I’ve been thinking about Dooney lately. He was 5’10” about 175 lbs…just like me only he was black. I guarded him in practice. He could shoot it and he could get in your face and shut you down. Although he didn’t look tough, a bit paunchy for a high school senior, he was tough as nails. And he was the first person I ever saw who talked smack. We were playing the Muskogee Roughers one frozen Friday although the gym felt like a freshly asphalted highway in July. Dooney was at the foul line dribbling the ball getting ready to take a couple of free throws and the home crowd is screaming at him to miss and yelling unprintable epithets and I notice he is talking…calmly telling a couple of Roughers about their family history…at least I heard something about a mother. Two free throws swish without touching the rim, two of the purest free throws under pressure that I’ve ever seen.
This white kid was lost that night, out of my comfort zone, awash in the competitive backlash of basketball between a team that was mostly black and our team that was mostly white, except for Dooney and one other guard named Mike. Later, we ate chicken fried steak at Western Sizzlin except for Chet who was Catholic. Coach always ordered fish after Friday games for Chet and he would curse at the rubbery filet before picking at it, not nearly as pious about Catholic dogma as coach. On the bus home, I sat in the back in a seat behind Dooney as Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together played on the radio and Dooney sang along in a wondrously rapturous falsetto “whether times are good or bad, or happy or sad, let’s stay together…” Dooney turned around in the glow of that moment, a moment of triumph illuminated by Al Green and the defiance of two clutch free throws in the face of a hostile crowd. He looked back and saw me, the kid who guarded him in practice who struggled with acne and self-confidence. He looked at me and stopped singing and I can still hear his words ringing in my ears today, “Boy, you look like your face caught on fire and someone tried to put it out with an ice pick.” That hurt. But everybody thought it was funny. I still tell my kids that story. Someday I’ll tell my grandkids about Dooney. That kid could talk some smack.
I had a lot of African-American friends in high school…at least that’s what it seemed like to me. Although I’m not really sure I knew them. What I saw as anger and competitive fire and composure under duress and smack talk wasn’t something I understood. But as I look back with fondness on Dooney, even his put down of my facial insecurities, I realize that a lot of the anger that I saw in my early days fell on tone deaf ears and that it was an accumulation of many years of anger and frustration and inequity, an accumulation of centuries of domination, bondage, economic predation, and legislated inequities like Plessy vs. Ferguson. And I realize that even though I’m white and I can never understand, I still need to speak.
“We need people who aren’t black, we need people who aren’t brown. When you know these things are happening in your society…have a voice, a legitimate one, lock and step with us, protest with us, post with us, not just when it’s convenient, when it can be uncomfortable,” Jalen Rose, retired NBA player ESPN analyst.
Yes, I’m the scared white kid on the bench in the middle of a lot of angry black players that I didn’t understand. And I still don’t understand because I don’t walk in their sneakers. But I can listen and I can pay attention and I can write and I can pray for a Kingdom where all the colors bleed into one.
In the words of Jason Gay, in an article in the Wall Street Journal today, “pay attention to what’s happening in America. Pay attention to who is speaking out, and who is laying low. Pay attention to what’s happening in the streets, the fire, the chaos, the hearts that are breaking…but also pay attention to the anger. Hear it. This anger that’s playing out, it isn’t new. It’s built up over years, decades, generations upon generations. It’s foundational. This crisis, it isn’t somebody else’s. It belongs to all of us.”
“A lot of us growing up were taught to pray ‘Let thy kingdom come,’ [and] this is what I continue to pray for, in addition to so many that have been hurt/killed, or simply traumatized by how people of a different color are treated. The worst part is this is nothing new, ‘it’s just filmed,’ ” Serena Williams.
To really understand the collected accumulation of fear and hurt and hopelessness, I’ve been reading Gilbert King’s book, “Devil in the Grove,” which tells of Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Mr. Marshall accompanied Charles Houston on a journey through the 1930’s south documenting public facilities and schools for blacks with a still camera and silent movie camera. Riding alongside Houston in a six cylinder Graham-Paige automobile, Marshall typed observations on a typewriter balanced on his knees. Marshall wrote of human waste running through poorly drained ditches because there was no plumbing in the black parts of town. The trips had a profound impact on Marshall. Not only had he seen the evil results of discrimination, but the course of his life was altered.
Not long after this trip through the south, Thurgood Marshall began working with the NAACP. He received many letters asking for help. Here is one from Charles Jones of Hog Wallow, Georgia:
I see by the courer (Pittsburg Courier) that you are the No. 1 negro of all Time, so I take my pen in han as you must be the man I have been lookin for all these yers.
You see Mr. Turgood I has great trouble an goin to church don’t seem to make it better. The Courer say you has scared the white folks down hear in the South and has them on the run. Well, maybe so but you has them runnin after me and I am ritin to try to get you to make them run in the other road away from me. They is shootin and beating and tarfeatherin all around…I hop you will come quick because these white folks down hear don’t ack like they heard of Supreme court or any court or anything. They is runnin wild and we shure could use the No. 1 negro of all time or somebody to stop them from mistreatin us.
You all is in Harlem an if the goin get tough you can duck in the next basement an nobody no wher you has gon, but down here aint no place to hide they just grabs you and yore number is up or down. Please Mr. Turgood if you are the No. 1 of all time you can do it you are the one we been watin for since I was born please help these white folks is mighty mean and mighty close to my heels
yours for a little while anyway,
Charles Jones X
PS Mr. Turgood I rite this for Charlie he cant read or rite but he got real good sense. His wife Essie Mae
May 31, 2020 marks 99 years since the Tulsa Race Massacre. Greenwood, the thriving community filled with law offices and brokerages and churches and residences was a black segregated community in 1921. Was it offensive to white sensibilities that this zone of commerce and vitality was thriving? Black citizens of Greenwood took pride in this street, because it was theirs. Perhaps they thought that if Plessy vs Ferguson said separate but equal, then let us thrive in our own place. Grocery stores, banks, libraries, and red brick buildings comprised what came to be called Black Wall Street. But the white folks had another name for Greenwood…Little Africa.
White people like to say, “But aren’t things a lot better than they were 100 years ago?” Maybe that’s the wrong question.
My brother Greg and his wife Jill worked in Uganda for nine years. Greg likes to ask questions that have answers that are not always immediately evident. He asks for instance, “Am I a racist?” My immediate response is emphatically, “No!” My more considered response is simply, “Yes.”
God heal me and forgive me.