Life Stories

One of my favorite program on television is This Is Us. The series follows the lives and families of two parents, and their three children, in several different time frames. On any given episode, there may be several separate story lines running across these many time frames.

The series is really much like our lives in that there are always several different story lines progressing through our days, weeks, months and years.

Today, in the midst of coronaville, I was reminded of a story line from the late 60’s in my own life. The relevance of which I hope you will see.

Late 1966 was a tumultuous year for me in many ways—most of which I only vaguely remember. I was a senior in high school and was having a hard time figuring out my place in life and often felt like I was a stranger in my own body.

My home life was less than stellar and I was often at odds with my parents who often seemed lost and caught up in their own drama as well.

Fast forward to early winter 1967 and amidst the confusion I seemed trapped in, I quit school and hitchhiked to NYC with a friend. Really can’t remember what we thought we would find but the city was to be the beginning of a year long journey which found me flying to San Francisco, moving to Seattle and finally returning to NYC and flying to Europe. After floating around Amsterdam and Munich for several months, I ended up in Italy and worked my way back to America on a freighter.

The biggest mistake in my life was moving back into my parents house when I returned to the USA and that is really where today’s story begins.

Everything was really wonderful after I returned from Europe and for awhile it seemed like I was riding on top of the world. I went to night school and got my high school diploma and began classes at the local community college. By the middle of my freshman year, I had all the teachers convinced I was smart and ran for student government president and won. During my brief tenure, the student council brought both Ralph Nader and Dick Gregory in to town as featured guests and speakers. Dick Gregory was less a comedian than a human rights activist and health nut at the time. I spent several hours with him from the Detroit airport and back and it was enlightening.

One of the people on the student council was a very pretty black girl who was also in my sociology class. She was a feisty debater and it wasn’t long before I asked her out on a date. As I remember we went to a restaurant for dinner and then attended a movie afterward.

Now we are talking about Port Huron, Michigan, a city on the shores of Lake Huron and the St. Clair River. Growing up I don’t remember many people of “color” on either side of the tracks.

World traveler that I was, the stares and so forth didn’t seem to bother me as my date and I walked through the downtown area. The first part of my wake-up call came as we watched the movie. It must have been one of those beach pictures which were popular at the time. I firmly remember, abut 15 minutes into the movie, noticing that there were not any black people in the film and I began to feel uncomfortable at that and my choice of movies and my total lack of under standing that reality. I don’t believe that I had the words to express what I was feeling and about how uncomfortable she must have felt.

Anyway, we made it through the evening, I walked her back to the student housing and went home. It probably was really that simple.

Later that week, I asked her out again and she asked me to meet her at her apartment. She informed me that she would not be going on another date with me and when I asked her why, she pointed to another student housing building down the block where a few of her black friends were hanging out. If I go out with you again, she said, I risk losing my friendship with those people that you see over there—they don’t approve of me dating you. Another moment where words failed me.

It wasn’t until several years later (yes, I am that thick sometimes) that I began to understand what had really taken place on that day. I felt stupid that I had rushed head-long into something that was beyond my reach or comprehension.

But it was a lesson learned and it is probably to simple to say that it was an example of reverse discrimination.

In writing this I am not looking for a pat on the back or a racial diversity award. I have my filters and so does everyone else.

Several years ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine about being black and all that entailed. I can’t remember the entire conversation but what stuck with me was his response to me. He said that even though his skin color was different from mine that he wanted me to regard him as a brother and to not define him as black or treat him any differently from how I would treat anyone else. We are still friends after all these years and that is really all that matters. He is a musician, a father, a husband and friend and that is really what defines him to me.

After all, it is the unknown that we are really afraid of isn’t it. What we know and are familiar with, is not as scary as what we don’t.

While walking on the beach with my wife a week or so ago, the 1958 movie “South Pacific” came to mind. The sound track to the movie is one that I will remember my whole life. One tune in particular came to mind that day on the beach.

The plot centers on an American nurse stationed on a South Pacific island during World War II, who falls in love with a middle-aged expatriate French plantation owner but struggles to accept his mixed-race children. A secondary romance, between a U.S. Marine lieutenant and a young Tonkinese woman, explores his fears of the social consequences should he marry his Asian sweetheart. The issue of racial prejudice is candidly explored throughout the musical, most controversially in the lieutenant’s song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”.

[Verse 1]
You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught

[Verse 2]
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught

[Verse 3]
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught

And during this ride that we are on, I do hope we learn before it is to late.

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1 Response to Life Stories

  1. Larry says:

    I asked a black girl for a date in high school. She was shocked I asked. I was equally shocked she said yes. Not because of her color but her beauty. Friday afternoon, only hours before the date, a group of black guys surrounded and threatened me. No date.
    Racism, sexism and any other “ism’s” that darken humanity are all “refusing to know love”outside of the above mentioned familiarity.

    Good write.

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