Come with me on a decades-long journey, with the selected mileposts for this topic being observations and encounters involving race. Looking back, I see a parallel between my personal experiences, and the path that our nation is on.
That is the subject of today’s 15 minute episode.
I grew up for my first 15 years in a lily white neighborhood in suburban Philadelphia before the civil rights movement in the 60s. This was the Jim Crow era, but not a Jim Crow area, not the Jim Crow geography. My only contact with blacks, and it was not at all in depth, was with our weekly maid, Elsie Kiyah. She was hard working, kept to herself, and was known to be a Holy Roller, a Protestant movement, pun intended, known for dancing, shaking or other boisterous movements by church attendees who perceive themselves as being under the influence of the Holy Spirit. I also remember getting autographs from Wilt Chamberlain and Meadowlark Lemon, the one year that Chamberlain played for the Harlem Globetrotters. I remember them as being huge, polite, and fantastically talented. I did see that they were black, but that was not a distinguishing characteristic. I would be taught to see that later in my life.
In the Philly area at the time, I remember the, “Take a negro to lunch,” campaign on the radio. It sounded like a nice idea to this teen, but I was wondering why anyone was pushing the idea. At the same time, a conversation in the media and around town was, “Would you sell your home to a negro?” I thought that was a dumb question; why on earth not? I got around to asking my Dad that question, looking for reassurance that he was the person I thought him to be. I still remember exactly where the two of us were and what we were doing when he replied, “No. It would reduce the value of the other homes in the neighborhood.” That was the response from a well-educated, kind man. And not at all atypical for the times. But I wanted him to be different. And in many ways, my friends and I were no better. Racial stereotypes were often joked about. My casual, even dismissive, attitude toward minorities was, in retrospect, wrong and born of ignorance.
Years later, after I had moved to Colorado, my Mom, Stepfather, Chuck Warner, and I were in a restaurant in Denver where they had the 1959 Ingemar Johansson/Floyd Patterson heavyweight championship fight on the radio for all in the restaurant to hear. I had allowed myself to be charmed by the romantic image Johansson had built around himself; a handsome Swede, surrounded by fine things and beautiful women. And he did not seem to train all that hard, and certainly not in the usual sweaty gyms. To this 17-year-old, that was heady stuff. I started getting excited when it became clear that Johansson was going to win. My Stepdad told me to quiet down and cool it. Mom supported him, pointing out that the black wait staff would not react well to my enthusiasm. And right there was another lesson in race relations; the first one taught to me by my Dad, the second by my Stepdad. BTW, both of them had served in the segregated Army in WWII.
When I moved to Colorado in the middle of my Junior year in high school, I found myself in a much less well off community, and no blacks here either. When we would get a group of the lads crowded in a car and drive to Denver, sometimes the subject of the Five Points area would come up, with hushed speculations about how dangerous this black neighborhood was.
After flunking out of the University of Colorado, I went into the Army, where I had a rich variety of racial experiences. The first came early on when I listened to a group of 4 black soldiers singing. They had pulled a foot locker in between two bunk beds, with 2 of them sitting on the facing beds with the footlocker in between. They had a bottle of Thunderbird wine, and were singing a call and response song that I had never heard before, but I remember to this day.
One side: “What’s the word?”
Other side: “Thunderbird”
First side: What’s the price”
Second side: “Thirty twice.”
First side: “Who drinks the most?”
Second side: “Colored folks.”
Then soft, gentle laughter. And repetitions. Oh, the repetitions.
Flavored, high alcohol wine for 60 cents a bottle. And a warm and lasting memory for me.
Then some other lessons came along. My best friend after Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training was a fellow private, Bill Duvall. We liked the same things, had the same sense of humor, even went to the library together to try and digest Beowulf. And trust me, we were the only ones in the barracks who even knew where the library was. A few times, I was invited to hang out with his black friends. I was not really included, but no one was rude or impolite. I saw that his friends had a very different view of things like money than I had, and that Bill had, but Bill was happy to go along with the group in these instances. One day all of that changed. As with that conversation with my Dad, I still remember exactly where Bill and I were when he came up to me and said, “I can’t hang out with you any more. My friends think I am an Uncle Tom,” and he walked away to join his group. Years later, I found that Uncle Tom was a good guy, at least in the book. In the same barracks, a drafted NYC cop came up to me asking, “You’re just an N-word lover, aren’t you?” Not realizing that I was being insulted, I tried to come up with an honest answer. Parsing the question, realizing that N’s were blacks and I already kinda knew what love meant. I paused long enough to consider whether I actually loved my friend Bill, and came up with my gut reaction. “Yes,” I replied, “I am.” He walked away, and only later did I realize that I had accidentally stumped him.
In the Army on Okinawa, where I was off and on, mostly on, for 27 months, I had a good friend in the Signal Group HQ where I worked in the Adjutant’s Office. Jim, a black soldier who worked in an adjacent office, and I got along famously, but primarily in the office. We would occasionally talk about how very different the off duty habits for black and white soldiers were; my sense is that we both wanted more time with each other, but the cultural gap was too wide.
Many years later in my time earning an MBA from Harvard (yes after flunking out of CU), I came to know several accomplished blacks. One black student was in the very challenging JD/MBA combined degree program, with a goal of becoming a sports agent and attorney. With the disproportionate number of blacks succeeding in sports, I thought he would have an advantage there. Not an unfair one, just an advantage.
Some years later, when my wife and I wanted to adopt, we were put on a set of railroad tracks by God to adopt Sean, then a 10-year-old black youth in the nearby juvenile hall. That was another opportunity to see racial prejudice up close and personal. For example, as I had done with my older son, I stumped for Sean to help him find a job. When I contacted the GM, Luca Perry, of the grocery store we frequented, he said that he was always in the need of baggers, and to bring my son by. When I came by with Sean, eager to make the introduction, he turned away, saying there were no openings. Luca Perry. You bastard. Years later, I was visiting Sean in his black neighborhood in Oakland. I was driving toward his home when we both noticed the large number of black youths on the streets; he turned to me and said, “It’s okay, Dad. You’re with me.”
Sean was obviously in the system, and his Parole Officer, Fred, once said to me, “Sean is going to have trouble out there. He is even blacker than I am.” Some of his black jailers were livid that a white family was adopting him. They were challenged by another black officer who said, “No black family wants him, not even his own family. Do you want to adopt him?” The white teachers and social workers kept underestimating him, and had him in the slow classes in school. Every day, he would leave the common home room, and walk down the hall to the slow class, so he was growing up believing that he was stupid. But when I talked to him about football, a subject where he had a fact base, he could hold an intelligent conversation. At 10, Sean could not tell time. He did not know the days of the week. Or what a city or state was. Tell me that is not a clear example of racism.
Okay, Will, how do we make, continue to make, the needed progress? Let’s start by looking at the progress represented by just my story:
What’s the lesson here? Yes, we need laws, like the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery, and the Civil Rights legislation that abolished the egregious Jim Crow Laws. But, as with all of life, it is individuals, us, you and me, taking personal responsibility that makes the difference. All the difference. I see progress like this, and progress that dwarfs this, everywhere. Progress that is retarded, a carefully selected word, by both skinkeads and CRT/1619 Project pushers.
Where do you stand? What are you going to do? Remember, it does not matter where you stand if you don’t do anything. You can start by subscribing to these episodes, and encouraging others to subscribe with you.
As always, whatever you do, do it in love. Without love, anything we do is empty. 1 Corinthians 16:14
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Will Luden, coming to you from 7,200’ in Colorado Springs.