There are few issues
in the United States more highly charged than race, particularly
the relationship between blacks and whites. It's something that
everyone tiptoes around and tries to sweep under the carpet, but
which nevertheless remains embarrassingly obvious, like an alcoholic
raincoat-flasher uncle snoring loudly and sleeping off a bender
on the living room sofa while the family tries to entertain dinner
And yes, that's right, I said blacks. I refuse to use the term African-American. If black people whose ancestors came from Africa are African-American, then all white people whose ancestors came from Europe should be called European-American. The term seems to denote a grudging acceptance, as if to say 'you're not really 100% American. We were here first and the toys, i.e. the guns, belong to us, but we'll let you into the clubhouse on a trial basis if you promise to play nice.'
All of us are caught up, to one degree or another, in this national drama full of fear, recrimination, and unresolved pain and anger; a tragic one-act play about a dysfunctional family harboring deep currents of bitterness and powerful emotions rarely voiced, occasionally erupting into violence and accusations, and the fragile threads of love attempting to hold the broken bones together until they mend.
My own participation in this tragic dance began in the Philadelphia neighborhood where I lived as a small child, and where I was the only white kid on the block, all my friends being black. When my parents first moved into the neighborhood in the late 50s, it was all white, but as the blacks moved in, the whites moved out, and by the early 60s, there were very few white people left and none with any children. My parents, being liberals and believers in racial integration, had stayed put. And because my parents accepted their new neighbors as equals, I did not have any barriers preventing me from making friends. Of course, we were all little kids then and had not yet learned that we were supposed to hate or be afraid of people that were different. Still, thanks to my parents, the idea of racial prejudice was completely alien to me. I did not understand when my mother told me not to sing the song 'Colored Spade' from the soundtrack to the musical Hair, a satirical listing of nasty epithets for blacks, outside the house. It did not register that these were words used to hurt people simply for being a different color. I loved my friends with their beautiful skin, a rich spectrum of browns, ranging from the light feathery gold color of buttered toast to the creamy bluish-black of dark chocolate. I loved their hair and the way they spoke and the way they laughed. I loved everything about them that was different from me because I had learned that variety in human beings was a valuable and positive thing. Roosevelt Franklin sang 'I Love The Skin I'm In' on my Sesame Street record and all was right with the world. And then Miss Piggy had to go and offer that foam rubber apple to Kermit.
Here's the story my mother told me: A teenage black boy, the son of neighbors my parents were friendly with, was standing on a street corner minding his own business, when some other black teenage boys ran past him, seemingly in retreat from some kind of pursuit. One of them stopped and asked the neighbor boy to hold his radio, to which the neighbor boy consented. The police, whom one could only assume were white, then arrived on the scene. The neighbor boy, due to his proximity, both spatially and racially, to the fleeing wrongdoers was mistakenly presumed by the police to be involved in whatever wrongdoing had been done, and was, despite his protests of innocence, arrested. My mother went to court as a character witness and the boy was freed, largely due to the testimony of my mother and other neighbors who came forward in his defense. Hearing this story was quite jarring to my tender young mind, like being awakened suddenly from a pleasant dream by a scream and a gunshot and finding yourself in a pitch dark room, unable to remember just exactly where the hell you were. The wind had shifted and I was looking into the ugly maw of a newer, more troubling, more uncertain, and more unjust world. And as much as I wanted to, I could no longer look at my wonderful black friends as total equals, because this new world was teaching me that regardless of one's character, conduct or accomplishments, some people were more equal than others.
I was largely unaware of the turmoil and violence happening in the larger world at the time, the race riots and the assassination of Martin Luther King, but nonetheless, this turbulence, a seismic shockwave carried along the currents of the collective unconscious, found it's way into my neighborhood in the form of a dog; a german shepherd that was rumored to have attacked several people in the alley behind our rowhouses, including an elderly white woman who was mauled as she emerged from her back door to put out the trash. My friends knew where the dog was kept and we all went to gawk at this creature which had assumed a kind of celebrity status in our small two-block-wide world. We were all morbidly curious in the way that people are fascinated by serial killers or the Loch Ness monster. My friends, however, had some disturbing inside information.
"This dog doesn't like white people," they said. "The guy who owns it trained it to hate white people." They told me this in all innocence, as a plain statement of fact, as if they were telling me that the dog had been trained to catch a frisbee or to sit up and offer it's paw.
"Look--we'll show you," they said. And each one of my friends, in turn, held their hands up to the dog's muzzle. The dog, which was sequestered behind a tall chain-link fence enclosing the small, square patch of cement that served as each row-home's backyard, sniffed at their hands disinterestedly.
"Now hold up your hand," they said. Sure enough, at the sight of my caucasian hand, the dog leapt into action, growling and snarling and barking on cue in true Pavlovian fashion. I jumped back, shocked, as if I had touched an electrified fence. I hadn't really believed my friends; I thought they were putting me on.
"See?" they said. "He doesn't like white people." The fact of the dog's behavior did not change my friends' fondness for me. They did not understand, or else chose not to acknowledge, the larger implications. They were simply pointing out a neighborhood curiosity, with no more significance than a dead squirrel or a lost hubcap in the street. But for me, it was another brick, and a quite large one at that, in the wall being slowly and silently erected between my black friends and me.
The next brick was hurled on the day that the dog came strutting through the back alley where my friends and I were playing baseball with my father. The dog was on a leash attached to it's owner, a big, burly black man with a bald head and bulging biceps and an angry scowl on his face, like Mr. T without his mohawk. I didn't see what led up to it, but suddenly my father was yelling at the man to "keep that god damned dog tied up, or I'm going to kill it!"
"You touch my dog and I'll fucking kill YOU!" bellowed the man. Now, I knew my father was all talk, and would never follow through with his threat. Still, I was impressed with him for standing up to someone who could probably flatten him with one punch, driving him into the ground tent-peg style like in a cartoon. It was a tense moment. All the kids in the alley stopped and stared and held their breath as the two men glared at each other.
"That dog is a menace!" said my father, still angry, but less confrontational, as if trying to prove the dog's hazardousness by logical argument. The burly man jabbed his finger at my father's face.
"Don't you fuckin' be worryin' about my dog, motherfucker!" And at that, the man stalked off. It took several minutes for noise and activity to resume in the alley. My friends and I looked at each other uneasily. Not a word was spoken about what had just happened, but I could see a question in their eyes. They were wondering, whose side are we on? Whose side are you on? And are we going to have to choose sides?
The 60s were drawing to a close and there was more and more talk in the neighborhood of "gang violence." Anger seemed to be seeping through the cracks. A few years earlier, on a trip down south, my parents had come upon a civil rights protest, a march around a restaurant that refused to serve blacks, and they were proud of the fact that they had placed me on one of the protester's shoulders, allowing me to participate, at the age of two or three, in the fight for justice and equality that had galvanized and charged the early to mid 60s with such righteous fervor. Now the summer of love was over, King had been murdered, Bobby Kennedy had been murdered, the Vietnam war was escalating with no end in sight, and the black panthers were on trial. My father had a dream: He's alone on a dark city street at night. Suddenly, there's a huge mob of angry, rioting blacks, rumbling and barreling towards him like a herd of stampeding buffalo. He turns and faces them.
"Wait... stop... I'm on your side," he pleads, but they don't care; they're not listening, and they plow him under.
A day of reckoning seemed to be waiting in the wings, and for the first time in my short life, my black neighbors were eyeing me with suspicion.
A group of older boys took to questioning me whenever they saw me on the street.
"Do you like Nixon?"
"He's a bad president."
"Why's he a bad president?"
"Because he won't end the war in Vietnam."
"See... the kid's alright," the questioner said to his friends, who were looking at me with skepticism bordering on disdain. And even though I had gotten an official okay, it wasn't a friendly, big-brotherly sort of exchange; it was more like an interrogation. Whose side are you on?
A black girl called me "white boy." She snarled it; it was definitely an insult. I was playing in the back alley. There were lots of kids around and I accidentally bumped into her. She was maybe two years older than me, and she glowered at me and hissed "white boy!" with withering contempt. I was confused; it seemed to be a mixed message. I understood her tone of voice and facial expression, but the words "white boy" didn't make sense as a slur. I didn't get it.
"Yes," I thought to myself, "I'm a boy... and I'm white... so what?"
In 1971, my parents moved us out of the city and into an all-white suburb. There were a handful of blacks in the landscape, but they were inconsequential, neutered, as if they had been hand-picked by the whites as harmless tokens and sources of comic relief. The single black family in my new neighborhood, who rarely showed their faces, had a son who was an idiot savant, a black Rain Man. His area of genius was the ability to memorize baseball statistics. He could give you the stats for any player in the major leagues for any year going back to the turn of the century. He was too unusual and exotic to be threatening, like a duck-billed platypus plopped down in the middle of the manicured suburban lawns, so he was tolerated by the white kids as a kind of curiosity, a circus act from which they occasionally demanded a performance.
A single pair of siblings, a brother and sister, constituted the entire black population of my new elementary school, and like the savant, they were strange creatures to be ogled and laughed at. They were both obese and dressed in clothes that looked like hand-me-downs from distant cousins. The girl had a large, fully-formed pair of breasts, the only set of hooters in the fourth grade, and the boys were constantly trying to touch them and squeeze them, which made her kind of withdrawn and bitchy. She was like an enormous big-game animal on the African plains surrounded by white hunters. The boy was like some kind of Uncle Tom slapstick actor from the Amos and Andy era. He rolled his googly eyes and did over-the-top schtick for the amusement of his white classmates. The only thing he didn't do was say "Sho 'nuff, boss." It was never openly stated, but it was clear that the brother and sister were objects of derision, and they were so far removed and alien from the people I had known in my old neighborhood, so clownish and embarrassing, that I could not relate to them at all; there was no point of contact, no common ground.
Several years later, at the onset of adolescence, having discovered the pleasures of marijuana, a friend and I were on the train coming home from a trip to a downtown head shop where I had purchased a new pipe. A group of five or six black boys, some of them our age, some younger, surrounded us, squeezing themselves into the seats next to us and behind us. They were seemingly friendly, asking us who we were, where were we going, did we have any pot? Did we want to buy any pot? My friend was wary and tight-lipped, but I was still trusting and expected people to be color-blind and friendly without a hidden agenda. I showed them my cool new pipe and told them no thank you, we didn't want to buy any pot, and thought that would be the end of it, but they persisted with their shucking and jiving; it was good pot, were we sure? Did we want to smoke some out of that new pipe? Where were we getting off the train? Now my bullshit detector was sounding the alarm. No, we're cool, we're getting off at the next stop, thanks anyway. Seeing that I was no longer being chatty and affable, they undraped themselves from our seats and quickly moved out of the train car. Some time passed and I reached into my pocket for my new pipe and... sonofabitch! It was gone! They fucking stole my pipe! I couldn't believe it. I felt so stung, so violated! And not just because the black boys took my pipe, but because the whole thing had been an act, a put-on to fuck with these two crackers and rip them off. I wasn't a person to them; I was whitey, I was the enemy. Things had come full circle and I was standing on the outside of the racial divide, helplessly manipulated by forces larger than myself, and put in an adversarial position with no idea how I got there or why.
Throughout my adult life, I've tried to breach this barrier whenever the opportunity arose, but the opportunities have been few and far between. I do meet black people who can see me and relate to me as an individual beyond the color of my skin, but more often than not, if they're over the age of ten, they automatically have their defenses up to one degree or another. I think to myself, "If you only knew..." I'm like my father in his dream. "Don't you know that I'm on your side?"
At the age of thirty, I decided to take a trip back to my old Philadelphia neighborhood, and I persuaded a friend of mine who was fond of road trips and exploring to drive us there. It took a while to find my old street--I was only four feet tall the last time I was there--but eventually the familiar rowhouses with their terraced steps and triangular panels above the front doors, so typically Philadelphian, came into view. We parked the car and stepped out into a world that seemed miniscule when compared to my memories. I was Gulliver in Lilliput. And as I was marveling at the weirdness of it, the juxtaposition of then and now, I became cognizant of a group of hostile young black men looking daggers at us from down the street. One of them detached from the group and approached us, swaggering and sliding down the sidewalk, eyes narrowed and fixed on us like a tiger stalking it's prey. He was obviously the leader of the pack, maybe a couple of years younger than me.
"Hey, man... whatchoo want?" he said in a threatening tone. It was clearly a challenge. My friend looked alarmed, but I was unimpressed. This was my neighborhood, god damn it! I belonged here.
"I used to live on this street," I said.
"Oh yeah?" he said, his tone and expression softening. "When?"
"About twenty years ago," I said.
"Who you know?" he said. I started naming names, listing friends and neighbors from when I was a kid. "Oh yeah--I know them..." he said. "Okay, it's cool. Me and my boys--we kind of watch out for the neighborhood--know what I mean?"
"Yeah, sure--no problem," I said. He held out his hand and I shook it. He was relaxed now, not quite smiling, but probably as close as he could come to it while still maintaining his role as defender of the neighborhood.
"Where you live now?" he said, "In Philly?"
"No... I live in the suburbs," I said with some reservation. I was almost hesitant to admit it. The suburbs were where white people with money lived.
"Oh," he said, and he looked at me as if I had just slapped him in the face. And his eyes narrowed and his body language hardened and the whole fucking gangsta act snapped back into place, and suddenly, I was an outsider again.
He warned us about hanging out too long in the hood, making it clear that his people wouldn't fuck with us, but he couldn't guarantee our safety either. The sentiment was generous on the surface, but his voice was cold and he walked away with a string of sour notes trailing behind him. And the sour taste stayed in my mouth as we got in the car and drove off, wishing I could have left my old neighborhood with the feeling I had when I shook the guy's hand, a feeling of no barriers, the feeling I had as a kid when all of us, black and white, like it or not, were stuck together like tar babies in the briar patch.