Jim ‘Suldog’ Sullivan is a blogger whose acquaintance I’ve just recently made, through our mutual friendship with my good blogger-friend Lime. Suldog, along with his friend Michelle Hickman, recently (well, if a couple weeks ago is 'recent') ran parallel posts describing their respective experiences of race relations in their formative years (Suldog is white, Michelle is black). And then Suldog came back with his Chapter Two. Their stories were poignant and honest, and they moved me to share with you some of my own experiences, and a few of my reflections on them. It occurred to me that I’ve never really given a complete account of my experiences vis-à-vis black folks (although my story of my GF1 gives some of it), and that’s actually been something I’ve thought about a fair bit. So, forthwith, I present to you the formative racial experiences of the young Desmond Jones. . .
The town I grew up in Up North was whiter-than-white. I mean, there simply weren’t any black people in our town. None. Zero. Most of my first impressions were formed by the sports I watched on TV – guys like Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, or closer to home, Detroit Lions like Night Train Lane, Roger Brown, or Mel Farr, or my beloved Tigers, like Willie Horton, Earl Wilson and Gates Brown. My first impression was simply that these guys were really good players, and I didn’t really make any mental distinction between them and players of a ‘paler’ persuasion.
But, by and large, my early formation in ‘race relations’ was mostly by way of ignorance. I simply never saw any black people, except on TV. On the rare occasions that I traveled ‘downstate’ to cities like Saginaw, or Flint, or Detroit, we would see black folks, but mostly they just seemed exotic, and strange. I remember asking my dad why their skin was dark, but the palms of their hands were lighter; I forget how he answered.
My family didn’t form me in racist attitudes, beyond the simple perception of ‘difference’. In fact, my mother (my ‘first mother’), having grown up in Nazi Germany, was especially sensitive, and would not countenance me using words like ‘nigger’. And it’s funny – as a young kid, my friends would use the word ‘nigger’ as a ‘generic insult’, on the order of ‘jerk’ or ‘doofus’. There really wasn’t any particular ‘racial’ connotation to it in our minds. How could there have been? We didn’t even know any black people; it was just an insult. But my mother let me know, in no uncertain terms, that it was not a word she ever wanted to hear coming from my mouth.
I remember, too, that my dad seemed to regard Martin Luther King as a trouble-maker and rabble-rouser. He didn’t couch it in explicitly ‘racial’ terms, but he sure didn’t appreciate the world-as-he-knew-it being messed with. . .
When I got to high school (I graduated in 1973), my ‘racial horizons’ began to expand significantly, and not always in the best ways. Our school, being one of the larger schools in Northern Michigan, would, in order to play against comparably-sized schools, wind up playing teams from some of the urban schools ‘downstate’.
[A brief lesson in Michigan geography: in the popular imagination, Michigan consists of ‘Detroit’ and ‘everywhere else’. Metro-Detroiters call the rest of Michigan ‘outstate’; northerners like me refer to the more 'metropolitan' southern part of the state as ‘downstate’; ‘Yoopers’ – folks from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (the UP) – call everyone else ‘trolls’, ie, those who live ‘below the (Mackinac) Bridge’.]
Anyway, playing teams from Flint and Saginaw was a real eye-opener for us northern white boys. One time, we were playing at a predominantly-black school from downstate; our team bus drove up right next to the door to the locker-room, and we walked from our bus into the locker room with police officers on either side of us. Inside the locker room, the school’s principal met us. “Urban High is a big place,” he told us, “and there are a bunch of black kids here who’d just as soon cut a white kid as look at him.” Well, THAT was comforting. “So don’t go wandering around, and stay in groups, and you’ll be OK.” Shit, we were just there to play a basketball game, and this guy had us fearing for our lives. And once the game started, the loud and raucous urban environment was even more intimidating to us. As was the fact that, apart from a few of Urban High’s teachers, and maybe the referees, ours were virtually the only white faces in the gym. We felt very much like ‘strangers in a strange land’ (which, I've come to understand, is how a lot of black folks feel pretty much all the time). . .
Our coaches were quite upset with what they perceived to be Urban High’s intimidation tactics, and when Urban High came to our gym a couple weeks later, they arranged to return the favor. Our principal met their team in the locker room, and told them, “Up North High is a big place, and there are a lot of rednecks who’d just as soon shoot a black kid as look at him,” etc, etc. (*sigh*)
I think it was my junior year that three black kids – a brother and sister, and their cousin – came to Up North High. It created a minor sensation; as far as anybody could remember, they were the first black folks who’d ever lived Up North, except for a few basketball players at the junior college. For the most part, they were pretty well received, although our ignorance and inexperience were painful, I’m sure. Some of the white kids, in all innocence, would just walk up to them and ask, “Can I touch your hair?” There was also a certain sense of anticipation that Up North High was, by virtue of the presence of actual black males among the student body, on the verge of an athletic breakthrough. Alas, one of the guys was a decent, though not spectacular, athlete; the other just wasn’t terribly athletically inclined. What the heck was up with that? Stereotypes die hard, when you don’t have any live experience to measure them against. . .
The summer between my junior and senior years, I went to a church camp, as I had the two previous years. Like the rest of my life in general, the camp was pretty much an all-white environment. I don’t know if there just weren’t any black folks in my denomination, or if their kids just weren’t terribly into spending a week in the woods by Lake Michigan, but I can’t recall seeing any black kids at camp until that summer. After I arrived at camp and moved my gear into my cabin, I had some free time until dinner, so I wandered down to the rec building, where there was a piano, and started playing. After a while, a black girl came and watched me play. She told me she liked my playing, and sang along with me for a couple of the songs. And just that fast, I made my first (and still most significant) black friend. By the end of the week, we became a bit more than friends, and even engaged in certain, um, mutual explorations (the girls from Up North High had never deemed me worthy of their attention, but it took this black girl about five minutes to just completely win my heart).
Throughout my senior year of high school, GF1 and I carried on a high-school version of a long-distance relationship. We did manage to get together a couple times, but for the most part, we passed letters back and forth in the mail (in those days, long-distance phone calls were still expensive enough that neither of our parents would remotely consider letting us call each other).
The thing was, GF1’s family lived in an otherwise all-white, northern small town on the other side of the state from mine (no, her name isn’t Michelle Hickman). Her extended family was from Chicago, but her immediate family were the only black folks in their entire county. And GF1, being a sanguine, outgoing type, had no qualms about being around white people; heck, they were all she had available to her.
The summer after I graduated, I got a job in OurTown, in anticipation of going to school there in the fall. And every weekend, I’d hitch-hike over to GF1’s town, and stay with mutual friends, so we could spend the weekends together. And I learned a TON, just from the simple expediency of actually having a relationship with an actual black person. Questions like, ‘can black people get sunburned?’ weren’t quite so awkward or ‘loaded’ in the context of a comfortable friendship built on mutual understanding and trust. And heck, by the time you’ve made out with a black girl a couple times, you know what her hair feels like. . . ;)
My relationship with GF1 was also the occasion for probably the nastiest quarrel I ever had with my dad. As I said, I had never known him to be overtly racist. But one night, something I said set him off, and he launched into a rant about ‘that black bitch’. Which, love-struck teenage boy that I was, pissed me off royally, as you might imagine. It also exposed a nastier core to my dad’s racial attitudes than I had seen before. The rhetorical question in those days was ‘Would you want your kid to marry one?’ And my dad answered with a resounding ‘Hell no’.
GF1 and I eventually broke up. It had more to do with me going off to college while she was still in high school (she was a year younger than me) than anything else. But looking back, I can see that, had we stayed together, we’d have eventually faced some harder questions than we anticipated, about how to build a life together that bridged, or at least took sufficient account of, the ‘cultural’ differences, acceptance by each other’s families, and things of that order, which, as love-struck teenagers, had never appeared on our radar screens.
GF1 and I lost track of each other for many years, but a few years back, we got back in touch. (I told the story here, but I’ll re-tell the bit where, when we met each other quite accidentally, she turned to her husband and daughter, who were with her, and said, “This is that white guy I told you about!”) And it has been almost as if our friendship never missed a beat (well, except for the making out part). To this day, she is unique in my life as the only black person I’ve ever gotten to know well enough to get beyond the ‘racial barrier’ – to where our relationship was just relaxed and unguarded, and we knew each other as friends, regardless of each other’s color (but certainly not blind to it, either)
The next chapter of my story covers my college years. I actually went to college hopeful of getting to know other black folks as well, and as warmly, as I’d gotten to know GF1. But it never quite worked out that way. At my university in the 70s, racial relations weren’t typically hostile, but they weren’t warm, either. The year before I got there, a white student was murdered, and there were dark stories still circulating that he’d been killed by black students as some sort of initiation rite (Stories which, 20 years later, were essentially confirmed). All the black players on the basketball team walked out before a game, in protest of what they viewed as excessive playing time for a white freshman player. And the most stark feature of race relations on campus stared me in the face at every meal – one end of the cafeteria was unspokenly designated as the ‘black section’. All the black students sat at that end, and none of the white students did. And virtually nobody ever bothered to challenge that state of affairs.
I did befriend a few black students – all men (the black women seemed to have a bigger racial ‘chip’ on their shoulders, over the predilection of some of the black men to date white women). I did some tutoring through Minority Students in Engineering, and got together to help a couple of the black guys with their homework.
There was one guy in particular, though, who lived in my dorm, and seemed willing to go out of his way to get to know some of the white guys. Unlike most of the black guys I’d lived with in the dorm, who kept to themselves, and kept their doors tightly shut, this guy (I’ll call him William) and his roommate would open their door and invite guys in just to talk, and get to know each other. I knew that I’d really gotten somewhere significant when William invited me to join him for lunch one day, and brought me over to the ‘black section’. And I had a fascinating conversation with him and some of the other guys, about how even ‘black dialect’ had its ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ accents. And after the first few minutes, I didn’t even notice that I was in a different part of the room anymore. After that, William and I had lunch together from time to time, sometimes in the ‘black section’, sometimes not.
But things with William eventually cooled off, and I can only blame myself. One day, my roommate H(al) (the guy whose wife I took to a McCartney concert once upon a time) and I were walking down the hall one day, and William and his roommate had their door open, and were playing chess. Hal is quite an avid chessplayer, and we sauntered in to watch. William won the game, and Hal asked if he could play the winner, and William agreed. Now, I had often played chess with Hal, and I knew that he was a darn good player. So as I watched, I was surprised to see him struggling with what William was giving him, and as the game wore on, and the advantage went more and more in William’s direction, I was shocked; I’d never seen anyone do that to Hal. And I saw something in William’s eyes that just convicted me to the core. “You didn’t think I could beat him,” he said wordlessly. “You think I’m just another dumb black guy who got quota’ed into college. But I beat your boy, didn’t I?” I knew instantly that, without saying a word, I’d stabbed him in the heart, and screwed up such trust as we’d been painstakingly developing in the preceding weeks. And after that, William was cooler to me. His door was still open, but there was more of an air of, “I gave the white boy a shot, but he’s just like the rest of ‘em.”
I can look back, and wish that William had been a bit more resilient, a bit better able to absorb the petty indignity that I inflicted on him that afternoon in his dorm room. But the bottom line is that I screwed up. I betrayed the stereotype that I carried around inside me, and there was nothing I could do to deny it. I might wish for a chance to learn from my mistake, and to have further opportunities to grow, but I sure couldn’t make any claim that I deserved it. And I never really got another opportunity like that again.
My kids’ experiences at their urban public high school have been somewhat more hopeful. The student body at the school our kids go to is more-or-less equal parts white, black, Hispanic, and Asian (lumping Vietnamese, Koreans, Indians and Arabs together under one heading). No one group of kids is in the majority – everyone is pretty much equally a minority. And that makes for some interesting dynamics. It is certainly not the case that there is no racial strife at LUPHS. But there are some unique opportunities in such a scenario.
4M and 5M have both played on the sports teams, and they’ve had lots of black and Hispanic teammates. And the experience of being teammates (and heck, even parents of teammates) with a common goal, has been very constructive; for the sake of ‘something bigger’, the kids (and, to a lesser degree, their parents) could just pull together, irrespective of who was what color, or lived in which part of town. 4M was one of the team captains his junior and senior years, and after the games, he’d bring his teammates to our house for some post-game chillin’. And so we got to know a bunch of kids we wouldn’t have otherwise ever had occasion to run into.
The thing is, it’s not that we don’t see race and/or color; we do. But, when you get to know each other, you can start to get past some of the ‘loaded-ness’ of race, and just relate to the people, as they are, who they are. . .
My experience of relating with black folks has always been that relationships are the key. Our long, sad cultural history has left us all with a residue of mistrust. And that is a terribly, terribly difficult thing to overcome. As I’ve said above, in my life, I’ve had one relationship with a black person that was truly, honestly characterized by free and open trust. And one other that might have gone there, if I hadn’t screwed it up. And today, I have a few others that may yet get there, if we can get to know each other better. And those kinds of relationships, across racial lines, are precious, and hard to come by, as things sit now. I really don’t know what the way forward might be. But I hope, and yearn, for the day when we can just know, and relate to each other as persons, without all the baggage. May it come soon. . .