I’m Your Black Friend from 3rd Grade. Do You Remember?
This is going to be a difficult write.
The reason why is because I’m going to explain something to you. Something real, something deep, something abiding.
I’m sharing this out of love.
Love for my family. Love for my friends. Love for my city. Love for my state and nation.
There is a lot going on in the world right now and we are all more or less aware of the nature of the essential question.
What is America going to be?
It’s a question we each hold close to our hearts and we each get to choose. We all have a say and our responses make a difference. I think now, more than ever before, each and every one of us is aware of that.
We’ve never been more collectively-oriented as a nation as we are now. Even on both sides of this nation’s political spectrum there is now widespread agreement that racism is a real problem that requires solutions. Smart phones and the Cloud have interconnected us at the speed of electrons and social media has made our personal networks global. News gets out to the people quicker than the media outlets can report it. We all know the stakes and we know our voices count.
But in regards to racism, there’s a thing that happens that makes the conversation more difficult than it has to be because thoughtful discussion surrounding the mechanisms and cultural expressions of how racism works have been locked up in academic journals and inscrutable text for so long. Half of society historically has not wanted to talk about it while the other half have. The discussion has been fraught because it has been emotional, its essence life and death.
The growing number of public intellectuals and the dissemination of Ivory Tower findings has made phrases like “micro-aggression”, “white privilege” and “social justice warrior” popular if not controversial and resources explaining racism, its history and effects, have become readily available to most Americans and people around the world.
But we already know it don’t we. Because we experience it. Directly. Each and everyone of us. The public conversation is difficult but the private one, between you and I, is as intimate as it can get.
Because this thing that happens, it happens between me and you.
I’m a child of integration, graduated High School in 1985, the end of the Analog Age (AA). I’m a military brat, raised and schooled in 6 states and 1 foreign country (Greece). Military installations are the closest thing this nation has come to a true meritocracy and being raised on the bases back in the 70s and 80s was, in many ways, idyllic. This was before the closing of a large number of installations on American soil and around the world, so we dependents of active duty GIs (Government Issue) lived a life totally enveloped within the womb of the military-industrial complex.
The gates and ID cards made belonging exclusive, we were world travelers who lived places for a couple of years then moved on to other, often exotic locales. We spoke many languages and we had access — on the bases, posts, installations and camps - to pools, recreation centers, gyms, golf courses, lake and river resorts, billeting options, heavily reduced flight prices, amenities that generally belonged to classes far beyond my father’s, enlisted and then commissioned status. Department of Defense (DoD) schools were renowned for their rigor and excellence. My father started as an Airman in the Air Force and then earned his Bachelor’s degree to attain officer’s status, so we lived on “both sides of the base” across the span of my 19 years of holding a dependent’s ID.
In the process of our shared matriculation within the American representative-democratic system, I am the Gen-X black child that grew up with you, your parents and grandparents. My peers went through public school from the late-60s to the late-80s. We sat in class and the lunch room together, played on the playgrounds and lived in the same neighborhoods. So we knew each other at school and at home. In the classroom and as next door neighbors.
There is something that happens when we’re small. In Kindergarten through about 3rd grade, we were generally just kids growing up together, racial difference was not an issue. Any conflicts were personality-based. But that changed somewhere in there and it had to do with our introduction to societal race relations. That is the point where we were all introduced formally to the distinctions between black people and white people.
If you can remember that day, that discussion, or what you were thinking during that time of your educational career, you’ve got the memory of an elephant. I can’t. But what I can remember is what you need to know. What the point of this article is.
Over the years, close white friends have sometimes asked me why does it seem like black people are a family? We always nod to each other in large groups of white people whether we know each other or not, we move differently, speak differently, are y’all connected psychically or something?
This is not the topic to address that question but what I can tell you now is that those of us who went to school with you know from experience that the societal gulf that sometimes seems to separate us at a very fundamental level of cognition fractured you and I individually when we learned what our place in society was to be. When we learned that black people were slaves and white people were the Masters.
It is this fundamental societal identification that separated us when we were kids. From a black boy’s perspective, this was when your eyes changed. Our personal interactions may have been just as friendly and loving as they were before when we were alone. But when two or more of our white friends and classmates joined us, that unbridgeable gulf appeared. And reappeared. And appears and will continue to appear until a generation of Americans is born where this is all just a faint memory and now, right now in American life, we can finally and collectively envision what that world is going to look like.
We can affect it.
I could see that gulf in your eyes, and it looked like pity. Pity and sadness and acceptance but, also, sometimes pride. Or knowing. It presented to us black kids as what it was, an expression of what we came to understand as a form of superiority that came with knowledge of belonging to the in-group a status we can all recognize because, no matter the racial code, in and out groups are ubiquitous in cliquish and tribal human societies across the planet and probably beyond.
Right now we have to co-create what this world looks like. We must bridge the gap between the past and the future in the Now. Right now we must do what is in our hearts and soul to do and remember who we were before we found out who we were supposed to be; what roles in society we were supposed to fulfill, what side we were supposed to be on and what histories we were supposed to uphold. Right now we can create a new history.
We can change our children’s story. Re-write the narrative and truly educate children about our nation’s rich and diverse history. The truth of it, written without apology and without embellishment. The truth is enough for our children to know. It is a fact and the entire world knows it. Participated in it. We are literally the world, America is comprised of every peoples this planet birthed.
All discussions that happen without the recognition that this is what we are trying to do, what we are desirous of achieving, is bankrupt at its very foundations if our individualized and traumatic separation and adoption of society’s mores is what divided us and sent us careening through our American lives on separate and unequal paths. Through this American system, living into an American future based upon an American Dream charged with an American energy that requires that we do better than the past, that we achieve beyond anything achieved before, that we become something we’ve never been.
That anybody has ever been. Ever seen.
It is an impossible charge. An impossible life. Yet I saw it, in your eyes, when we were 7.
I see it still, in some of your eyes and even if we don’t know each other I can tell that you remember. That you know what is real and that this is our charge right now.
Change your personal narrative.
Your personal life. Remember what you are. Become that again.
Change our world.