Race at the grass roots
Hundreds of thousands of white men, age 50 and older, must have stories to tell just like this one.
I am 65, white, educated, in a profession and a life that has worked out very well for me. I grew up in Texas, son of a divorced mom, and we lived with my grandmother, in my mom’s comfortable childhood home. The city was segregated. Blacks lived in their own community, east of the white part of the city, and their kids went to their own schools. I assume they went to their own movie theaters and their own restaurants and their own parks, too, because they could not come to ours.
Yet there was contact. I had fleeting contact, on autumn Thursday nights, with black kids who played football for the black high school. They played some of their games in the white high school stadium, and going to their games was a vivid experience. Their games seemed louder. The white kids had great football teams in my town in those days, championship teams, and there was a lot of energy and noise on Friday nights. But our noise seemed scripted, disciplined, against the Thursday night noise of the black games. The black high school didn’t win many games, but it didn’t seem to matter, on Thursday nights at the stadium. Their noise was always joyous.
Or maybe it did matter. I don’t know. I never bothered to find out. I don’t consider that part of a sociological fault line; I never bothered to find out most of the answers that I wish I had now about my adolescent experience in my hometown. One ignored chance is more important to me now than the others. One of the kids on those black teams sought me out during his games, just along the sideline, over the fence, just spontaneous connection. I don’t know why he wanted to communicate with me. I can remember his face, though, sweaty from the game, which was still under way, and a huge smile and disingenuous eyes. Maybe he admired me. I was a player on the championship white team. Because I would talk to him, he could talk to me.
My grandmother, Susie, was educated, a schoolteacher, and a woman of her times. She migrated from Alabama to Texas around the turn from the 19th to the 20th century. She was born in rural Alabama and lived in rural Texas. By the time I was born in 1943, she was the widowed matriarch of a household in the city where I grew up. She feared God, knew some of the classics, worked hard, was completely generous, and she was humble, and tough. And she could not tolerate blacks. I don’t think she hated them. She simply made a face. It’s the same face I would make now when I see Bill O’Reilly. Just a sort of low-grade, but earnest, dislike. I never asked her about it.
I have gone into the files of my hometown newspaper and there, in 1954, is a headline announcing the judgment in Brown vs. Board of Education, that declared unconstitutional the “separate but equal” basis for the segregation of schools. That same year the paper published stories about the desegregation of Little Rock High School. In my town, those stories were pebbles thrown into a giant pond. The ripples wouldn’t reach us for another decade. When I returned in 1969, and worked there as a sportswriter for three years, the city had become integrated. The black high school was closed, and black kids played with the white kids on the city’s two high school football teams.
I left the city in 1972 and have lived in Southern California ever since. I don’t know, this week, how the city reacted, as a community, to Barack Obama’s speech. In the planning for my 40th high school reunion several years ago, I suggested that our class, the class of 1961, include all the kids in the community at our 40th reunion. I wondered what might happen, if the white kids and the black kids from that class finally sat down together in an auditorium, or a banquet hall, and just sat, and faced each other, and started to talk. The idea was not well received. I was thinking about my over-the-fence acquaintance and his thread of connection, and mine, at the black high school games. I think about him and wonder where he is, and how he is doing, and as I do so, I realize that of all the random events whose result is where I sit, and who I am, today, one prevails: I was born white.
And so from that rises the final irony, which paraphrases Geraldine Ferraro: if I weren’t a white man, I wouldn’t be in this position today. Change just one thing, make me black instead of white, and I have no idea where, or who, I would be. Maybe THAT is what white men fear.