How Do We Talk about Race? By Starting

The first Black person I knew even remotely well was an elected official from Detroit. It was 1967. I was 19. He was 43. Nothing about our short relationship was coerced although one could argue that the huge age and power differential between us put me at a disadvantage. I didn’t feel that way. I felt like a tightrope walker crossing the Grand Canyon. I was that daring.

While our relationship was not coerced in any way, everything about it was secret, clandestine, taboo. We never went anywhere in public. Phone calls were brief and one way. He couldn’t call me. I could only call him. One night, when he called my parents’ home where I was living during the summer off from college, my father answered the phone. He dutifully took a message, telling me that Mr. Elected Official had called suggesting that I watch a certain program about the civil rights movement on TV. He was puzzled but didn’t pursue it. I told him Mr. Elected Official was someone I worked for in my job as a secretary temp and that we’d gotten into some political discussions. My dad shot me a look. That had better be the truth.

Mr. Elected Official never called my house again although he would tease me about showing up at the door for dinner.

Growing up, we were told never to use bad language, slang or slurs to refer to Black people. My dad had grown up in a mixed neighborhood, gone to school with Black children, long before anyone talked about segregation or desegregation. A school picture I have shows my dad as a boy with Black and White kids. You’d think it was from some Montessori School pledged to diversity. Instead, it was an elementary school in Lansing, Michigan, circa 1918-20. Later my dad played in dance hall bands with Black musicians although we never met any. And when his first Ben Franklin store hit the skids, he sold Muntz TV’s out of the trunk of his car in downtown Detroit. Colored folks, as he called them, would invite him in for dinner. He never expressed any concern, driving around Detroit’s central city with TV’s in his car. He was just Roy there, trying to make enough money to pay the mortgage.  It was just the late nights that got to him.

But don’t let that attitude pass for him or anyone thinking that it was okay for White girls to mix with Black men.  We lived in an all White suburb outside Detroit. Our family business was in Dearborn, another suburb notorious for its aggressive racial exclusion. There was not a single Black student in the schools I attended – elementary, junior high or high school. And though there must have been Black students at college, I don’t remember meeting or seeing any. So though my father’s upbringing might have been in a more integrated environment in working class Lansing, ours certainly wasn’t.

It might seem unbelievable that my first conversation with a Black person occurred at the age of 19 in an elevator at the State Capitol but it’s true. “You are one stone fox.” I fell for it.

The message from my growing up and the mores of the time were clear, if unspoken. A White women and a Black man in a romantic relationship was unthinkable. Beyond the pale, so to speak. It was the stuff of being disowned, erased from the family tree. It would be impossible to overstate what a big social taboo this was. The term “playing with fire?” It was invented for this situation.

In the end, it was okay because I didn’t love Mr. Elected Official and he didn’t love me. We had some regard for each other but it was a relationship going nowhere. No one meant it to go anywhere. It was an experience. It was a wild time in the world (1967, civil rights demonstrations, Detroit, riots) and for me as a person and that was all there was to it. When the summer was over, so were we.

It didn’t last forever, this strange intergenerational, interracial relationship, it didn’t need to. Instead it was a short, very intensive course on how the world works, along with segments on gentleness, racism, chauvinism, humor and bravado. It was also a set of lessons about the civil rights movement with regular explanations from an insider about issues and strategy, personalities and power. It was, as they say, a transformative life experience.

So that’s my starting point. When I was thinking about writing about race on my blog, I wondered about the starting point. Is the starting point now? Things going on right now in the world and my reaction to them? No, that’s not the starting point. We’re all products of what has happened before, what we’ve been told, what we’ve thought, what we’ve done and who we’ve known. So where is my own starting point, I asked myself.

My starting point was that summer of 1967 when I was 19.



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