Environment: Making it better wherever you are
In Between Black and White
Standing in line on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, California some years back, to see a Spike Lee film, I overheard the conversation of two young black men in front of me.
“Nobody knows what it’s like to be a black man in America.”
As his friend surveyed the crowd, he responded, “Yeah, I know, these people here have no idea.”
I reached up and tapped one on his shoulder. He turned around as I said, “I do. I know what it’s like to be a black man in America.”
If only I could describe the shock on their faces as they looked at me, a forty-something white woman with red hair, standing there, without a trace of fear, ready to explain my outrageous assertion.
I went on to tell them how I had been married for over twenty-five years to a black man in America. I saw his struggle. I felt his pain. I knew the searing sting of racism burned even deeper for him because he had made a choice to marry a white woman, adding to the burden he already had to carry as a black man in America.
I related how we had been pulled over numerous times by police officers who would lean in the driver’s window, looking past my black husband to ask me if I was okay. And then I told them about the job that my husband had lost as a fireman, his childhood dream job that he had finally landed, and how the white fire chief happened to be standing in front of the station one day when I dropped off my husband’s lunch. In less than a week, that dream job was over and my husband once again had to awaken to the reality of being a black man in America.
I could have talked with those two young black men in line at the movie for the rest of the evening and into the night, and it would not have been enough time to tell all the stories of what I had experienced living between black and white.
I was a teenager in the sixties when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were murdered for their audacity to bring people together in this country over the issue of racism and inequality. I watched the television news night after night relay in graphic detail the violence and hatred that had swept our country and I could barely contain the sadness that welled up in my chest. How could people be so hateful? What was the point of the violence? As if the fear it spread would stifle the goodness of humanity.
When I arrived at art school in 1969, fresh out of a quaint little town in Ohio, I found myself living on a campus located on Broadway in Oakland, California, in a neighborhood teeming with humanity of every shape, color and size. As I walked down Broadway each day I heard languages from all over the world. I thought I had landed in a utopia of diversity.
Soon after arriving, I met a fellow artist on campus, who happened to have a skin color like milk chocolate. He became my boyfriend and thus began my life of living between black and white. Then walking down Broadway changed from one of marveling at the diversity to one of racial attack. One day, as we passed two black women on the street, one said to my boyfriend, “Aren’t black women good enough for you?”
Our marriage ended many years later, for reasons that other marriages end - incompatibility brought on by dissimilar values that could not be reconciled. Skin color had nothing to do with it.
Today I am living in Berkeley where diversity still reigns but racism rules. Take a stroll through Berkeley High at lunch time and you will see students sitting in separate racial groups. My children attended Berkeley public schools and experienced racism daily, often confronted by black or white fellow students who would question their racial identity, “You don’t talk black. You’re too proper. You don’t belong here.” More than once at school events, parents approached me to say how nice it was that I had adopted all those black children.
Despite all the racism, my children developed a love for humanity and a deep appreciation for diversity in all forms of life, from the tiniest bug to the greatest tree. My children believe as I do, that all life has value. All of us belong here and are worth being in the presence of one another.
What is between black and white?
Music on a keyboard, color on a prism, brilliant galaxies among the stars and, most importantly for all of us here in America in these times, what resides between black and white is all that our great nation stands for: diversity, inclusion, and opportunity.