Race relations remain an uncomfortable topic in America. Our first black President promised to make things easier, but in many ways that promise cannot be fulfilled by one man or one change in the political landscape. It takes all of us to make that change. One decision at a time.
Learning about race
Growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania was my first chance as a Caucasian to try to understand the meaning of race. There were no black children in our school, only Amish kids. And though different in cultural habits, they were still of the same skin color.
Lancaster was then and is now a diversified city. Yet its true integration, like so many American cities was still in question in the 1960s, as it likely is now, in 2013. Some things have changed in America. But not enough.
My older brother’s baseball team played on the field of a school in south Lancaster. The schoolyard was terraced in 3 levels, with the baseball field on the lowest level framed by a couple streets. Kids ran and played all over that neighborhood. But it was known as a rough part of town.
The baseball team on which my brother played was not integrated. I recall well the makeup of the team, because I wound up being bat boy for them, begging my way onto the field at the tender age of 7 or so, aching to be part of the action, the dirt and the bright lights of night games. Wearing a saggy uniform from which my arms jutted out like two sticks, I must have been a sorry sight. But it was all I aspired to do at that time.
The year before I became bat boy, however, I was free to roam the park while my brother played baseball and my parents watched. The light from the baseball field illuminated the next tier of the schoolyard so it was relatively safe for us kids to run and play.
Soon enough I made friends with two small black children who were 4 years old. The twins were marvelous playmates, wanting to run and chase and play tag like me. So we did. But one night I stopped too quickly and one of the twins smashed into my bony elbow. He collapsed to the ground in tears for a while. We helped him up and I walked him to the edge of the schoolyard where his brother took over the journey home. They disappeared into the night.
The next week I did not see my two friends on baseball night. I missed their joyful presence and asked other kids playing on the field if they had seen the twins. Everyone said, no, they had not. Nor did they even know where they lived.
A week later the twins showed up again. But when I ran to greet them they huddled together and told me they could not play with me.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Our mom told us to watch out for you,” they said together. Then I noticed one of the twins had a black eye.
“Why?” I still wanted to know.
“She said white people can hurt us.”
It was a stunning moment. Yet even in my youthful mind there was a realization of something profound, something changing in my world. It was impossible to avoid news of racial tensions in 1960s America. The year was 1964. The Civil Rights movement was going into full swing, and society was changing.
Country club pool
But again, not fast enough. Down at the country club pool where our family had an associate membership because we could not afford the full country club fees for golf and social activities, the pool was completely segregated. There were no black children to swim or play in the pool. One of our favorite games to play in the deep end was called Nigger Under the Woodpile. Yet the rules were weird. You dove from the pool wall or diving boards and tried to swim under the rope marking the deep end before the “Nigger” could catch you. As soon as someone got caught they became a nigger too.
We hardly gave thought to what the game was called. Who knows who invented the racist name for the game. The term nigger was used interchangeably with terms like “retard” and “queer” to ridicule other kids. We knew these terms were risky in some ways, yet we let loose with these as well as curse words because that’s what kids do.
White boys and sports
When I grew old enough to play baseball there were still no black kids in the league, which was sponsored in large part by labor unions like Local 285 and Local 929. The IBEW had a team, as did Pantry Pride. Never did I see one black player on all those teams.
It was not until middle school when we moved to Illinois in the early 1970s that black athletes first entered my little world. Our pasty white basketball team from the cornfields of Maple Park, Il. traveled to play teams from nearby Aurora, a city much like Lancaster, Pennsylvania with large populations of black and Latino students.
Waldo Middle School had a gym like a scene from a B movie. The basketball floor was sunken into the ground while a track above the court ran around the second floor where all the students of the school gathered to cheer on their team. It was an intimidating scene, and Waldo was a very good, well-coached basketball team. I do not recall whether we won or lost, but what really sunk in was the intensity of playing sports with black athletes. The feel of their bodies against your own was different. Their communications were sharp and emphatic. The pace of the game was daunting and exciting. And I loved it. The challenge of playing someone superior to you was profound and real.
In high school we played a team from East Aurora that ran a run and gun offense. Our team was generally low on endurance but as a distance runner I was the last to keep up with their high pressure, rapid style of play. With the score nearing 100 on the East Aurora side, one of their players turned to me laughing, slapping me on the arm with a smile as he said, “Man, you’re the only one still runnin’!” I laughed back and said, “Yeah, looks like that is true.” Then I had to wait for a teammate to get back down on our end of the court to inbound the ball. And they stole the inbound pass for a layup.
Getting on track
That next summer I ran on a track club that competed in cities across the state. We traveled to the Quad Cities where the Moline Track Club featured a highly integrated team of black and white athletes managed by a kindly black coach who wandered the field patting his athletes on the back. Something in me wanted to run for that person. Something in the way he coached made me really motivated to run. Yet I was too shy to approach him, or talk much with many of the athletes on the field.
High school track
In high school track the black athletes from Aurora and Elgin were the highlights of almost every meet. One skinny black sprinter from West Aurora seemed to defy the rules of speed with his rail thin calves. Yet his turnover rate with those legs was tremendous.
He also seemed to be friends with everyone on the field. His example of sportsmanship and gregarious nature was something that stuck in my mind for years. It taught me to seek out athletes from other teams even when our coaches sometimes told us they were the “enemy.” What BS.
What you learn in college
By the time college track rolled around it was the mid-1970s and even our little school in the hills of Iowa had an enrollment of black students, many of whom happened to be athletes thanks to recruiting efforts in the City of Chicago.
On one track and field road trip I was assigned a black roommate named Ron. He was a quiet young man who following college went on to run his own company. But Luther was an uneasy place for black students in the 1970s. Obviously most of the black students on campus came from urban backgrounds. The cornfields and wild hills of Decorah, Iowa were strange and distant territory.
Ron and I somehow connected however. His first race in indoor track for Luther was a 400 meters. He ran the entire race in Lane 6 and still came in second in his heat. That meant he ran way, way faster than anyone else in the race. Way faster. Following his run there were chuckles from some members of the team who were laughing about his lack of knowledge about indoor track, especially that he should have known to cut to the inside lane after one lap. But if you’ve never been near an indoor track, how would you know.
So I ran over to Ron, who admittedly looked a little confused. Yet the fire of competition was in his eyes. “Ron,” I told him. “You ran really great. But have you ever run on an indoor track before?”
“No,” he said quietly.
“Well, let me tell you about the rules…” and as I explained the fact that he’d run farther than anyone else, he started to grin, then shook his head. “I get it,” he muttered. “I get it.” He cut in on the opening leg of the 4 X 400 and led the team to victory.
He went on to run win indoor meets and ran a sub-49 second split on a relay in the outdoor 400. The team still kidded him once in a while about his “long 400” indoors, but he realized no one meant any harm by the teasing.
A Prince in Rhodesia
I also attended classes with a young man who was a prince of some sort back at his home in Rhodesia. Once when I was lamenting my lack of ability in getting dates, he turned to me and with broad gestures indicating big ideas he said, “You are too afraid. You do not say, “Please take me, woman!” You must say, “Come to me! I am here!” Then he laughed and said, “Do you understand! All you lack is confidence.”
No one could have pegged me better. That was a lesson of great use in many areas of life, from athletics to school, social life to family relationships. Confidence counts. And when I tried his formula for success and showed a little confidence asking a girl out to a formal that year, it worked. I never got to thank him, for he returned home to Rhodesia after that term at Luther.
By the time I was a senior that dating advice had kicked in and I was involved in an intense relationship with a steady girlfriend. She was a feisty girl, a bit domineering in some ways, and one day she told me she did not like how someone had looked at her in the lunch line. We were walking out of the Union when she saw the purported offender, a track teammate of mine. Before I knew what had happened, she tossed a glass of orange soda in his face and started shouting at him.
He was 6’4″ tall, 190 lbs and solid muscle. He was the top sprinter on our track team and an All Conference wide receiver. And he was a nice guy from everything I knew about him. Just intense. I’d played him in intramural basketball and watched as he tore around the track setting school and conference records. But as he stood there, deservedly angry at the insult my girlfiend had just delivered, I knew nothing but fear in the face of my friend.
His friends stood close by, actually holding both of his arms to keep him from lashing out somehow. I could see the traces of orange soda on his deep brown skin. His eyes were full of anger. Rightfully so. But I stepped forward and said to him, “I’m sorry. She’s upset about something. I’m sorry.”
Fortunately our athletic friendship as teammates on the track team overcame the moment. He somehow forgave the incident on the spot. We parted, but not without some angry glances from the friends who were in his company. Who could blame them? Certainly not I.
Yet my girlfriend immediately turned and began to chastise me for apologizing to him. “Why didn’t you defend me?” she wanted to know.
I was honest. “For one thing, he could have killed me if he’d wanted to,” I laughed nervously, glad that the situation had not escalated. Campus race relations were still a tense subject in those days. “And you need to get yourself under control. That was ridiculous.” To this day I do not know if she was satisfied with that answer. We broke up a year later.
I hadn’t thought about that incident in a long time until it dawned on me that the day honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. had once again come around. And how have race relations progressed in our country since the great preacher and civil rights leader was slain? What anger does a nation still harbor toward a black President who has done so much to nudge the nation back to viability after it teetered on the brink of economic ruin? Are we still throwing soda because of some perceived slight or attitude? Is this really how we want to behave?
I think back to those twins with whom I played years ago, and how their mother, wanting to protect them from the world, had to inform them that the world can be a bitter, divisive place. It made me sad then that I could inflict some sort of harm without trying, and be so misunderstood. Yet one cannot blame a mother for wanting to protect her children, nor a race from protecting its good name in the face of so much ignorance and false pride. Call it racism or whatever you want, it is still important to run toward rather than run away from the issue. And try to forgive, and learn, and embrace those from whom we can learn to live and trust. Because peace and nonviolence is still the best tool of understanding.
That is what I’ve tried to learn from Martin Luther King, Jr. and from many others in this world who continue to promote equality and goodwill for all people. Run toward these problems, not away from them.