I wrote some thoughts and experiences that shaped my beliefs concerning race. The intent is just to share a bit of me and how I grew up and how I processed racism.
I was born in 1960. When I was a kid growing up in Miami the 70s (insert y’all’s eye roll here) there were a lot of changes. The 60s seemed so mild compared to the 70s. As a 10 year old in 1970, I would listen to the adults because “kids were to be seen and not heard” so I eaves dropped. I observed a lot of my families’ discussions and interactions with one another and the world at an age where I was too embarrassed and insecure to ask too many questions.
There were the hippies or dirty hippies as the “establishment” would call them. I wanted to be them. Always smiling with flowers in their hair, I was too naive to understand they were probably tripping balls most of the time to notice how dirty they were. That was the “look”. They would wear huge bell bottoms that dragged the ground until the tears and frays and hem would follow behind them like a train on a formal gown. I wanted to like patchouli. Oh, and bare, blackened-soled feet were a must. I had the bell bottoms but I wasn’t allowed to be a hippy “with all their free love commie bullshit”.
We lived in segregated neighborhoods, as was the way it was then. I didn’t really pay attention to POC because there were so few where I grew up. Mostly I thought, when I was very young, some people just had really great tans. I mean, it was Miami! I always had tan lines. I would tan the tone of mahogany but the places my bathing suit covered could blind you in contrast. I thought everyone was like that when I was like 6. Then I saw a black person’s butt and did a double take. Like WHAT? You’re black everywhere? Mind blown.
The color of people never impressed me really, other than I always stayed as tan as I possibly could because I liked how I looked tanned. My relatives were all olive-complected Italians on my mother’s side. My dad’s side had a mix of Spanish and Cuban along with almost every super white background you can think: English, French, Irish. My bff lived across the street which was super convenient since I wasn’t allowed to go any where without my super strict family guiding the way. She was Jewish. We would share holidays. She liked my Christmas tree and I liked she got presents every day for a week during Chanukah. We are friends to this day. My neighborhood had mostly Jewish and Italian. It wasn’t white. There was definitely some ethnic diversity.
My fourth grade teacher was my first male teacher and my first black teacher: Mr. William Hart. He was one of the best teachers ever. Admittedly, I carried a healthy respect for POC because I was a little scared or perhaps, intimidated a better word. My family would use the “n” word if they were mad, otherwise they used the term colored or negro. I always associated Mr. Hart with Sidney Poitier (who I thought was so handsome, but would I wouldn’t have articulated that then. He was in a movie that made a big impression on me, more later). Mr. Hart gave me the gift of beautiful penmanship; seriously nice lettering here. Even won penmanship awards Yea. He did that.
He taught me to be punctual too. I know there’s a stereotype joke about POC and punctuality but as with every stereotype there are exceptions.
One day, well almost everyday, I arrived late to class. It wasn’t me. I swear. My mom and sis were like molasses in winter, but there were no excuses to Mr. Hart. I dumped my books into my desk and Mr. Hart pulled a desk inspection. Yes, he was an orderly, disciplined person that expected the same. My desk was not neat. I had just literally flung papers and books into my desk and was sitting at attention as expected. Teachers administered discipline back then and although it may seem out of line today, he took my desk and pushed it clean out the back door on a very windy spring day. I chased papers all over that courtyard. I was never late again. Like ever. Like it’s been 50 years since I’ve been late for anything except my period and that only happened twice, both planned events, in case you’re wondering.
He taught us a song that debuted in 1968 called Everyday People by Sly and the Family Stone: “Sometimes I’m right then I can be wrong. My own beliefs are in my song. A butcher, a banker, a drummer and then makes no difference what group I’m in. I am everyday people. . .There is a blue one who can’t accept the green one for living with the black ones trying to be a skinny one. Different strokes for different folks. . .we got to live together. I am no better and neither are you. We’re all the same whatever we do. You love me you hate me you know me and then, still can’t figure out the bag I’m in. I am everyday people. . .”
I trusted Mr. Hart (his name so appropriate for the kind man he was) and so I learned from him. We are everyday people. I really believed this and did my best to share this revelation to my family. But no, we need to stay with our own. “A mixed couple well, that wouldn’t be right. I mean it would be their children that would suffer.” How would they suffer? “Well they wouldn’t be black or white. They wouldn’t belong to either.” Huh?
So back to Sydney Poitier. A Patch Of Blue, staring the tall, dark and handsome Sidney Poitier in the story of a very white young lady that falls in love with a very black man, but she’s blind and only knows his kindness. He teaches her how to be more independent from her horrible loud mother and her disgusting alcoholic rageful father. Poitier and the blind lady would meet and he would show her how to use a pay phone and how many steps it took from her doorstep to reach the park.
Of course the saddest part of this story was the unrequited love. The movie came out in 1965. They couldn’t be together. I remember feeling really sad for Sidney Poitier and the blind chick because I knew they loved each. Like their hearts were one. I felt really bad for her…what did “black” even mean to her?
To further confuse me, we had a black maid, Frances. We all loved her. At least I thought we did. I did. My sister did. Frances invited me to her house for dinner one day. I was sooo excited. I mean, what kind of food did she eat? We ate eggplant and pasta fagiole or Cuban black beans and plantains and Entennmens for dessert . I excitedly told my mother. With a very serious look on her face she said, “now, you know you can’t go over there.” But I hadn’t known— until just then. And that’s because of her skin?
So mid 70s, busing starts. There’s a school shooting. Desegregation. Racial tensions super off the charts. Vietnam war was winding down but soldiers were not being welcomed back. I learned so many horrible things in the 70s. It was the first time I understood what war was and was horrified to think people were off killing one another. It was the first time I really put together that for some reason black people were great and all, but only if we each stayed with our own kind. Then as the 70s made way for the 80s, violent rioting erupted.
My dad, a firefighter and paramedic had riot gear. The fire station was armed with rifles. I was so afraid for him. Fire burning both sides of the streets. Businesses burnt to the ground. People murdered while still in their cars stuck in traffic jams.
Arthur McDuffe, was a black salesman and former Marine who died from injuries sustained as four officers tried to arrest him after a high speed chase. Those cops were tried and acquitted for “manslaughter and evidence tampering, among other charges”. Days of rioting, fires, snipers, resulting in 350 injuries, 600 arrests and 18 deaths.
The county paid the McDuffe family a settlement of $1.1 million in a civil suit.
And now here we are 40 years later—2020. And sadly, what has changed?
You do realize, yes, you over there…YOU came into this world without any say or control in how your chromosomes came together. You didn’t pick out your eye color or your skin tone. You didn’t get to choose if you would be born with all your limbs or if you would have sight. You didn’t choose poor or wealthy families. You didn’t get to choose if you would be prone to cancer. You didn’t decide to be intelligent. Nor did you decide to have mental or physical limitations. You didn’t get to choose if you were pretty or handsome or even, as you grow older, if you get to keep your hair. You couldn’t even pick the place you were born. But you can choose to be a loving individual that respects and nurtures one another and stands up for what is right. You know why?
Because you are just everyday people too.