Coming closely on the heels of a horrific year when African-Americans have suffered so disproportionately and visibly from the coronavirus, videotaped police murders, and declining life expectancy, according to the latest CDC report, Black History Month falls at a moment when systemic racism in the U.S. is impossible to deny. As a white Jewish boy who grew up in a redneck rural part of New Jersey in the early 1950s, a little before the civil rights movement and long preceding the awakening of the country’s Caucasian conscience, I’ve found myself spending the month revisiting my lifetime of relationships with Black people.
How, I’ve asked myself, can my country have wound up in this disgraceful place, especially after decades of apparent progress – at least in terms of Black success in sports, business, the media, and popular culture? And we’ve even had a two-term Black president and now a Black woman vice president! How can opportunities have remained so out of reach for so many Black people in fundamental aspects of American life, such as education, healthcare, housing, judicial equality, employment, and compensation? And what degree of accountability do my white peers, generally, and I, personally, bear for these inequities? What can we reasonably be expected to do to redress them?
Regardless of whatever discrimination, disrespect, or discomfort I’ve encountered in my life as a minority in a traditionally white Christian country, I’ve never taken a step in a Black person’s shoes and can’t claim to know what it’s like. I’ve learned a lot, albeit indirectly, from books, movies, and plays throughout the years, and from being a news junkie. But most of what I know about Black lives comes from my personal relationships, of which there have been too few. Those that stand out in my mind, though, have remained permanently etched there.
Winnie and Me
Consider my childhood friendship with Winfield Reed. At just under 5 years old, I entered kindergarten, spending part of the day away from home for the first time in my sheltered life as an introverted boy with no brothers or sisters. Suddenly my mornings on Monday through Friday began with a recitation of passages from the New Testament, followed by a mandatory class singalong to “Jesus Loves Me.” An acute feeling of being strangely and uncomfortably out of place hit me like a gust of icy wind. But the notion of the teacher doing anything to help cultivate an “inclusive” environment that made children like me feel safe, or free of perceived aggressions, whether they be macro or micro, was an unthinkable concept. Consequently, I suffered anxiety and alienation that I was able neither to understand nor articulate to my parents.
When recess came, I gravitated to Winfield, and he to me, like little versions of Forrest Gump and “Bubba” Buford Blue in the classic film – a couple of outcasts drawn to one another by their invisible bond of isolation from the crowd. Winnie and I would walk way out to the farthest reaches of the baseball field and play catch. Once he let me try on his glove, and I never forgot it. Ancient looking, it struck me as being from another era, maybe passed down from his grandfather, the tan leather inside darkened to a crisp and feeling course as dried snakeskin.
As a little kid who never knew a Black person, I remember thinking that the feeling of my hand in this mitt felt like the essence of Blackness.
I remember thinking I’d experienced something special, almost mystical, and I felt forever attached to Winnie. I don’t remember us talking much – just feeling quietly connected – and that was enough to link us for life in my mind.
Finding My Bad Self
I was never as close to another Black person until all the way into my twenties. But in between, I acquired an enduring taste for African-American style, swagger, athletic prowess, R&B, soul and funk music, and simply superior dancing ability. When Joe Billingsley, a super-cool African-American kid in my 6th-grade class spied me outside the gym before a school dance wearing my new pair of shiny black, pointy-toed loafers with a thin leather bow where the penny slot would normally be, he casually commented, “Those shoes are bad, man.” He had to explain that meant sharp, but once he did, I was so flattered I remember standing outside for a minute just to soak it in.
A couple of years later, When Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali on March 6, 1964, two days after upsetting Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world, I totally got it when he explained he didn’t want to carry around a “slave name” anymore.
Separate and Unequal
I looked around and saw a country that was supposed to be integrated, but that was actually divided into sections of Black and white. I could see it in the groupings of Black and white kids in the cafeteria and in the bleachers in school. I could see it in the clustering of Black communities and white communities in the towns around where we lived. I could see it on Saturday mornings when I watched Soul Train, where pretty much everybody was Black, and just too “bad” to even attempt to emulate, although more and more white kids tried, and have been trying ever since. Comedian George Carlin used to joke that when you sent a bunch of young white Irish dudes into prison to mingle with Black street guys, the white Irish guys came out walking and talking like the Black guys – not the other way around.
Reading Up On Race
Why is that? In a small book I discovered somewhere along the way with the curious title, “The White Negro,” Norman Mailer took a shot at explaining it, expressing certain views that have been echoed some six decades later by Ta-Nehisi Coates in “Between the World and Me.” The common concept has to do with the impact and ramifications on Black men of living life under the constant threat of repressive, racist physical aggression.
The Black man in America, Mailer wrote, faces the perpetual presence of impending death at the hands of powerful white authority beyond his control. This reality seeps into the psyche and can manifest in ways that appear, contrarian, distinctively out of step with the norm. “Indeed,” Mailer wrote, “if one is to be a man, almost any kind of unconventional action often takes disproportionate courage” (see Ali, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, Colin Kaepernick). “So it is no accident that the source of Hip is the Negro for he has been living in the margin between totalitarianism and democracy for two centuries.” Mailer was making the case that the advent of white Bohemians, Beatniks, and Hipsters of the late 1950s was a white version of the anti-establishment, rule-breaking, live-for-the-moment, free-form jazz aura of the American Black man. This marked the rise of what Mailer called “The White Negro.”
This idea resonated with me: Out of the desperation of enslavement, discrimination, inequity, and the high risk of untimely death, African-American evolution has spawned such distinctive and infectious arts and attributes as jazz, Black poetry, urban slang, funk, rap, and hip-hop, and, more generally, the style Mailer described in 1957 as “Hip.” Today we might simply call it “kool” with a k, “kickin,’” or “badass.”