“You Like Me!”
And so it was that when I reached graduate school and worked in the career services office at my university, smack in the heart of one of the country’s most notorious Black urban centers in North Philadelphia, I was tickled pigment-fluorescent pink when Gwen, a Black woman in the department who became my first African-American girlfriend, introduced me to her teenage cousin Kenny by saying, “Marty ain’t nuthin’ but a white nigga.”
Roz, another African-American woman in the career services department who was my supervisor, struck up more of a brother-and-sister relationship with me that proved to be an encore of my kindergarten friendship with Winnie. We’d talk for hours and sometimes go on weekend getaways together. One time, as we strolled along the New Jersey shore in the dead of winter, she told me about her childhood in South Carolina. Because her skin was so dark, she said, she was sometimes shunned by lighter-skinned Black kids. She said her mother told her she’d have a hard time finding a man because Black men always wanted to find mates who were lighter-skinned than them.
Roz became a loner as a child, as I had been. “I invented an imaginary friend I called Jabbo,” Roz said. “I would make up conversations with Jabbo and confide in him and tell him things I was feeling that I couldn’t tell anyone else.”
I felt privileged that she shared this story with me, and wondered how many others she’d revealed this painful part of her past to.
Roz invited me to join her and a couple of her Black women friends to a dance at a giant hall in Cinnaminson, New Jersey. We walked inside the expansive building and I found myself surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of Black people, with me, the little white speck in the sea. But surprisingly, I wasn’t all that uncomfortable, especially when I lined up in the long queue for food and drinks and no one said boo, gave me even a slight nudge, or made any threatening comments.
Where Have All My Black Friends Gone?
When I left graduate school and went out into the working world, I never experienced anything else like my time in North Philly. At best I’d have one, or tops, two Black co-workers or staff, and we always got along well.
During my years working as an ex-pat in the Swiss city of Basel, Black faces grew even scarcer. Although I did meet and become very good friends with a Black opera singer, a Julliard-trained bass-baritone named Kevin Short who’d performed multiple times at the Met. He told me he moved to Europe for a broader opportunity. “There are a number of cities in the U.S. where audiences just won’t accept seeing an interracial relationship acted out onstage,” he explained. My wife and I went with a friend to see him perform in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchmen at an opera house in Bern. In one scene, he basically simulated sex with a white diva under the spotlight. When the curtain closed the audience showed nothing but appreciation, rising for a standing ovation, as I recall.
When I was apprehended by police for walking down the street wearing baggy Michael Jordan gym pants and a hoody – a style the officers said was often worn by Eastern European criminals coming over the border to rob houses in Basel – Kevin basically said, “Welcome to the club.” He told me he got stopped all the time – at the train station and other public spaces – and asked what he was doing there if he knew where he was going, etc.
On Feb. 15, 2017, I returned to my home country and found it in horrible shape, particularly as far as race is concerned. White friends told me they were ashamed of their race, that they felt guilty about systemic racism, and that they felt obliged to personally do something about it.
Despite my Afrophilia, I’ve pushed back, resulting in some intense exchanges. I have done nothing in my lifetime, I’ve argued – nor, to my knowledge have any of my ancestors – to discriminate against or disadvantage Black people. Have I benefited from “white privilege”? Relatively speaking, yes. Having come from a family of meager means, I was less fortunate than many much wealthier white kids, and I’ve had my share of obstacles and setbacks to overcome to get where I am today. But I did NOT have my color working against me, making things that much harder.
Where do I stand on my own personal blame and recompense? And in my heart of hearts, what accountability do I feel falls on Black people themselves?
When I consider the latter question, especially in light of the all-too-common stereotypes of gun-toting Black teen gang members shooting up the streets and killing one another in cities like LA, Detroit, and Chicago, I find myself confronted by controversial and unpopular thoughts. I’m reminded of a quote I read recently in the obituary of Joe Clark, the ruthless disciplinarian African-American principal who brought order and excellence to the largely Black East Side High in Paterson, New Jersey. Samuel L. Jackson portrayed Clark in the 1989 biopic, “Lean on Me.”
According to his obituary, Clark, who died at 82 in December of 2020, said in a “60 Minutes” interview, “Because we were slaves does not mean that you’ve got to be hoodlums and thugs and knock people in the head and rob people and rape people. No, I cannot accept that. And I make no more alibis for Blacks. I simply say work hard for what you want.”
If it’s not an untenable proposition in this woke world of ours, I believe categorically that systemic racism is real and needs to be eradicated, and I believe what Joe Clark said, too.
My recent correspondence about race with a white woman friend and contemporary has revolved around the conundrum of these two seemingly conflicting points of view. “No one in my family ever talked about this” (race relations), she wrote. “You and I have already moved the needle just emailing back and forth.”
“I agree that you and I had no direct responsibility for systemic racism,” she conceded, “but that’s not an excuse to do nothing. Write something about this,” she hammered me. “Be a mentor to a Black child. You’re not going to change the world, but you will contribute to making things better. And if enough of us do that, things will change.”
That’s where we’ve left it, for now. I hope what I’ve written adds something meaningful to the conversation. I hope the conversation continues, and that it gets more open, and that people are less fearful of being punished for deviating from the restrictive woke narrative. It has its place. But so do other constructive points of view. Let’s air them.