4/29/13 - flip wilson/comedy is a mask for pain

In today's selection -- Flip Wilson was television's first black superstar, lighting up the screen in his award-winning comedy show with such comedy characters as Geraldine ("what you see is what you get") and the Reverend Leroy, pastor of the Church of What's Happening Now. Born Clerow Wilson, Jr., in his early life he bore the pain, fear and separation characteristic of the lives of so many great comedians:

"Clerow Sr. and Cornelia had had nine children before Clerow came along. Soon there were two more, making him the tenth of a dozen Wilson kids spilling into streets [of Jersey City, New Jersey] jammed with trolley cars and buses, soldiers and sailors, church bells, glad and angry and prayerful voices, soapbox evangelists, flying Spaldeens, dogs, cats and rats, junkies and numbers runners. In an era when light skin meant status and many blacks dreamed of passing for white, Clerow Jr. had the darkest skin in the family. 'You're black as burnt toast. Black as a bad banana,' his father said. 'I ought to throw you out with the garbage.' Clerow was ashamed to be so black until he decided it made him special. When Mrs. Davis at P.S. 14 pointed out the window at the Statue of Liberty and said, 'If one of you lazybones ever did something worthwhile, maybe she'd turn back around this way,' he thought he might be the one....

"One day he went home to find his brothers and sisters huddling in an empty apartment. Their mother was gone. 'She ran off with a man. Took my baby brother and all the furniture, too. My pops went to the bank and his money was gone. She'd been there with a certificate of his death and withdrawn it.' Unable to pay rent, Clerow Sr. lost the apartment. He herded his kids into a coal cellar, where they huddled on the floor while he slept sitting up on the stairs. After they got kicked out of there, Clerow Sr. spent his nights in other basements or tool sheds while the children fended for themselves. Some wound up in foster homes. Clerow Jr. moved in with his older sister Eleanor, who had married a long-haul truck driver. Eleanor and her husband had three children of their own. 'They always ate first,' he remembered. 'I had to wait. I got what their kids didn't eat, and they resented me being there, so they'd slop their food around and play with it, just to show me who was who.'

"Life in Jersey City's slums was chaotic and often violent. When a relative raped one of the Wilsons' cousins, a girl of eleven, nobody reported it. When a man pitched his wife out a second-story window, she spent a night in the hospital and then climbed back up the stairs to her husband. Clerow's sister Eleanor slept with other men when her husband was on the road. ... One night Eleanor's husband amused his friends by having little Clerow serve as their craps table. The boy sat in a kitchen chair with the dice board on his lap. He had to sit up straight so they could use his stomach as a backstop for the dice. ...

"A neighbor filed a complaint about the Wilson kids running the streets. The New Jersey Board of Children's Guardians rounded them up and placed them in foster homes. Clerow wound up with a black family [the Lewises] in Bayonne, just south of Jersey City. ... As at Elea­nor's apartment, the 'real' family ate first. Clerow sat in a corner watching the Lewises' real son drink the milk the state sent for Clerow, watching the boy smile and wipe off his milk mustache. ...

[When Eleanor whipped him for running away, Clerow] distracted himself by hatching a plan: he would keep running away until the Board of Children's Guard­ians sent him to reform school, where his brother Clifford was. He ran away eight times in a year. The social workers responded by transferring him from one foster home to another. ...

"Finally the state gave up on him. The Board of Children's Guard­ians assigned Clerow Wilson to the New Jersey Reform School at Jamesburg, forty miles southwest of Jersey City. He was eight and a half. Surrounded by fences topped with barbed wire, the notorious Jamesburg school provided beds and a rudimentary education for more than four hundred boys deemed too wild for the foster-care system. The barracks were crowded, discipline strict, meals sloppy and cold. Clerow loved the place. 'I was the smartest kid there. And Sundays we got tapioca pudding.' "



Kevin Cook






Copyright 2013 by Kevin Cook


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