: I was born in 1943 in Hampton, Virginia, on a peninsula. And if you ask about my schooling, I grew up in a segregated system- an all-black school. Back then, you had “whites” and “blacks”, “colored” and “whites.”
FP: I guess it seemed normal to you at the time, if that’s how things were?
HC: Oh yes. That’s the way it was. I later went to Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to get my BA. That was in 1961. And I joined the civil rights movement right away. I was in jail many times… For little things. I can gloat about it now. I didn’t gloat about it then. We integrated several New Orleans movie houses. And you know, a buddy of mine, a northerner, was very reluctant, he said “You can’t trust a southern white man in the dark.” So we got arrested.
FP: For going into a white theatre?
HC: Yeah. Whites and blacks went in together, we were all Southerners. We were testing the new Civil Rights Laws, which said we could go into any theatre. One time I went to see The Pawnbroker, in a theatre right across from Louisiana State University. The pawnbroker’s in Harlem, he’s white, exploiting people. I heard about the movie, it was one of these cult films. I mean, white people had never seen that shit, oh man. The pawnbroker gets beat up, and when he does there’s a hush in the whole theatre. And I said to my buddy, Jim Opal (he used to smoke Gauloises, that’s what I remember about him)—I said “Oh man.” And he said, “Brother, we’re going down together.” (He was a free spirit of the Movement– the Southern Student Organizing Committee, our coalition of black and white students in the South. We had the confederate flag with black & white hands clasping over it for our button. And I must say at that point in my life I had every reason to hate white people if I’d chosen to.)
So I’m in this cinema with my buddies. And three white people, these big football players who’d already lined us up— they’re waiting for us outside after the movie, standing in the rain. They attack us on our way out—they hit another of us first, then push me up against a door, hit me twice, then some people honk their horns & stop to help break it up.
My father had fought in World War I. He was in a black regiment. He survived. They court-martialed him. They said it was for deserting, because he had been injured, shattered his hip, all the other guys were killed crossing some river somewhere. He ended up with this French family in France. They had never seen a black man, and of course they couldn’t speak English. My father was from a village in South Carolina. He was forced to learn the language. I remember to this day how my father would show off his French—“Parlay-vous fran-cay??” So he went back to Columbia, South Carolina, and the Klu Klux Klan ran him out of town.
FP: How did they do that?
HC: He tried to vote, and they ran him out of town. It wasn’t common practice for black people to vote at that time. They made it unbearable for him to be there—he left because he didn’t want his family to keep being harassed.
FP: When was your dad born?
HC: 1889, in Columbia, South Carolina.
FP: So when he was born, it was a pretty new thing to be free, I guess.
HC: His mother, my grandmother, was a slave. My mother wouldn’t let me play blues music in the home. They had gotten me, for Christmas, a record player, and I began getting interested in blues and jazz. And she said, “You don’t play that, especially the blues, because it’s sorry music. Sorrowful, sad, and… slavery.” And I think I had never heard the word slavery in my life. I was in Virginia, you know, back then, most black folks and white folks were living in the past. They still are today.
(Herman made “one of the hardest decisions of my life” when he left his native U.S. for Canada. He had no trouble crossing the border, as Canada was sympathetic to the plight of the draft dodgers (over 200 000 came up here.) He arrived in Montreal in 1968, and enrolled in Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) to study history. Although Gerald Ford granted the draft dodgers amnesty in 1975, he decided to stay here, where he had begun raising a family and teaching at Dawson.)
HC: The day I decided not to go to Vietnam, it’s not because I was a coward. I was too damn busy fighting those white folks down there. And I wrote Lyndon Johnson a long letter, I told him, if you want justice in the world, give me an M3 and I’ll go to Mississippi and I’ll knock those goddamn ‘crackers’ off. And oh god, then the government came after me, I mean, I was dodging at this point. Anyway, man, I didn’t even know where Vietnam was. Why would I go over to a foreign country and fight somebody I didn’t know, when I’m in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, being beaten. And I said to him, and I liked Lyndon Johnson, of all the American presidents, my dad told me this before he died, he said “You know, he was the only president who liked black folk.” And if you look at the legislation, read biographies, he was not your stereotypical Texan. He actually did more for civil rights than anyone. And I wouldn’t have said this ten years ago, I wouldn’t have wanted to admit it, but I do like Texas. Because in Texas, you put your guns on the table, and I like that. There’s no abstract bullshit. Now I wouldn’t carry guns, but it’s nice to know that if you’re in a place and they don’t like blacks… See I have nothing against that, unless you’re the police. Cause they’re supposed to be upholding the law.
FP: What do you mean, you don’t mind if you’re in a place where they don’t like blacks, you respect that they’re open about it or what?
HC: What’s your perception of Texas? Rednecks, shotguns, Dallas Cowboys, pickup trucks, hey, that’s a given. It’s not that I like this, I’m just saying it’s better than a situation where I come into a bar or cafe, and then some fucking neo-nazi’s there (and they are around these people) and he wants to fight it out I’ll fight him, but I wouldn’t expect that in Montreal. But if I was in Texas, you expect it. You understand what I’m saying? Now I’m not a romantic about the South, because one time they used to lynch people there. I’ve read articles about the lynchings in the 20’s, 30’s, faces burned, penises cut off and things like that. But what I must say, and if anything’s printed, I was born in the South, Louis. And I have done a lot of traveling, but the South is a special place, not just in North America but in the world.
FP: It reminds me a bit of up here, like when you go up and visit the Crees up here, you’d think maybe they’d feel resentment towards whites, or even vengefulness. But it turns out they’re very cool, calm, whatever…
HC: Well Louis, look at it this way. You’re in this sea of moving bodies. What can you do, are you gonna fight history?
(For awhile we talk about history. At Dawson history was shown to be the least favourite course of students. Of course, when history courses only cover wars, treaties & acts of parliament, it just makes the past look boring.)
HC: What attracted me to Pancho Villa at first was that he was a man of the people. His theory was, if there’s no money, let’s make some.
FP: It can be done. In World War II, they issued bonds, they made money, for the war effort. They could make it now for the poverty effort, the health effort, but they don’t. The banks don’t like that, the rich don’t like that…
HC: I like working class history. And that’s one of the things I like about your publication, is that it’s real people, not like… like this (points to a pile of Montreal Mirrors), this is about money, they don’t give a fuck.
FP: It’s just their job.
HC: You’re publishing something on your own, for people, to give something worthwhile to people. I wouldn’t be sitting here if I didn’t believe in your publication. Now history is the same way—who do you respect. Who do you preserve. Who were the workers who stormed the Bastille, what were they feeling? Who were they? Because we all know, or we should know, that without the workers the system doesn’t work. But—there’s this misunderstanding around, that power, it comes from the top. And I say to those motherfuckers: kiss my ass.
FP: Well, history ends up being written by the rich, ‘cause they’re the only ones with the money to pay for it. So in the meantime, how many stories don’t get told—but the thing is, you still remember them. You ask people, their parents told them, their grandparents told them. It’s still there.
HC: Oral history, yeah. You know, oral history is getting much more accepted now. And it should be, you sit on your grandmother’s knee, like Alex Haley, when he wrote Roots, he was the first guy to trace them back. It’s special, you know. And I’m glad you’re in it for the long haul, because you’re not gonna get any benefits now, but- you know, a lot of people are starting to take things like this as being, uh, hard-core important. Your stories are human, and to me being human means a lot. And, already, you talked to Anna and that was good. (see interview with Anna in FP#5) Because a young woman can read about a woman like that, and can learn, you know, not to give up.
FP: Yeah, Anna’s a really, really amazing person.
I think history is very important right now, what with the end of this century. We’ve heard a lot about a milennium, but a millennium, you can’t really understand. A century, though… you were just telling me now about your father, and that goes right back, right there, to the beginning of the century. We can grasp that, although I don’t think we’ve bothered to understand enough of what this century was about.
HC: An African-American writer, Leroi Jones, once said, ‘We’re all pimps of progress.’ And I think we are. We’re fuelling this fucking ideal, which I think, really and truly, you cannot tell me that things are getting better. With computers, we’re like robots, and maybe I’m nostalgic that way, but I like the old ways better.
FP: Well hey, look at me, I’m way younger and I like the old ways better too.
HC: No, but, I mean, it’s not even just computers, it’s the way people are treating each other. I like Mexico because I find that people are kinder. And if I’m in the Chihuahua desert, and I meet a Mexican, I will eat tortillas and beans, I will not starve, and one thing for sure, they will never call me a “nigger.”
FP: It’s funny, they call it progress, but that’s what I hear about every country that’s supposedly more ‘behind’ is that they’re nicer. I had a friend who was in Bosnia during their war; he got thrown in jail because he was a journalist. First thing they did was serve him a beer. He ate supper with the guards and everything, he said the eastern countries were all like that. At suppertime, they put down the guns and everyone’s equal. And they call that ‘behind countries’, we gotta bring them into the 20th century. We gotta make them mean and not nice.
HC: “Oh god, we’ve gotta civilize them!”
FP: Yeah. You don’t make money from being nice. And they don’t like it when you don’t make money. You can make friends, you can make real things, but if you don’t make money…
HC: If I had a wish, if God came down, asked me ‘what would you want,’ I would cut electricity, because you can’t see the fucking stars. And the people who do, Louis, they live by them. We call them primitive. You know how primitive they are? They’re not fucking sending planes and bombing people.