In 1963, I watched Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech live on television—the sole white person, boy of 19, among a dozen black cleaning ladies in Fayetteville, North Carolina—and you can believe those women were talking to the TV. Their shouts, their tears, their Amens & Hallelujahs, their curses, their laughter… inflamed by passions centuries in the making, I was sure. I felt witness to an ancient tribal ceremony. I’d been an altar boy in grammar school. I spent most of high school in a seminary. Solemn I knew. But what I had never known was a gathering so sacred.
I have had little association with African-Americans day-to-day, or people of any color for that matter. Yet African-Americans in particular have played a role in a number of events—more than I can recount here—that continue to shape who I am. That afternoon in the day room of a Fort Bragg officer’s quarters was one. Over the years those women have deepened my awareness of many things, rage and reverence among them. Go beyond awareness, they also call. Make choices.
I grew up outside a small village in the Finger Lakes of New York State. Until I entered the Army I’m not sure I ever met a black person. The next event I’m about to relate occurred when I was two months from my 12th birthday.
My dad had just bought a brand new Ford, frilled with chrome and budding fins. He could have driven home the Taj Mahal and I wouldn’t have been more impressed. I admired my dad. He played catch with me almost every day spring and summer. He took me to Yankee Stadium. He told me I could do anything. He was a Philadelphia butcher’s boy who had made himself a successful stock broker until the crash of ’29. Broke, he worked his way to Europe on a freighter where he spent the Depression living off his wits. On two occasions when he was past the age of 40, my father moved his family across the country even though he had no work waiting for him. His confidence has inspired me on many occasions. The first move, from Long Island to Phoenix, was intended to give my mother’s sinus condition a friendlier climate. The second, from Phoenix to the Finger Lakes, was to buy the farm he and my mom had always dreamed of owning. I was eight when we arrived in one of the most gorgeous but economically depressed counties of New York. There must have been some pretty frugal times, but I was not aware of them. When my father died 20 years later, my mother, a homemaker who lived another three decades, never knew a moment of financial insecurity.
After supper we take the maiden family cruise in the new ’mobile. At one point we stop at the red light in the center of town. As we sit there, quiet, proudly conspicuous (speaking for myself), a sensational brand new green and gold Dodge, the equal of our Ford in embellishments, illuminated by that rich Hollywood evening sun that happens only in September, passes before us on the crossing street, captivating our attention as if it were an ocean liner. Inside the car is a family just like ours: mom and dad and some kids. The family is black. As the Dodge disappears, from the stillness my father says, “I wonder where a nigger got the money to buy a car like that.”
In the echo of that remark my childhood began to end. I met my father as a man afraid, among all his other qualities. And for some reason I felt for the first time the harm inflicted on the whole of creation anytime we consider someone else as “the other.”
A smart and delightful woman of African-American lineage, with whom I was in love for a few years in my 20’s, is a big reason that, at 27, I became the oldest freshman Amherst College had ever admitted. She and I met at a Boston radio and TV station where we worked. She had recently graduated from Smith. She said why don’t you think about going to college? I said I’ve never enjoyed school. She said maybe you’ve never known a good one. So I took some trips, visited schools that reject just about everybody, and was so impressed that I began a year-long campaign to get admitted to one of them. I felt like Don Quixote. I said to my friend you know I graduated next-to-last in my high school class. She said, well it wasn’t because you were dumb. You’ve got something going on in there. For one thing, you’re about the least prejudiced white person I know.
As if the universe just couldn’t wait to square that remark, not long after it I’m walking down a busy Boston street in broad daylight and hear running footsteps slapping up the sidewalk behind me. I look over my shoulder and see a teenage boy ordinary to my eye in every respect but the darkness of his skin. Terror ignites my blood. The boy passed in and out of my vision in little more time than it takes to say so, but he has remained one of my teachers. If he’d been white, I’d have hardly noticed him. I was ashamed. More than 30 years later, that kid is still reminding me to be aware of ways in which fear of “the other” lives in me in any of its countless forms. Go beyond awareness, he also calls. Make choices.