I indicated a week or so ago that there was so much going on in the news that sometimes a thought for the weekly column is replaced once or twice or more times before a final one is moored to. Sometimes, like this week, a column already written is put aside. It was the mini-debate by the Democrats about busing that did it.
I heard two touching stories, the second the day after the first. The first was Senator Harris’ emotional memoir about integrating by a bus her second-grade class. The next day on NPR a young adult told the story about how his father popped up from the pew at the end of services and announced to all that his son was going to integrate the local high school in a few weeks. He had not yet told his son.
I myself was of middle and high school age in the ’60s. I went to school with black youngsters most of whom walked to school. They were a distinct minority but on the surface, they melded well into the fabric of us others. I watched on television as Gov. George Wallace played Katie Bar the Door with Federal troops at the University of Georgia. I heard stories from my brother, a television journalist, about the north Florida swimming pool contaminated with acid so no one could swim in it and how his courageous cameraman raised up in the air his multi-thousand dollar piece of equipment to block the billy-stick blow from a Birmingham cop aimed squarely for my bother’s skull. On a bus trip to Mississippi spurred by the love bug, I saw with my own eyes “colored only” signs over bathrooms, water fountains, and food counters.
It wasn’t, however, until I was Deputy Director of an anti-poverty agency in Stamford, Ct. that I heard the other perspective. I was the only white administrator in an agency whose service population was 90% black and whose staff was 98% black. I was working on the other side of the mirror. I learned that it mattered to many blacks what color black one was. I learned many treated black immigrants not much different than they were treated by white service workers. But it was a spontaneous conversation with a mid-twenty something black man, recently married with one child that turned into an encyclopedic lesson.
We were both lunching at our desks. We were both well dressed, both college-educated, both in the same family situation and both well-spoken. Paint one of us the other’s color and we’d be likely have been close friends. We had a nice relationship but there was what was called then “the five o’clock shadow” when white and black co-workers went back to their own worlds at the end of the day to re-emerge freshly shaven at 9 a.m.
We were talking about looking for houses for what would be growing families and what we would want to provide for our children that would be different from what our parents’ provided for us. The conversation was pretty general until I decided to ask him point blank, “If you could live anywhere you wanted, where would you choose.” His answer stunned me. “In Scarsdale but a Scarsdale that was almost all black. Scarsdale was then, and may still be, “the place to live” in the 50’s through the 80’s. Large houses on large lots, good schools, manicured lawns with immigrant gardeners, and country-clubs galore.
We were joined by a fellow colleague who had pulled himself up out of the street, given up drugs thought he still on occasion would have a scotch and milk (yuck!”), and had taken to the songs of Malcolm X and ultimately converted to becoming a Muslim, known then as Black Muslims. I liked him a lot, great sense of humor, unique ability to see the world as it was and tell it as it is without being threatening or hostile. That was verbally. There was talk that he was also aligned with the Black Panthers and on some nights, in other Connecticut cities, he had traded in shooting up for shooting at.
Michael’s additions to the conversation were a) he was an urban person–no Scarsdale for him, no matter who lived them and b) no busing for his kids. Well, I too was an urban kid. I “dug that” as we said. But rejecting the chance for his children to get on a bus and end up spending the day at a better school? That I didn’t get. His explanation was short and bittersweet. “I don’t want my kids to roll out of bed an hour or more earlier than other kids, get on a bus, and spend up to an hour looking out the bus windows like the kids on the Toonerville Trolly at houses in neighborhoods where they will never be allowed to live.” I was speechless.
It was as profound a lesson as the second one I received that same year. I was driving to work and noticed I was passing one of the most interesting men with whom I worked. He dressed in fatigues and combat boots and wore a scraggly beard. He played the guitar and wrote poetry. He read copiously. Again, as we used to say, “He was deep, man.” So I honked and waved. I got nothing in return. When I saw him at work I asked him if he hadn’t seen or heard me as I went by. His response: “Both man. But neither got me to work any faster.” Then it hit me. “Why didn’t I think to pull over and give him a ride to work? And if we followed the same route every day why didn’t I offer to take him to work every day? The answer was depressingly simple. I had not been raised to think that way. I had been raised to be cordial, to be friendly, but to stay on my side of the divide. Working for civil rights, as my mother did, was one thing. Mixing with the people whose rights you were fighting for? ‘never a thought in mom’s mind. My dad was different. He treated many black patients in his office, but I never saw that. Once he got home he was on mom’s turf.
I’m not sure how many white people my age have had my experiences on the other side of the line. Mine number many more than those described. I”m not sure other than the fact that Federal busing was doable, that it was the right thing to do. Just last week in Palm Beach County where I live, a black school board member asked the school board chairman to go out to “the Glades” the agricultural and most poverty-ridden area of the county. She said that Pahokee HS needed looking at. He went. He was shocked. He immediately was galvanized into action at the board level and the county commissioners level. Hooray for him. But you know he’s lived in this country a lot of years. He’s heard over and over again about the disparity between the structural and education differences between the county’s “coastal” schools and “western” schools. Yet he was shocked.
No matter what you thought of the last debate and if Biden is up or down in your mind, most people don’t know enough about this issue to know there was truth in his defensive reaction. It would have been harder and probably caused riots and such, but what this country should have done at that point in history, is to have dealt with red-lining, to have aggressively fought to make “oh I’m sorry it’s just been rented” illegal, to stop making poor folks’ “affordable housing” 18 story warehouses bound to breed trouble, instead of spreading affordable housing amongst all of us. And we should have made equal opportunity education the fact of the land, not the goal of the land–at least from my perspective.
Sometimes one has seen the end before the beginning. Such is the case in this short memoir by Bill Gralnick about bussing vs well, so many other possibilities. Similar stories along with a mix of others can be found on his website: http://www.atleastfrommyperspective.net
And keep an eye out. In a few weeks his new book, “The War of the Itchy Balls and Other Notes From Brooklyn” will magically appear on Amazon in paperback and E-book form. It’s a charming, sometimes downright funny coming of age story set in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, NY.
As Bill says, “Read! It’s good for both of us.”