It is by Tobias Wolff, and is titled Heart of Whiteness
Wolff, who turned 69 in July, was born in Birmingham AL. His older brother Geoffrey was a friend of James Baldwin.
Like me, the two Wolffs were in Washington DC on August 28, 1963 for the March for Jobs and Freedom.
It is a superbly written - and searingly honest - piece, for example:
I lived in the South from the age of four through fourth grade, and in all that time I never played with a black child; never saw anything but white faces in my classrooms, in the hallways and playgrounds of my public schools, or in the neighborhoods where I lived; never ate in the same room with black people or—the clichés are true—used the same bathroom or drank from the same water fountain.I grew up in the North. I am about a year younger, although I was ahead of myself in school.
I knew a few blacks growing up, mainly our mades, Jesse the delivery guy from our local market. And a couple of people at school - running cross-country with Sam Shelton, playing intramural basketball with another guy named George, and Nancy Goode who played violin in the Orchestra. But like Wolff I did not really get to know Blacks until I served in the military, in my case the Marines, where one of my DIs, Corporal Bess, was black. Thus this paragraph also spoke to me:
When I joined the Army, at eighteen, I was trained by black drill instructors, marched and pulled K.P. and showered and bunked and jumped out of airplanes with black troops. If it hadn’t been for a black sergeant I served with in Vietnam, I doubt that my sorry ass would’ve gotten shipped home in one piece.If you decide now to go read Wolff, I will be satisfied, although I would ask you to return here and offer some reactions.
I have a few more words to offer.
I first encountered racial discrimination on a trip to Miami Beach over Christmas break 1956-57, when I saw segregated bathrooms.
Little Rock the following year was seared into my consciousness.
Like Wolff I read a fair amount of literature by Blacks, although the only book explicitly on race that I remember reading in high school Black Like Me, was written by a white man who colored his skin to experience what life was like for people of color.
Oh, before I enlisted in the Marines I had a bit more experience - after all, I participated in demonstrations in New York and then while in college at Haverford in Chester PA. And I had been one of only a few whites on the bus from the Bronx chapter of CORE heading to Washington, and at the March perhaps 20% of us were white.
Later when I lived in Park Slope in Brooklyn, there were four softball teams in the local male league that played in the local schoolyard - Italian, Irish, Puerto Rican, and Black. I was one of two whites on the Black team, because I also played pickup basketball with many of the same guys, who lived two blocks and a world apart from me - my then significant other and I lived in a house owned by an Italian couple (they were in the basement, we, Jewish on the 1st floor and another Italian couple on the 2nd). But our apartment had lots of furniture and books, and we both came from middle class families and had college educations. I remember our first basemen inviting me over for dinner, and their furniture was minimal, there were no books or records, and neither he nor his wife had graduated from high school.
Times, and life circumstances, change.
My nephew married a black woman he met in college.
Many of my fellow teachers, and most of the principals for whom I have worked were Black, both male and female.
I have taught classes where mine was the only White face in the room.
Even in an integrated school I have seen the disparate treatment given black male students in the hallways versus white female students.
While there are now Black faces in boardrooms and executive sweets and Governors' mansions, there is still disparate treatment.
As a white of a certain age, while I acknowledge things have improved, nevertheless I still see the searing damage of the racism that is still a part of our society.
I still hear the code words.
I still see the disparate treatment - in the legal system, in how too many stores react to dark skins coming in, on challenging the right of people to vote.
Ferguson does not surprise me.
Ferguson saddens me.
But this is not about me.
Read the Wolff.
When you have, you will see why I asked you to do so.
PS - Please note my new sig. I will write about that soon.