The first black person I ever saw was a porter on the Chicago Northwestern Streamliner my mother and I rode from Manitowoc to Milwaukee. I was 4 years old. It was 1951.
When we got back home, I explained to my mother that the porter washed that black stuff off of his face when he finished work for the day. I’m not sure how that idea got into my young head-maybe from watching Black Face routines on TV-but it reveals a lot about where I come from. I wasn’t being mean when I said that, just ignorant.
Thirteen years later I was one of 30 exchange students for two weeks at an all white high school in Alexandria, La. My host family, the Couvillons, explained that the “Negroes” had a nice high school of their own and were treated well in their town.
Just a year after my experience in Alexandria, I was sitting in a freshman men’s meeting led by the dean of students at St. Olaf College. There I heard of another exchange program, this time with Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college in Alabama.
That’s how it happened that I took off on an overcast winter day in 1968 on a flight to Atlanta and then to Montgomery. I was the only white person sitting in the Montgomery bus station waiting for the Trailways bus to Tuskegee. It was then that it hit me that I would be in the minority for the next four months. Tuskegee Institute: 3,000 blacks, 50 foreign students, eight whites.
During that spring semester, Stokely Carmichael came to give a speech on black power. As I walked into the gym with my friend Emmanuel Harris, the ushers from SNCC-wearing army jackets, blue jeans, aviator shades and big afros-said, “White folks sit on the side under the balcony.”
Emmanuel said, “I’m sitting with you.”
The guys from SNCC didn’t sound angry. In fact they sounded a little apologetic. Tuskegee, after all, was a southern college. In 1968, male students still opened doors for coeds, and guys would sit on the library steps after dinner singing four part harmony. They weren’t much into anger.
King was shot in Memphis while I was at Tuskegee, but the violence I feared never happened. When I said goodbye to Emmanuel at the end of the semester, he shook my hand and then held it for a long time before getting on a bus to Indianapolis.
When I returned to St. Olaf for the fall semester, a friend of mine asked me what I had learned while in Alabama. I had never thought of asking myself that question. I didn’t think to tell him stories about Emmanuel, about a young man and a relationship where race was not a barrier but one aspect among many that made the friendship interesting.
Four weeks ago, two black guys joined the men’s group to which I have been a member for 17 years. Every Thursday night, five aging white guys get together to share our joys and struggles in an effort to help each other grow up. Now, for the first time, the racial mix was changing.
We agreed to break the ice by telling a story from our youth. One of the black men, Robert, talked about the time he traveled from Hyde Park to Selma, Ala., to march with Dr. King. He described getting kicked because he entered a Dairy Queen through the front door instead of the back, and what it felt like to get hit on the head with a state trooper’s club.
We responded to Robert’s story by talking about our own experiences with racial tension. After a few moments he stopped us and said that he didn’t tell that story to bring up the issue of race. He was trying to help us get to know him by talking about the moments in which he lost his naiveté.
Race matters. So do gender, age, religion, psychological baggage and class. To get through all of that and feel another person’s humanity-when it happens, it’s a gift. It’s been 40 years since Martin Luther King, Jr. walked among us. We’re still a long way from seeing the dream becoming a reality, but every once in awhile we are graced with small glimpses of what it is like to live in the Promised Land.