Future posts may say some harsh things about individual African Americans and African Americans as a group; so, to provide some perspective let me describe the most important interactions I’ve had with black people, and what I learned.
In 2nd grade at an elementary school in Fairbanks AK, my class was discussing current events in Africa, probably some violent episode in the Congo. I thought I knew all about it, and provided my own description. An angry voice from the back of the class interrupted, protesting at my use of the term ‘blacks’. I had no idea of a possible connection between anyone in that classroom and the events in Africa; but looking at the speaker, I saw I was wrong. Until that moment I probably never paid any attention to skin color, and this was a quick lesson on thinking before speaking. When I place myself in his shoes, it seems he was either coldly self-confident in his position, or very offended by my terminology. Certainly there was no hostility on my part, just complete ignorance.
In junior high, in Seattle, my Boy Scout troop held a membership drive, offering a ‘wrangler’ merit badge for bringing in new members. I knew, probably from school, a new kid on base – we both lived at the Army post in Seattle – who was a Boy Scout. Being new, he hadn’t yet found a new troop. He seemed like a nice guy, I liked him, and I invited him. My main interest was that merit badge. I remember his parents asking with concern if it was ‘alright’, and I said sure it was fine. This was an African-American family.
So my parents drove us both to the next meeting. I blame them for not being more aware of what was going to happen. This was Troop 85, in the Magnolia neighborhood of Seattle, probably around 1962. The scoutmaster’s last name was Lepinski. He was a former Army officer, and used to talk about serving at the Fort Lawton POW camp in WW2.
My friend and I stepped into the church basement where the troop met, both of us in our scout uniforms. We were immediately separated, and members of the troop gathered around me, angrily asking why I had brought him. I don’t remember the ride home, or ever speaking to the guy again. Later, I asked about my ‘wrangler’ merit badge, but the Scout leaders answered that I hadn’t found any new members, and refused to award it.
At the time I was just angry that I didn’t get my badge. I never thought about what had happened, or how my friend felt. Soon after that I got into a confrontation with troop leaders on another issue, maybe I felt a bit disillusioned and ready for a fight, and I was out of the scouts. It probably wasn’t until I was in my 30s that this story popped up in my memories and I saw the racism, and started to think about how my friend felt, lured into this humiliation. What was it like for his parents; sending their son off and then seeing him come home, crushed?
In high school my Dad was stationed in Germany. We lived in Munich and I loved hanging out in a pizzeria midway between our housing area at Perlacher Forst, and the Army barracks at McGraw Kaserne. We drank beer, ate pizza hot from the oven, and listened to the jukebox. The current hit was Scott McKenzie’s ‘If You’re Going To San Francisco’.
The most vivid character among my friends at the pizzeria was Willis, a black GI. We talked a lot, and I became quite attached. Willis was ‘short’ and looking forward to going home, somewhere in the south: Mississippi or Alabama, I don’t know. This was 1967, and I worried that Willis would be mistreated when he got home. He seemed insubstantial, inoffensive, easily hurt. I wondered if I should tell him I was due back in the States too, the following summer, and that he should call me if he had any trouble. I had just enough good sense to do nothing more than wonder, and nothing was said.
Two years later I was a freshman at the University of Washington, living in a dorm. One night I was in the lobby, on the phone trying to ask a girl out on a date. Let’s say her name was Linda. Linda was a junior and I felt the phone call was a bit of a suicide mission. Just as Linda answered the phone there was a clamor. A group of four black girls was banging on the outside doors, demanding entry. I needed to focus on the call to Linda, I didn’t want to be interrupted, and this was a ticklish moment. I turned my back.
Someone else let the girls in. They descended on me, shrieking, just as I started my pitch to Linda. One of them grabbed the phone and slammed it into the cradle. They surrounded me, demanding an explanation for why I hadn’t let them in. I was speechless or close to it. I probably ran for the elevator, and I’m sure I never talked to Linda again.
My senior year at UW I was friendly with a black couple, Lonnie and Herbert. Lonnie was a co-worker, overweight and motherly. Herbert played in a steel drum band. We smoked a lot of pot together and I became involved in some of Lonnie’s charitable work. I’d just broken off a significant relationship, and I was anxious and worried about life after graduation. I felt alone in a cold, empty world. Lonnie and Herbert were a loving couple, supportive and understanding, and a symbol of warmth and generosity.
I left Seattle soon after graduation for ten years of fun and adventure abroad and in California, then my career fell apart and I came home to Seattle to start over. One day I found myself in an office at Seattle Community College looking for a teaching job. Lonnie was behind the desk. I hadn’t seen her in fifteen years, but Lonnie recognized me and started to speak; but my business wasn’t with Lonnie and I turned away, and left the office pretending to not recognize her. In Victorian times this was called ‘cutting’ someone: you pretend to not recognize them, and just keep walking. I felt like a coward afterward, and it still hurts today.
The bottom line
On a person-to-person basis we can be kind to each other and differences in race or class don’t matter; but place us in a group situation and the dynamic changes. I assume this is universal, and the experience is the same for black people: ‘white people on a personal level are just fine, but take them as a group and it becomes Lester Maddox and Bull Connor.’
Am I a racist? Maybe, but it’s important that we do our best to be fair, and still respond authentically to what we know and see. It’s also useful to be aware of politicians trying to cut us up into groups and pit us against each other for political gain.