It’s the fall of 1972 and I’m taking a Greyhound bus from Washington, DC to Syracuse, NY. Sitting next to me is another student, from American University, an African American returning home for the holidays as I was. We hit it off and found that we had a lot in common and, as much as possible, were enjoying the ride. At a rest stop in Pennsylvania, we went into a diner to get some lunch and sat at the lunch counter. When the waitress came and took my order, she totally ignored my new friend, my traveling buddy, who was sitting right next to me. As she stepped away, he LOUDLY said, “hey, what am I? Black?” Her face was fluorescent as everyone in the diner stared at her. I said, “cancel my order” and we left, laughing as hard as I had laughed in a visit to Dangerfield’s later in life.
In college I had no real black friends. I knew many of the black athletes to say hello to and the only black student I had any regular contact with was Ron Gilliam, basketball superstar. We shot pool together in the student union quite often but, thinking back, never by anything preplanned. I didn’t have his number, he didn’t have mine. If we saw each other in the union, we connected and shot pool and had a great relationship over the table. Lots of trash talk. Lots of laughing. Literally, in the moment, I just Googled Ron to see where he was, what he was doing, and find that he passed away, heart attack, last June. Phew. Gut punch. Back in the day, matchups between Brockport and Buffalo State, led by the best athlete I have ever known, Randy Smith, required you to get to the gym hours before game time to get a seat. Ronnie could absolutely fill it up and it’s hard to guess what his stats would have been with a 3 point shot. RIP Ronnie.
So my intention when I started writing this post was to try and make some points about all the controversy in Virginia. Blackface. First, I have no standing to criticize anyone and, for sure, I could never be confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice. I did SO MANY things back in the day that would totally embarrass me today and rightfully so. Let’s face it, mix immaturity with alcohol and you do not get many memories that you would want public. But, I did student teach in an inner city high school in Washington, DC and that experience reinforced a feeling that I have had throughout my life. People are people. Doesn’t matter where you are born, we all want the same things. The kids that I met in DC were no different than the kids that I went to high school with. Except that the environment they grew up in was at the other end of the spectrum from places like my hometown.
When I look at, for example, the Governor of Virginia and his episode(s) of appearing in blackface, today I fully understand the outrage and historical significance of “blackface”. I believe people can evolve and move beyond dumb things done years ago. However, in Northam’s case, he absolutely appears clueless even after all these years. I think he had a very narrow window to avoid the conflict with immediate and heartfelt acceptance of what blackface means to the African-American population. But he didn’t. Instead he wavered, was wishy washy and, in my book, throw him out. That being said, Northam is not the story. The story is that we have a problem still with race in the US. It is not a Republican problem or a Democrat problem, it is a national problem. Whether or not Northam resigns is going to have zero impact other than for people to think that his resignation is some kind of progress. It would not be.
We all have work to do in being honest with ourselves and working harder to think outside our comfort zones which were constructed decades ago. That is one reason I have accepted assignments with LL Bean. The diversity is amazing and an educati0n in itself. Today, I think of one of my best friends who appeared at my apartment one Halloween as a pimp, in blackface. We all laughed and I know this man had no bad intent. He is a man of integrity and honor. But, today, I find myself thinking what if my friend Ronnie Gilliam had been at my apartment? How would I have reacted? How would my Halloween buddy have reacted. Heard a Willie Nelson song that I think we all need to take to heart. Look forward and try and make things better than they have been. All we can do. Listen to one of my faves.