Baby Steps across the Racial Divide

Massachusetts bigotry is the zit that appeared on your nose the afternoon before prom night. At first, you didn’t even know it was there. Then, when you found out about it, you were embarrassed. You tried to treat it, to ignore it, to cover it up, but it’s still there, and everyone knows.

I first realized this in 1978, when my brother was home from college. It was Sunday, and my grandfather had come over for Sunday dinner. The big news that night was my brother’s upcoming date that evening. Since I was still in middle school, and hadn’t yet discovered girls, this seemed an appropriate thing about which to tease him.

“P–‘s going on a date,” I said.School bus zoom in front

“Is she white?” my grandfather asked.

“No,” my brother said. “He’s black.”

I knew when I heard this that P’s date was in fact a white girl. I also knew that my brother, with his reply, was telling my grandfather he had stepped over the line. Over the years, I’ve become proud of my brother for doing it. Since May 17 will be the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, it seems appropriate to tell this story today.

Unlike the plaintiffs in Brown, my life was insulated from racial concerns. As far as I can remember, my High School had one African-American student and perhaps two Asians when I was there. I’m fairly sure we had more identical twins in school than non-whites. Race never really came into my consciousness at the time, but since then, I’ve been thinking about it more and more.

I think about it when I think about Boston, a city I love. Bill Russell, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, described Boston as a “flea market of racism,” and never really felt comfortable with his home-town fans. Although Boston’s Racial Imbalance Act of 1965 was one of the first desegregation laws in the United States, minority students involved in that integration effort were met with thrown rocks when their buses came into white neighborhoods. And from what I’ve read, discrimination is still a problem there. In school, we learn about the underground railroad, and how Massachusetts regiments fought from the moral high ground in the Civil War. Unfortunately, somebody forgot to notify the bigots. Bill Lee

I think about it when I remember 2004, when a pair of dark-brown Dominicans named Martinez and Ortiz led the Boston Red Sox to their first World Series Championship in 84 years. The real Curse of the Bambino was racism: if Tom Yawkey had been willing to hire a black man, baseball greats Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays could both have easily come to Boston long before they went to New York.  Bill Lee may be a less-than-ideal poster child for your “Say No To Drugs” campaign, but he got it right when it came to understanding racism in Boston.

I think about it when I listen to music, because so much of “american” musical culture has come from the african-american community. The black gospel, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and hip hop I enjoy may be popular with whites, but they were all birthed by people of color. Even the “traditionally white” opera on my iPhone is sung by Leontyne Price, an african-american woman.

I think about it when I try to write, because minorities have long been under-represented in science fiction. Unlike those things I’ve mentioned above, this is one area I can change. When I write, I need to find more ways that the protagonist of my story can be non-white. To be honest, this is hard for me, because I need to write what I know, and I don’t know enough about people of color.

To fix this, I’ve been listening to discussions on racial inequality from Fuller University on iTunesU. I’ve been reading blogs by people like EthiopianAmericanGirl who talk about integrating their minority culture into the white majority. And I’m trying to work up the courage to interview some of the many minority people I have met, but never really known.

I’m going to get there. I’m going to learn what I need to know. And my stories will be integrated. It’s only right.