Protests and social unrest have broken out around the world in recent weeks, on account of the obscenity of Black and Brown people losing their lives to the actions of law enforcement. These events have prompted thoughtful White people to examine instances from their own experience that are elements of the problem of racial inequality.
It isn’t my intention here to suggest a cure that will eradicate this centuries-old dilemma. I do not have the answer. All I can do is testify to what has happened in my life that touches upon the conundrum we face.
My family lived in Florida when I was an adolescent. Some readers may not know that the Sunshine State isn’t considered a part of the “Old South” that formed the Confederate States of America. Therefore, social customs and practices seen in the states present in the sections where antebellum plantation culture existed weren’t as deeply rooted in Florida. Others are as common as what’s witnessed anywhere in the country.
My paternal grandparents lived near us; my brother and I spent considerable time with them, particularly during summer vacation.
One day I was with Grandpa when he decided to build a back yard tool shed. It wasn’t going to be anything fancy, just a structure of nailed-together particle board sheets, finished with a coat of whatever color paint was lying around the garage.
We had come close to completing the job when a city pickup truck glided to a stop beside the house. The driver, a Black man, walked to where we were standing.
“I’m afraid you can’t build that there.”
Grandpa lowered his hammer. “What do you mean?”
“Its against city code, sir. A shed that isn’t constructed to resist hurricane winds could blow away, damaging other structures and injuring or killing people.”
The two men didn’t argue, per se, but the tone of their exchange grew heated, to the point that the city worker threatened to call the police to ticket Grandpa if he refused to obey the law. After delivering a final warning to take down the shed, the worker returned to his truck and left. Grandpa threw down his tool.
“Goddamn N*****! He can’t tell me what to do on my property! N*****!”
He paced back and forth for some time, voicing profane complaints about the unjust situation that were punctuated with frequent repetitions of the N-word. Did I say anything to challenge my grandfather’s outbursts? I cannot recall having done so.
Some time passed before I realized the irony of what I witnessed that hot Florida afternoon. Simply put, Grandpa was angry because of a confrontation with a Black city worker who was tasked with enforcing a law that had been enacted by White politicians. The worker had no say in the matter.
Fast forward to my freshman year of college. I attended a small Methodist school whose student population was marked by a spectrum of ethnic and socioeconomic groups. I couldn’t honestly say that “some of my best friends were Black,” but I counted a few among my acquaintances.
My favorite class that year was choir. Besides giving me the opportunity to sing – something I’ve always enjoyed – choir was one of those subsets of college society wherein I made great friends.
Walt Disney World opened that year and the choir was invited to perform in Orlando as part of the theme park’s extensive inaugural festivities. I was excited to be taking part in this event and had a conversation about it with my dad. As we spoke I mentioned several people in the choir whom I’d previously “introduced” to Dad, one of whom was a young Black woman named Rosalind.
I can’t recall how the conversation pivoted to a discussion of college girls I liked. For some reason my father wondered aloud whether I intended to ask out Rosalind, something to which I hadn’t given a thought. Before I could come up with a reply Dad said he hoped I would not consider taking out “a Black woman,” as it would put me in a difficult situation.
As it turned out I never dated Rosalind but it had nothing to do with my dad’s warning. If I had dated her, would I have kept it from Dad?
At a certain point in my career I went in search of a new job. I was fortunate that someone whom I’d known for several years in business led me to a position in New York City that I would successfully occupy for a decade. I was an early “remote worker,” something for which I was grateful. It meant that I didn’t have to uproot my family to accept the new position, and that the number of trips I had to make to headquarters was limited.
The man that helped me get the job happened to be Black. A frequent visitor to the city over the course of many years, he was well acquainted with the pitfalls of being a person of color there.
He told me about an experience that he had any number of times in Manhattan. It had to do with hailing taxis. My friend often worked late in the office. This meant he had to take a taxi to whatever cross-town hotel where he was lodged during business trips. The problem was, even though he was a sharp-dresser, favoring three-piece suits, it wasn’t unusual for my Black friend’s hail to be ignored by multiple cabbies whose vehicles were available for hire. He would stand in the street, arm raised and shouting “Taxi!” only to see the cab zoom by.
Once again irony played a role in the story. You see, the overwhelming majority of New York City livery drivers are immigrants from places like Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Caribbean. And yet they chose not to pick up a Black American of native birth. My friend explained it was because they feared he would rob them.
Dear Reader, what do you think the moral of these stories? Have you any like them to share?