The issue of Black and White is not just a simple black and white issue.
For the last six years I have worked closely with a woman named Laverne Duncan on the planning of the annual Black History Month celebration in our Expo Arts Center. Six years ago we wanted to have a presence and recognition of the celebration at First Fridays, so I reached out to Laverne to program the South Gallery of the building. During that first event, it was obvious that the celebration was bigger than that small space itself, so we decided to go big from that point on and utilize the entire building every February.
In our pre-planning sessions for this year, Laverne and I have discussed many issues of race relations, the history of slavery, and the African-American experience. I have also shared with Laverne my memories of growing up on the east side of Long Beach and what that was like at the time, and how things have changed, or not changed.
I grew up in a mostly White neighborhood. My birth and formative years were 1967-1979 and there was the national cultural carry over from the tumultuous 60s. My elementary school was around the corner and I walked there from Kindergarten through 6th grade. I clearly recall a kid named David being the only African-American in the school until 3rd or 4th grade. But then David disappeared from school shortly after getting into a fight with another kid in the class. I remember that playground brawl clearly. When David didn’t come back to school, I was confused but knew it was a bad thing he left.
When I got to junior high the school was mixed and kids were being bussed in from Central and the Westside of Long Beach. We also saw the influx of Cambodian and Persian kids. I remember one particular classmate in my social studies class named Stan. He gave me a copy of his school photo and I sincerely said “Great photo, Stan. You look like a Black professor.” The fact that I said “Black” professor came as second nature and didn’t think anything about it. It took me years to realize that there needn’t be any designation.
The same school introduced me to the brothers Keith and Kenneth who said they lived “on the other side of town.” We hung out, played sports, had classes together. We were very friendly, but it was the two of them that designated a line between us. As much as I tried, I couldn’t quite break through into their world and be accepted. The cultural divide was clear and ever present to me. It was if we walked on parallel planes but there was a thin wall of glass between us. We were all 13 in 1980, and we liked the same sports and other things of our age. I would wonder why we didn’t relate better. We were just different.
As far as all things Black and White, or Black vs. White, I had gone a long period of time with a mindset “well, that’s just the way it is I guess.” I felt those forces in the universe were much bigger than I could ever have any influence on.
Many years later I worked with a man named Christopher who helped put a few things into greater clarity when we talked about life issues. He would say things like “You mean Black people can’t like this or that? Or “You mean Black people don’t like going out to dinner?” Simply spelling it out for me helped to close that great divide and think in terms of a greater “us” or “we” and not just “me” and “mine.” My eyes were opened a bit more and what empathy I already had, had grown in volume.
Similarly to Laverne, my buddy, Duke, has allowed me to have open and direct conversations about race and race relations. Duke tells me “You don’t have to whisper when you ask me a question.” I have been fortunate to dig deeper into understanding Black culture and ask my many questions of him without fear or accusation. Again, this brought me more clarity and understanding but I keep it all subtle and to myself.
So, Laverne and I meet regularly and discuss history—people and places, and specific events. We have shared a lot and learned a lot together. She recently shared an old photo she just discovered of a minstrel show put on by Long Beach Parks & Recreation. That was hard to imagine the thought process behind that one. I had previously been really surprised with a history of the Klan and “designated” neighborhoods in our International and diverse city.
Over the course of time and as a student of history I have thought back to what we were taught early on in class: The Pilgrims came. There was a revolution. People in the south had slaves. Manifest Destiny sent us west. We fought the savages. There was gold rush and a Civil War.
I learned that there were “slaves” but when it’s just in passing in a chapter of a basic history book you don’t spend much time on the implications. That was then–a long time ago. I have since spent years pondering the fate of a people being hauled off from home, put in chains, loaded like cattle or cargo onto a ship, and after a disastrous voyage sold off into forced labor. Living conditions were shabby cabins and life was full of fear, the crack of the whip, lynching, and worse.
I won’t pretend to understand this experience of African-Americans both past and present. What I can share is this: Growing up as the only Jewish kid in the neighborhood, and just a handful of Jewish kids in my school, I experienced many incidences of back-handed and more often, direct Anti-Semitism while growing up. My 3rd grade teacher told me in front of the class that the Jews killed Jesus. I’ve heard the countless “Jews are cheap” stereotypes and jokes, and have heard how easily people use the phrase “Jewed them down” or “Don’t be such a Jew!” Since I was a child, I put in my time studying the Holocaust, the pogroms, great diaspora, learned the stories of Pharoah, Haman, and even Richard Wagner and Henry Ford. I do know about concentration camps, gas chambers, mass graves in the woods, Kristalnacht, and synagogue shootings. I carry my own sense of a dark, persecuted history and have a heightened sense of concern for the Jewish people. I certainly did my best to dodge the neo-Naziism throughout the aggressive punk rock scene.
Can you blame Black people for being resentful or constantly hurt with a history of chains, slavery, emancipation but not really being free? And at every turn there were forces stacked up against you—Jim Crow, segregation, restrictive housing covenants, being considered 3/5 a man, and the constant knocking down of successes (look up the burning of Black Wall Street in 1921), being profiled, or fear of being stopped while driving or on a walk?
I have had the good fortune to work closely with many of the African-American political and community leaders in our town and in spite of the many challenges there are fortunately many successes. I avoid any sense of condescension by comment of accolades but applaud all the good things.
Each February when I look into the faces of my fellow citizens, who are Black, and I see many stories being expressed. I see the history of a people. I see pride. I see the wear and tear of being fed up and tired of it all—a reminder of how things are still not as they should be. But I do see pride. I enjoy watching African-Americans pass each other on the street with a friendly nod or hello. It doesn’t bother me that I don’t always receive the same courtesy. I understand the bonding, the safety, and the acknowledgement of a shared experience in one small gesture.
In my daily life, I try to be friendly, courteous, and live and let live. But it’s still tenuous and worrisome. And stating the obvious, the thin veil or band-aid (or façade) that’s covered the issue for many years has been removed by the current political climate and by the ease and access/connection of the modern digital world. It’s hard to know sometimes what the etiquette should be. Ignore? Say hello? Try hard not to offend. Also, not try too hard to jump up and down like “Look at me, I’m nice! I’m on your side.”
Maneuvering in this current era of heightened sensitivity, paranoia, finger-pointing, distrust, aggressive hair triggers, side-eyes, and using kid gloves and walking on eggshells gets exhausting. It sometimes makes me want to disconnect and just hide out. But there is still hope. It’s not quite all bad like reported on the news.
I am enjoying partnering with Laverne in helping to create a legacy and the telling a complete story about an important segment of our community. The endgame is our hope to make some type of positive impact and message. Right or wrong, I purposely make my contribution from the wings or behind the curtain.
And ultimately, I hope that the dream does play out that we can live in a nation where people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Sign me up for that.