Friday, August 18, 2017

Why We Need To Talk About Racism

There has always been an uneasy relationship between the United States and discussions about race. In the wake of the Charlottesville attack, racism has been a "trending topic," at the risk of making it sound trivial. Normally I would post an article dealing with racism in a present-day context, drawing parallels between Charlottesville, Charleston, the current administration, the previous administration, and politicos of various stripes, but I wish to step away from the madness for a moment.

In the summer of 1972 I was seven-almost-eight years old. I loved Froot Loops, Hot Wheels, and Spiderman, in that order. My father was a Lieutenant Commander in the Coast Guard, my mom stayed at home. I was preparing for third grade, my brother was going into second grade.

We lived in suburban Maryland, not far from Andrews Air Force Base, so many of the families in our neighborhood were Air Force families. It was a nice, quiet, middle-class neighborhood that retained a small-town feel ... my PE teacher lived four houses down from us, and when our house caught fire in 1974 the entire neighborhood rallied to take us in that night, give us the basic needs (clothing, primarily) the next day, and so on.

It was also, although I didn't fully understand this at the time, the center of a hotly debated racial controversy: busing. For anyone who doesn't know, "busing" was the practice of putting kids from school districts that served primarily poor communities -- usually African-American (the acceptable term at the time was "Negro") -- on a bus and having them go to school in wealthier communities, usually white.

Being southern Maryland in the early 1970s, there was significant resistance to this idea. The poor communities weren't crazy about the idea of their kids being on a school bus for up to 90 minutes each way just to be looked down upon by their peers, and the middle-class areas weren't fond of all these poor black kids hanging around. In my neighborhood -- again, I wasn't aware of this at the time -- Jim Crow was unfortunately alive and well. Parents up and down our street would sometimes complain, in earshot of their children, about the schools' busing efforts, and would make no bones about opposing it on racial grounds.

However, for me, my brother, and the other kids, that summer was about climbing trees, riding our bikes, catching frogs in the creek across the street during the day and fireflies in the yard at night, and going to the neighborhood pool and trying not to get yelled at for running.

One day, I was at the end of my driveway with my friends piloting my Hot Wheels through the dangerous African jungle that was the lawn by the curb as I hunted for the lost gold of the Unga Bunga. My mom was on the front porch doing something, I don't know what -- I didn't have time to find out, because of the Unga Bunga gold. I was kinda wrapped up in my quest, so I was a little surprised when a kid we didn't recognize walked up to us and said hi.

He said his name was Horace but that everyone called him Tanker, and it fit. He was only a few weeks older than me, but he was bigger than some FOURTH GRADERS, for pete's sake.

He was also African-American, something I had never seen before in my life, so I was nervous. I had heard some of the other kids echoing things their parents said, as kids do, and being completely innocent and ignorant of such things, I very matter-of-factly asked him, "Are you a nigger?" There was no malice, no hatred, no disrespect. I was seven years old, and, because I had heard it so frequently from the adults on the block, I just thought that was the accepted term.

I quickly discovered that it wasn't.

My mother moved faster than I had ever seen her move, before or since. She grabbed my arm and dragged me into the house so fast that I don't think I actually touched ground again until we were inside ... but not so fast that I couldn't see Tanker looking like I had kicked him in the stomach.

My mom was furious, and I couldn't understand why. She finally calmed down enough to tell me to go to my room and wait for my father to get home.

So I went, visions of impending doom filling my head. In front of all of these, though, was the image of Tanker's face ... the hurt, the utter defeat. I watched from my window as he walked back up the street toward his house, head down, sneakers shuffling on the pavement.

Back then, my mom was very excitable and easily irritated, and I was a master at yanking every possible chain she had. I honestly think she could have dropped me off on the side of the road and no jury would convict her -- I was that horrible.

My father was the complete opposite. I can only remember three or four instances during which he raised his voice. This was not one of them.

Not that he wasn't upset. He was, very. But I think he felt it was more important to turn this into a "teachable moment," even though I don't think that phrase had ever been used at that point, and took the time to explain to me exactly what had happened, and exactly what I had said meant, and that I was going to be staying in my room until school started, nearly three weeks away.

So sit I did. I read books, I was allowed to go outside once to collect my Hot Wheels from the yard, and that's it. Wake at 7. Breakfast. Back to my room. Lunch at 12. Back to my room. Dinner at 5. Back to my room. Lights out at 8. All I needed was a tin cup and some bars on the door to complete the picture.

After a couple of days I couldn't take it any more. Not only was I bored out of my skull, I couldn't get Tanker's face out of my mind, so during dinner I asked my parents if I could go over to his house to apologize. I said I wanted to do it by myself, and it took some cajoling, but they relented and said I could go after dinner.

So I went.

Tanker's father answered the door, and when he saw who it was he got a look on his face that made me think this wasn't such a great plan ... but in for a dime, in for a dollar.

I told him I was there to say I was sorry. I was managing to hold it together, but it was difficult ... and when Tanker came down the stairs, his face cold and hard, I couldn't keep it in any more and just started crying. I was sobbing, actually, while trying to get the words out -- not very successfully -- until I guess his mom couldn't take it any more and told me to sit down at the table, at which point she gave me a glass of milk and patted my head and said she was going to call my folks and let them know I was going to be there for a while.

I finally calmed down enough to get my apology out. I made it almost all the way through before I started crying again, and then I excused myself and went home.

Tanker and I ended up being best friends until my family moved away in 1975. We stayed in touch for a while, then not as much, then we moved on to other things: junior high, girls, high school, more girls, getting a driver's license, getting the first car, wrecking the first car ... but if he needed anything all he would have to do is call and I would be there in an instant, and it's a safe bet he would do the same for me.

I caught up with him briefly the summer after high school graduation, and again a little over twenty five years later. He still lives in the same neighborhood and has a lovely family of his own. The demographics of the neighborhood have changed ... when I was a kid it was mostly white; now it is almost completely black middle class. The streets have grown narrower and the yards smaller, and some of the woods we used to play in are now housing developments.

That day in August, 1972 did more to shape my attitude regarding race than anything else. Yes, there are the rational arguments against racism -- the lack of substantive physiological differences between races, for example -- as well as the moral ones, but the thing that has stuck with me through the years is the look of utter humiliation, pain, and betrayal on the face of a seven year old boy when another kid asked him "Are you a nigger?"

No, he is not. He is my friend.

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