Because of current events, I’ve been thinking of writing something related to the issue of race. I’ve had a broad array of ideas in mind, but writing is always discovery and this turned out to be simply a personal reflection on a few of the black people I’ve known in my life.
I grew up mostly in a suburb north of Seattle, Washington that was approximately ninety-nine percent Caucasian, so my experience with non-whites was limited.
I started playing guitar at age eight, and by eleven or twelve was already trying to play with others. I think it was in sixth grade that I got together with two friends, Dell and Greg, who played bass and tambourine respectively (yeah, bands had tambourine players in those days), and, we were lucky enough to have another friend, Ron, who played drums.
Ron and his sister Shirley were, as I recall, the only black kids in Moorlands Elementary in the Bothell-Kenmore area north of Seattle. (I’ll be using the word, “black” instead of “African American,” mainly because it’s easier to type.)
As an elementary school kid from a white suburb, I knew very little about black people. I certainly wasn’t afraid of them; nor did I feel superior to them (at least consciously). My parents were from upstate New York and were descended from white Europeans. But I think I was lucky in that, if either of them had any doubts about my befriending a black boy, they were good at keeping it a secret. I’m almost certain that, though they’d also interfaced little with “colored folks,” they certainly admired Lincoln and his decision to end slavery, and basically thought all people should be judged on the “content of their characters; not the color of their skin.”
I spent a fair amount of time at Ron’s house, and he became one of my best friends. In my youthful innocence, I did notice a few things about him and his family when I was there that was new to me. One was that they smelled a bit different from anyone I’d met before. It was not a bad smell…a bit earthy, perhaps, but it was noticeable in close proximity. I also saw that his sister had to use a special hair-straightening iron on her hair, which is something obviously all people of African descent must do if they want straight hair. Of course, many black women now opt for their natural tight curly hair, which, personally I think can also look nice.
Besides these innocent observations, a real feeling I got when I was at Ron’s house was that he and his family were cool. Ron’s dad was a professional saxophone player (I suppose in some jazz combo), and drove a a Cadillac Coupe de Ville. They had a Hammon B3 organ in their front room that I got to play a bit, and Ron was allowed to practice his drum set. I can’t recall if they had an amp that I could plug my guitar into, but my guess is they probably did (or did I manage to plug it into the back of the B3?). Neither of my parents were musical, and my dad was into manufacturing. They both liked music, but were squares in comparison to Ron and his family.
All my friends started smoking pot in seventh grade, including Ron. Our hormones were really ramping up, so we spent a lot of time talking about how sexy we thought some of the girls in school were. We were already beginning to enjoy more popularity since we were musicians and had a band.
Unfortunately, for some reason Ron’s parents decided to move out of the area…and I think it may have been to as far away as Florida. So that basically ended our friendship. I do have a recollection that his family came back for a short visit a few years later, and that Ron had changed quite a bit…he had become more streetwise and I think had gotten more into drugs. He didn’t seem to be quite the innocent young guy I’d known.
So, that was my first experience knowing a black person and his family. Looking back on it, I did of course notice that he and his family were black, and they were a little different (in mostly positive ways), but I had zero negative feelings about them. In fact, I think this early experience left me with a feeling that, if anything, black people seemed cooler, more soulful and more down to earth than a lot of white people.
And here’s a funny example of this conclusion. When I was in high school, I took a couple of night school classes that were offered in the evening in the Inglemoor High classrooms. One was all about how to become a masterful speller, and the other was on “creative writing.” I put that in quotation marks, because, at that age I had no idea what it actually meant.
On the first day of the class, the instructor introduced herself as a professional writer of sorts and asked those in attendance (about twelve people, some of whom were adults from the community), to just write something for ten minutes, so she could get an idea of our ability. I had no idea what to write, so I just thought of the phrase, “creative writing.” “Creative,” to me, meant something “new, bold or unusual.” So, here’s approximately what I wrote:
“I think black people are better than white people. [Certainly this was a new, bold and attention getting idea!] The reason I think this, is, 1) They have better rhythm than white people. They are better musicians and better dancers, for example. 2) They are more down to earth and less square than white people. They are not afraid to laugh out loud and to show affection. 3) Their food is more flavorful than a lot of the food white people eat.”
I’ll never forget, the instructor’s reaction. After collecting what everyone had written, she started reading each aloud to the class. I quickly learned that “creative writing” meant to write some flowery words describing some scene such that you can picture it in your mind. Or something like that. One of the adult men had, indeed, written a few paragraphs depicting his experience sneaking up on an enemy encampment in Vietnam…you could see the sentries in their bamboo towers as they hid in the underbrush. He wrote very well and it was quite moving.
Finally, she got to my submission and started reading it aloud: “I think black people are better than white people….” A few words later she stopped and said something like, “No, no…this seems to be some sort of essay….” I can’t recall exactly what she said, but she was obviously aghast at what I’d written, 1) because it *was* more of an essay that some flowery prose, and 2) because my “creative” idea was (for that time and place), completely shocking and “inappropriate.” That was my first and last time to attend that class.
Those of you who know me may not be too surprised by this story, as I do things sometimes for shock value, or to be irreverent or unconventional or play devil’s advocate, etc. I’ll let you find your own moral to the story.
When I was an ESL (English as a Second Language), teacher in Tokyo, and later in Bangkok, there were a couple of times when I tried to teach students about “bad words” in English. Every language has words that you should learn about, 1) so you know them if they’re ever directed at you, and 2) when they can and can’t be used. And, as far as I know, all languages have varying degrees of these bad words. For example, in English the word, “crap” is comparatively mild, whereas the word, “cunt” is usually considered extremely rude and/or explosive.
The “N-word” in English is usually considered extremely rude, and is almost distinct in it’s potential to end a person’s career and relationships. While most Americans understand clearly that it is never to be uttered (if you consider yourself at all sensitive), it’s also interesting to note that blacks are allowed to use it amongst themselves. (All you need to do is listen to some classic rap songs to hear this.)
A kind of exception to this rule (that only blacks are allowed to say it), just popped into my mind. When I was at Whitman College in the 1970s, I was a member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity. As you might imagine, membership was almost exclusively young white men. I’m almost certain this near racial exclusivity was not by design, but simply the result of the fact that there were very few blacks in the student body.
But in Whitman’s Gamma Zeta chapter, while I was there, there was an exception. His name was Evan, and he was the son of a successful black Seattle politician. If there was any racism against him from any of the frat brothers, I was unaware of it. To the contrary, my only memories of him, and all social events that included him, are that he was bright, very sociable, funny and basically loved by all who knew him.
As a guitar player, I had a band in college that consisted of an independent (non frat), student named Craig on keys, a “townie” (guy from the town of Walla Walla), on drums, and a very good bassist named Rob from the San Francisco Bay Area, who was a Beta brother.
Rob and Evan were incredibly tight friends. Being young frat guys, we had some outrageous parties, almost all of which involved consuming impressive amounts of alcohol. One game involved having a couple guys hold you by your feet, then putting your mouth over the tap of a keg while someone opens it, and you try to drink as much and as fast as possible. (I’m sure I’m remembering it wrong, but yes, it was completely nuts, and fairly dangerous, to boot.)
On one of these occasions I remember it being Evan’s turn under the keg. As some guys dangled him by his legs, Rob stood by his side yelling, “Drink, nigger, drink!.” There was not an iota of meanness in it. Apparently, they were so close that Rob was allowed to say it. It was, to the contrary, endearing.
So, there may be a few special cases. But the overwhelming majority of the time, the N-word can not be spoken by whites, and to do so will almost always produce a highly emotional and negative reaction.
After quitting Whitman College in my senior year (long story; I did finish my English degree later at the University of Washington), I spent seven years as a musician in and around Seattle. During the first four of these years I couldn’t make enough to live on from music only, so worked side jobs. One of these was running a short order grill in an electronic game arcade called Bogey’s on Sand Point in Seattle. It was across the street from what had been the Naval Air Station on Lake Washington, and there were still a few military types who lived and worked there. One such was a large black man named Daryl, who came in frequently to play pinball or Space Invaders and have a beer or two. As a naval seaman, I think he originated from one of the southern or eastern states. We became friends and I found out he also played guitar.
I was living at the time in a large house across the street from Bothell High School with three other people. One great thing about it was the big basement room which I commandeered, with a big bed and room for a band to practice. So, I invited Daryl to come over one time so we could knock it around on guitars.
On one of these occasions, we were sitting at the little kitchen table upstairs together when the phone rang. It was the keyboard player in the band I was currently in, and when I heard his voice, I greeted him with an expression he often used: “Hey, you big nigger, how’s it going?”
There are not many things I’d take back in my life, but that was one of them. I immediately realized my stupidity and extreme rudeness and apologized to Daryl. I think he replied, “You’re just a dirty white boy anyway.” He was obviously very hurt, but it was also obvious that he’d encountered racism at other times in his life, and had some of the calluses needed to deflect it. I don’t remember what happened after that. He was just a guy I’d met at the arcade job, which I wasn’t at that long anyway. But like I said, it’s one of the few things in my life that I really regret. And I guess it taught me a lesson about myself: Racism can be carried out even by people who would never dream that they are helping to perpetuate it.
I’ve had many more thoughts on the subject, which have been triggered by the current Black Lives Matter protests. Not sure if I’ll write more about them, but perhaps. Until then, I guess the above reflection outlines my basic feelings. We’re all born pretty much the same. Our life experience can work to send us off on different tangents. But underneath, the sameness remains.