They said, “Hey, little boy, you can’t go where the others go, ‘cause you don’t look like they do.”
— Bruce Hornsby & the Range
I had a conversation last week with someone who took it upon himself to point out some of my many flaws.
I listened patiently — well, for me — as this kind person, who was no doubt interested in helping me become a better human being, tried to explain the changes I needed to make in my life.
Near the end of his tira ... ummm, counseling session, the self-appointed guru of righteousness got around to what I believe was the key to his agenda: “You always feel that you have to take up for black people in your writing.”
I wasn’t surprised; I get that a lot. So I took a couple of minutes to share with this person some truths from my life. To wit:
I was raised in rural Georgia ... make that very rural Georgia. We got indoor plumbing in my house when I was 10 or so. Both of my parents were from poor and large families, and both left school at a young age to work for a living. And they were raised in a place, at a time and in homes that used the so-called “n-word” (and I hate that euphemism, but I know my boss would not print the word itself) with impunity.
As most kids do, my siblings and I picked up on usage of the denigrating term, not understanding until later in our lives that it was offensive and usually used to demean a collective race of people.
I stayed in school, frankly, because I wanted to play football and baseball. I did well in classes, but my goal had long been to turn 16, drop out and get out on my own. (School system officials: There, to me, is reason No. 1 high school athletics are so important. Forget all the state championships and rah-rah school spirit. I, for one, would not have finished high school if not for sports.)
It was while playing the games that I loved that I came to better understand the bitterness and hostility that existed between my black and white teammmates. Given the close-quarters living arrangements during weeklong football camps and the hours of time spent after school at practices, I engaged people who would become some of my dearest friends in discussions that helped me come to grips with our differences and, more telling, our similarities.
At some point, it dawned on me — and there was no a-ha moment, it was a gradual thing — that the difference between myself and the teammates and classmates that I struggled and learned with on the fields of athletic battle and in the classrooms was one of skin color. That was it.
Sure, we’d all come from different backgrounds, but our similarities far outnumbered our differences. I also discovered that, because I came from a background of struggle, I had more in common with the (mostly poorer) black students in my school than I did whites. I learned from them — and saw first-hand — the additional struggles that their blackness engendered in rural Georgia, but for the most part I discovered we’d endured many similar hardships.
And because of the education I got from my black friends, I quit looking at skin color as a determining factor in whether I befriended another person. I started, in the words of Martin Luther King that I didn’t understand at the time, judging people on the content of their character.
Flash forward to the present — through years that included opportunities to study with and learn from people of all nationalities and ethnic backgrounds — and I find myself even more appalled that people, in a somewhat enlightened age, would still consider themselves superior to others based on skin pigmentation. Sadly, I think I see more of it now — not as open, but usually in subtle ways — than I did back in the days when people dropped the n-word without consideration.
I believe most people in America, like me, relate more to stories of the underdog than they do the privileged. If, as has been suggested, I favor any “group” in my writing, it’s people who’ve had to struggle. And it generally doesn’t occur to me what color their skin is.
Sadly, for many who would complain about such things, the truth is not that they feel excluded. It’s that the concept of viewing people who are different as equals is foreign to them.
Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at firstname.lastname@example.org.