Sunday, February 27, 2005

Black History Month Musings

[By the way, there are typos and grammar mistakes in this entry.  But it's so hard to fix them on a MAC that you'll just have to do it yourself.  UPDATE:  I got to a PC, changed the font and fixed some of the spelling and grammar stuff. Hope things are more readable.]

The month is almost over, so I'd better hurry up.

PBS has been running some wonderful documentaries about the enormous contributions of black culture to our country.  The Globetrotters. The Jazz greats. Jack Johnson, etc.  It's staggering how much of their unique and remarkable history has been left out of our book of general knowledge.

Every year around this time I also realize that I have never been close friends with anyone who wasn't a member of the white race. Just writing that fact is embarrassing to me.

I discovered how racist I was about diversifying my friends, when I met a very interesting woman upon whom I decided to bestow my friendship.   She was smart, funny, and accomplished.  And I remember thinking, hey, this is great.  She's African-American!! Maybe she can be my very first black friend.  It NEVER occurred to me that she wouldn't want to be friends with ME.  Why wouldn't she?  I'm white.  How wonderful for HER!!

In my arrogance I just assumed she was waiting for someone like me to extend a coveted invitation.  But it turns out she didn't think that much of me. What?  You mean black people aren't sitting by the phone hoping I'm going to call?  What a shock!  Really, I had no clue.

This month I also wanted to write about Providence St. Mel High School -- The Hard Work High School -- on Chicago's West Side. Their principal, Paul Adams, kept the school open in 1978 by sheer force of will after the Archdiocese shut it down. I had the opportunity to write a fundraising ad for them in the eighties which raised $150,000.  They have been so successful that Oprah gave them a million dollars a few years ago. Other foundations have contributed over three million dollars to their continued growth.

The high school is located in a predominantly African-American neighborhood and sends over 90 percent of its graduates [100% in recent years]to college. They have a creed which the students recite before the start of school each day.  Every morning the entire student body, which now starts with first grade, recites it as their daily mission. Here it is:

At Providence-St. Mel, we believe.

We believe in the creation of inspired lives produced by the miracle of hard work.

We are not frightened by the challenges of reality, but believe that we can change our conception of this world and our place within it.

So we work, plan, build and dream - in that order.

We believe that one must earn the right to dream. Our talent, discipline and integrity will be our contribution to a new world.

Because we believe that we can take this place, this time and this people and make a better place, a better time and a better people.

With God's help we will either find a way or make one!

I heard their mission recited by the whole student body when President Reagan came to visit and got goosebumps. 

A couple of years ago I was bothered by what I considered a lack of respect for the Martin Luther King Holiday by schools and businesses in white areas.  The day was simply ignored.  Like it didn't exist. I contacted a radio personality friend about it and they talked about the issue on her show.  

It turns out that Providence St-Mel stays open on the Martin Luther King holiday, so they can spend an entire day studying about his life and work. When I heard this, I thought that was a much more novel and creative approach to the day.  But I also know that the white kids who are also in school that day aren't studying Dr. King.  And that's a shame.

Then Ossie Davis died.  I considered writing about meeting him and his wife, Ruby Dee, one summer many years ago, when they starred in Purlie Victorious at the old Edgewater Hotel Playhouse in Chicago.  I was working backstage as an apprentice between my freshman and sophomore years in college.  Ossie Davis wrote the play, which went on to become the musical, Purlie. He and his wife were so elegant and dignified. And I noticed that they were always together. They entered and left a room as gracefully as royalty and treated everyone with kindness.  Godfrey Cambridge, the late great comedian, was also in the show.  And he would regale all of us during the afternoon with hours of standup. They all left quite an impression for their professionalism and good nature. So I was sad to read that Ossie had died.

One of the nicest things I learned this month came from one of my daughters.  We lived next door to another single mom and her son when my kids were small. The back doors of our houses were directly across from each other. The mom was a red-headed white woman and her son was a handsome black boy.  We all became good friends for the two years we lived next to each other. My daughter also had mixed race friends from school and camp whose parents were white.  She told me that when she was young, she thought the race of your children was just the luck of the draw.  You never knew whether they would be black or white.  I loved the innocence of her logic. Too bad there weren't any black parents with white kids to help reinforce it.

Oddly, at the same time, she knew that all Asian kids with caucasian parents were adopted.

In one of life's interesting ironies, when my older daughter was born, she came out looking like a Japanese doll. As an adult she still looks like she's a member of a minority.

Her blond, blue-eyed father and I, her freckle-faced, auburn-haired [back then] hazel-eyed mother gave birth to a black-haired, black-eyed first daughter with olive skin and Asian features. When she wears her hair straight she looks Eurasian.  When she wears it curly people think she's of black or hispanic origin.  When she lived in Hawaii, even natives thought she was Hawaiian.

When she was in high school I was with her when someone came up and asked what her country of origin was, as if she were my adopted child.  This happened more than once. She usually says she's American.  And they'll say, no really, what country?  And she'll say Ireland, since she's half Scots/Irish, half English/Welsh. Needless to say this doesn't compute. And they walk away, still puzzled. Now, as a teacher in a predominantly latino high school, her multi-racial features help her fit into their culture easily.

Before her recent engagement, her boyfriend was a Harry Belafonte handsome, green-eyed police officer. When they broke up all I could think was -- too bad, I could have had some really beautiful grandchildren. Not that I don't think white kids are cute, too.

Even though my parents tried to instill the "everybody is as good as everybody else" mantra into me as I grew up.  Even though my mother set an example by paying our housekeeper's social security way back in the fifties and sixties before it was PC. And even though she made sure we addressed any adult person, black or white, as Mr. or Mrs., not by their first names, these superficial gestures could not stop the undercurrent of racial stereotyping and slurs that permeated life in my mostly white community.  

But time after time, that subtext of condescension was belied by reality. So often, the most popular, talented kids were African-American. Wait a minute, aren't they supposed to be not quite as good as well, you know, US? In fact, the young black boy who used to live next door grew up and excelled in everything at his predominantly [90 percent] white high school. He went on to graduate from Stanford.  The most popular, charismatic counselors at my daughters' camp were black. The most beautiful girl in my grade school was black. The funniest. The most creative. The best. The greatest.

It has taken this country a long time, but the cream is finally having a chance to rise to the top.      


swmpgrly said...

I love your daughters way of thinking. wouldnt it be a wonderful way to end racial prejudices.

artloner said...

I've watched a two-part thingy on ETV re: slavery in the americas...and learned a lot.  I've dated a person oustide my race recently, and I never knew...the looks, the comments...hopefully we are on the way out from all of that.
Glad you mentioned BHM.
Love ya' bebe'
:) *andi

robbush6 said...

I grew up and still live in a small town in what most would consider a rural area in the midwest. It is blessed with a university parked in the middle of defunct coal mines. With it came cultural and racial diversity I otherwise would not have known. My friends were black and white and Asian. I thought everyone's were.

tdain2003 said...

Mrs. L
This is a wonderful entry!  
Thank you.