Since June 1, a week after George Floyd, I have had lengthy conversations about race with three of my oldest friends. And by “oldest,” I mean I met two of them in 1958, and the other much later, in 1960. Yet I don’t remember talking about it when we were growing up. When I noted this with one of them, they said, “You ought to blog about that!” The problem is that I can’t really explain why.
For those unfamiliar, I should explain that I grew up in the First Ward of Binghamton, NY in the 1950s and 1960s. The city consisted of many Irish, Italians, and especially Eastern Europeans, second- and third-generation folks. There were black people in other parts of the city, but north of Clinton Street, which was a demarcation for “the Ward,” most folks were Slavic – Russian, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, primarily.
At my school for K-9, Daniel S. Dickinson, I was often the only black kid in my class. There was a black young woman named Bernadette in 7th grade, coming from one of the feeder schools to our junior high. But she was gone by 8th grade to who knows where. Robert in 5th grade, who I’ve mentioned, was so academically challenged that he eventually ended up in my sister Leslie’s class, and she was three semesters behind me.
Also, in kindergarten, there was a “mixed-race” girl. She’s one of my current Facebook friends. By her account, I was very nice to her, even as most of the other kids were not. I have no recollection of any of this. Incidentally, I believe we have the same great-grandfather.
So NOW we talk
When I told one of my friends how traumatized when I saw photos of Emmett Till’s dead body in a magazine in 1960, I was asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?” I dunno. Why didn’t they tell me how their father put a stop to some racist taunts directed toward a man I knew at my church?
Another friend was pretty shocked that there were any racial problems in Binghamton at all. I’ve noted that back in 1964, over 200 black people complained in an open letter in the paper problems, jobs, and even “common courtesies.” Yes, I was pretty insulated in that geography triangulated by Dickinson school, my grandmother Williams’ house at 13 Maple Street, and my house on 5 Gaines Street. But I knew there was more to the story in the rest of the city.
I had long talks not only with the third friend but also with the spouse. Much of it has been generated by the contents of my blog over the last two months. “We didn’t know you were going through things like that.”
Maybe it was that I didn’t want to point myself out as different. Perhaps I didn’t think they’d understand. I talked with my sister Leslie about this. She had a similar situation, except that she did have one black classmate, Bonnie for a few years. They didn’t talk about race either. It was assumed that they were going through the same, or similar things and there was no need to verbalize it.
It’s like when I’ve seen a black person in a sea of white faces. Inevitably, one of us will give a nod to the other. It’s an acknowledgment of assumed common experience.
I suppose I should be grateful that my old friends and I are talking about race now.