I have been a social activist for over 30 years. One of the challenges we face in the U.S. is overcoming the difficulties we have cultivating open and respectful relationships with some people that we encounter, and most especially for people we might never encounter. I want to isolate my comments here to just those difficulties that arise in communications between white people and African Americans. I want to reflect on my many special encounters with African Americans.
My background is relevant. I have many experiences that have shaped my understanding. I have a college degree, acquired at a later age after I served in the Air Force in the Washington D.C. area. I have had childhood friends who were African American, school teachers, and fellow military associates. I have a background as a writer. I have written articles about African Americans I have known and who I admired. I grew up in the sixties and was deeply moved by the social injustices that were endured by African Americans. I also had some unique experiences as I grew up as a young man.
I remember seeing African Americans protesting outside a restaurant. They held protest signs. There were quite a few present. They were not permitted to eat in that restaurant. I watched from the backseat of a car traveling down the road. The scene ended quickly. On another occasion I remember seeing signs posted on bathrooms and drinking fountains that read “Whites Only”. I didn’t understand why.
In 11th grade I was fortunate enough to have the basketball coach as my history teacher. He had a reputation for being a fun teacher. One day he was very upset. He told us he had purchased a house in the suburbs. The neighbors sent him a letter and offered to buy his house if he would move out of the neighborhood. He did not answer them. Then came another letter with an offer to buy the house for more than he had paid for it. The neighbors were white. The basketball teacher was an African American. He said, “White people do not mind when I coach their kids to play basketball, but they do mind when I try to buy a nice house in their neighborhood.” I felt very sad. I was embarrassed by their bigotry.
I have had many experiences like those. I cannot recall or tell all the stories, but I can say that I reacted in a way that made me very sensitive to the problems faced by African Americans during that time. In the 1970s tensions eased. By the 1980s I felt like the sixties were gone forever. I lived in Erie, PA with an African American I had met. I needed an apartment. He wanted to help me. I lived with him for six weeks. One of his friends was a black radio DJ. He was a very unusual man. “I am the only black radio DJ in Erie!” he would say. Today he is a correspondent for NBC. We share memories going back 30+ years.
Erie in 1980 was a very different kind of town. I saw mixed marriages, blacks dating whites openly, it all seemed very normal to me. It was a relaxed time and “race relations” was not a concern. I do remember one occasion where my friend took me to a bar that was frequented exclusively by African Americans. I was very nervous at first. “No one will bother you as long as you let them know you are with me.” he said.
I was called a racist once by a girl that worked in the same mall as I. She had asked me out. I heard myself say no. I do not know why I said no. She said, “I have never had a guy turn me down for a date.”
“Is it because I am black? Are you a racist?”
She was a very aggressive person. We dated for a while and became good friends. One day I received a call from a girl at the jewelry store across the way. “Are you going out with Sandra?” she said. I mumbled, “Yes…”
“Well I am not going to go out with anyone who dates a black girl,” she said. I was shocked, but I managed to answer, “I wasn’t planning on asking you out again.” She hung up. I was stunned. How could a person be so cruel and so damn ignorant!
In 1986 I took a Business Law class from a black attorney and guest teacher at the college I attended. He was the first African American I knew who would qualify as militant. I loved his class. I learned about the Supreme Court, about how President Reagan was trying to stack the court with conservative judges. My penchant for social activism came alive in that class. I went into the final with an A. I aced the final. Afterwards I had lunch with the teacher. I asked him one question that was bothering me. “How come black people are angry at all white people. What about those of us who are trying to help. Is there never a time when it is okay to say thanks to those who are on their side?”
His answer came quickly, “If you are truly on our side, you don’t need us to say thank you. There is no time to say thanks. There is too much butt to kick.”
So that happened. J
The 90s came and went. I worked in the musical instrument manufacturing industry. I represented a company that sold a very popular instrument. I received a request from a gospel organization to supply synthesizers for a convention. In trade, I would be able to give a demonstration to hundreds of people and set up a booth for free. My company said no. I put all of my sample into the car, along with my wife, and we headed to New Orleans. We were the guest of Reverend Cleveland at the Music Gospel Workshop. They paid for our room at the Marriott. We spent the next three days at a convention attended by 20,000 Black Americans. I felt right at home. Reverend Cleveland took a moment to make a remark about my piano playing ability. He had a very gruff voice. I was in his room with other musicians. He walked past us as we talked about the synthesizers I had brought. He looked at me and said, “Boy! You need to learn how to play gospel music!” and continued on his way. It is true, I am terrible at playing gospel music although I thoroughly enjoy trying! Years later I ended up working for the Hammond Organ company, manufacturers of the famous B-3 organ. My dealer in Dallas was Reverend Ford. A dear man. We were friends. He has passed now.
My experiences with African Americans continued my entire life. I have been deeply enriched by all the African Americans I have met in my lifetime. I am a jazz musician. I have played with countless musicians, black, and white. To tell you the truth, at 1:00 in the morning after a four hour gig, everyone is a little dark. I am not that guy who knows one African American. I have known hundreds and been the better for it.
Regrettably, I live in Texas. Our suburbs are very segregated. Perhaps it is the nature of my work, or maybe a cultural misgiving, but I have not had many friends who are African American. I could probably name a half dozen or so. At my advanced age I don’t have too many white friends either. I am told that this is normal for a man my age.
A few years ago I was standing in the hallway of the school outside the gym. I was alone. The halls were completely empty. There on the wall before me was a life-sized picture of the entire basketball team, and another photo of the entire softball team. The photos were huge. Above the photos were the words “State Champs” for each team. As I viewed the photo I marveled that I was looking at the faces of only white people. I furrowed my brow and said out loud, “There are no black people at this school.”
A voice from behind me said, “Oh, there are a few of us around.”
I turned and there was a tall African American father standing right behind me. He scared me! How is it possible that he would walk up to me at the exact same time as I uttered my disbelief at the disproportionate number of African Americans on the State Champions in basketball and softball. I smiled and we laughed together. We talked for a while.
I think I may have had more experiences with different kinds of people because I seek out relationships like that. I went to school to learn some Spanish so I could import some guitarrones so a school in Midland, Texas could get instruments for their Mariachi class. I took Japanese lessons from a piano customer. I enjoy everyone I meet, but it still hurts to see people who are subjected to social injustice.
It frustrate mes that in 2016 a new generation of people have to work through their feelings about the social injustices that exist in the U.S. Race relations is only one problem. Many of them are angry. Most are presumptuous and somewhat arrogant in their opinions. Passion is a better word. But I have been aware of racial tensions my whole life. I traded passion for action a long time ago. As a Democrat, I was particularly excited to see an African American become president of the United States. Since Texas is pretty conservative, I can tell you that I have been in some pretty testy conversations in defense of President Obama. I don’t expect a word of thanks, because as I said, I learned that if you are helping out, you don’t need anyone to say thanks.
These are not all of my experiences, but this is enough to convey my sincerity. When I was in my twenties, an entire generation worked through our differences – not by talking at each other, but by listening, trading ideas, creating understanding. It was my generation that paved the way for the first African American President. I feel pretty good about that. But history is cruel. The past means nothing unless you have one. It is apparent that each generation is going to have to define itself of every social injustice that is pressing in that time. Whether it is GLBT, whites and blacks, Hispanics and everyone else, whatever the division is for that time period, people are going to have to work through those issues over and over again.
So it is for me, that something I reconciled long ago, this wound that I thought was healed long ago, has reopened and needs attention once again. And it appears that each generation will have to tend to that wound until it finally heals. We can only hope.
I had fun writing this. It was good to revisit some of those memories. Taken in sum, I am a better man because of the people I have known. Many of those encounters have been with African Americans. I have traveled all over America and met people from coast to coast. But now it occurs to me that I really didn’t have that many friends who were African American. Or maybe I did.
Then again, I really wasn’t keeping score.