The bus crossed the 7th street bridge and I peered over the rail through an open window at the eddies of a muddy river, swirling coffee relentlessly shaping the bank of naked earth. On my first day of junior high ringing bells punctuated my hourly class schedule. This change in my academic life assaulted my senses, along with the smell of lingering cigarette smoke in bathrooms, hot sawdust and oiled metal cuttings from shop class, the musty sour odor of the gym class unwashed, and the siren smell of shampooed hair, the same hair that framed stick figure girls in grade school now bent beautiful by the refraction of our hormones and youthful vision, those same linear girls now inhabiting the curved bodies of mystic goddesses.
Junior high was loud and the noise drove me to quiet corners like a dog pawing ears to muffle the roar of constant chatter in the halls, the din of the gorgeous set against the quietness of those not, a dissonance heard only by the muted introverts. Gym teachers yelled, music teachers coaxed, math teachers factored, while the whispers of the popular determined the fate of the not, along with something similar, ancient but newly strange…racism. This was my first round in the boxing ring, a toe to toe match with the colorful tapestry of peers that would one day become a coat of many colors.
I came from an all-white grade school and burst into a place that exploded my world of sameness, milling hallways filled with kids of color and culture, and began my education at Central Junior High learning new names, Walter, Papa, Stevie, before understanding how different I was, that I wasn’t normal, that I was indeed the odd one, because of how little I knew about the beliefs and traditions, the myths and stories of people who didn’t look like me, who didn’t sound like me, amazingly, my new friends didn’t even play basketball like me.
I was hidden under a white wicker basket in a cloistered and wooded haven, happy in my oblivious suburb, not unlike the canopied Caney river dividing our town into an east and west side as it flowed indifferently towards the Gulf of Mexico. This unhurried river, hidden by oak and elm, flowed like warm caramel along the path of least resistance, seduced by gravity and an ever fattening burden of silt, a mirror of my flowing subconscious, silent truth cutting great banks of earth and changing course unaware. As I crossed over the Caney, I became aware of the river separating me, a wonder bread kid from the east side, and my friend, Walter, who lived across the river on the west side, a million miles away.
My latent blindness was as innocent as my Grandma’s, as she read her Bible and prayed and went to Africa on a mission trip…and in blind moments of remarkable relief set against my filter of appropriateness, used the “N” word, without any hint of malice, although my innocence mistook her condescension for affection. She was a very kind-hearted woman, so I don’t judge her. But I had seen black folk on television, and thought them to be normal, even heroic. I watched Sidney Poitier in The Lilies of the Field, Cassius Clay standing over Sonny Liston, and Jim Brown in a Cleveland Brown’s uniform (I thought they named the team for him instead of Paul) running with a football and a satchel of grenades in an army uniform sprinting to his heroic death in the movie, The Dirty Dozen.
I had no idea blacks could hate blacks and whites could hate whites, as I sang Jesus loves the little children in Sunday school. I did not understand yet the array of rich but lighter colored ethnicity baked into the bagels and ciabattas and ryes and sourdough of America’s cultural oven. I hadn’t seen the Godfather yet with the opening scenes of the wedding party which would remind me of the Italians I met when I lived in South Jersey twenty years later as I suddenly became the white minority and Italians, Jews, Irish and Jersey Pineys made fun of my slow midwest accent and asked me about the Indians in Oklahoma. Nor had I discovered white on white bigotry in my own backyard, a festering socioeconomic hatred framed poetically by S.E. Hinton in The Outsiders, a world sharply divided by grease and shampoo. I was culturally snowblind in the womb of my midwestern cocoon of sameness.
I walked close to the walls of Central Junior High, kept my head down, stayed away from those who were different. I wasn’t hostile or socially dull, just underexposed to culture other than my own. My integration had thus far been limited to my television set, seminal moments, mostly athletic, involving African-Americans, including the Black Power salute by Tommy Smith raising a black gloved right fist and John Carlos raising his left gloved fist while standing on the award pedestal after finishing 1st and 3rd respectively in the two hundred meter dash at the Olympic Games in October of 1968. I once sensed defiance in pictures of Tommy Smith and John Carlos. Now I understand defiant posture as a plea for justice, the animation of prayer in the oppressed, two men standing together with a white sprinter from Australia name Peter, asking God to set right the world, a world inhabited by red, yellow, black and white, a world that presented a gold medal to Tommy Smith but told him he was excluded from certain hotels and restaurants, country clubs and conversations.
There is a grand tradition of fists raised in the name of justice, some might even name it wrestling with God, times where prayer is more of a dialogue rather than monologue, spirited debating with God Almighty. Abraham questioned God’s promise and his own virility, Moses argued incompetence and asked God to send a more eloquent man to Pharaoh, Job ranted, David’s mouth grew parched calling for help, and Jacob transformed wrestling with someone you love into an art form by calling on God to bless him before he was beaten to a pulp.
As time goes by, I think of prayer with progressively bigger shoulders, throwing an occasional punch, less a mental exercise, more sweat and heavy lifting, like a spirit in motion, gulping raw eggs with Rocky and running the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Arts, like Tommy Smith and John Carlos raising gloved fists. In the United States of America, African-Americans have prayed for many years with emotion, prayed with faith, prayed with belief that someday life will be better and not just better, just.
And so I think of the journey beginning with my exposure to people of a different color and culture at my junior high school in 1971, which brought me to my senses and extinguished my hope of playing NBA basketball. But Walter and I loved basketball. We found friendship playing ball, although we lived on opposite sides of the river and chiseled our places in the pecking order of junior high school culture using unique forms of power and leverage steeped in the tradition each of us knew. This constant social tension was unspoken but real. Sometimes punches were thrown, some malicious, some unintentional, both often landed.
My front upper left tooth was chipped courtesy of a shadow boxing match gone awry between Walter and me. It was our freshman year and we were in the locker room being fourteen year old boys, feigning machismo, seeking affirmation, something or someone to tell us we were men.
Strength was the default measuring stick, the standard marker of dominance. I saw gloveless boxing, fighting in the halls, black on white, white versus white, black on black, bare knuckles, playground fighting, slamming one another into lockers over the trivialities that kids often fought over. It was the standard dueling method rather than pistols at twenty paces. Only Walter and me weren’t really fighting, just horsing around, he could have slammed dunked me and mopped the tile floors shiny with my raggedy head. No, it was more like a big brother patronizing a younger, letting him get in a blow, shadow boxing playfully, just throwing punches with the intent of saying I could take you if I wanted, but not really wanting to hurt you. Except he miscalculated and busted my tooth.
Walter was the best athlete I knew.
During the winter of our ninth grade year, I watched from the bench as Walter and Mike and Myron and Ricky, all African-American kids along with a white Catholic kid named Chet, led a team of otherwise short white guys to a rousing basketball win over our cross-town rival across the river, the all-white team that hadn’t been beaten in their entire three-year junior high career.
That was a surreal moment for me as I thought we had no chance to win. I never really thought about those four African-American starters, about how it made them feel, how it may have empowered them, helped them become stronger in a world still dominated by white teachers and coaches and principals and mayors and governors and presidents. Perhaps this tension was unspoken but visceral, resulting in many wildly thrown punches at something unseen, undefined, not yet born in our social consciousness.
We were trying to understand this shift in attitudes which started with the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln on January 1, 1863 and traveled a bloody and bitter battle along back roads of hatred and ignorance, through the Supreme Court and Brown vs. Brown, and through the armed force of the National Guard at Central High School in Little Rock.
And it came down to a white kid with a chipped tooth swinging wildly at a black kid who could kick my butt. I hadn’t heard Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream Speech. I didn’t know much of letting freedom ring. I was just trying to get along as best I could. But I did know that the world in which I had been introduced left me uncertain, timid, unsure. The basketball court, however, was the place of refuge for me and for kids of all color, the place we lost our fear and found our competitive pride and spirit. For many of us who defined each other by sport, a basketball court was where we found freedoms ring.
Not long after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1966 NCAA National Championship game when Texas Western beat an all-white Kentucky basketball team, I was introduced to the freeing of the spirit of black America. The trail of struggle and history spilled out into our world, our playgrounds and locker rooms, our athletic fields and stages, our hallways and classrooms. We were kids struggling to enflesh the skeleton of laws decreed by our government that transformed our junior high from a place of Constitutional theory to one of practical consequence, made vibrant and colorful by the idea that all men and women are created equal.
I don’t really think of those days as the “good old days”. They were difficult, awkward, we didn’t even know we were punching and ducking, bobbing and weaving. We were, in fact, living out the words of the old Negro spiritual reconstituted by U2, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, believing in a Kingdom where all the colors bleed into one, but not knowing how, except to get into the ring and spar with sweat, blood and paint spilled on the canvas, bold, fresh, thrown together like Oreos in a milkshake mixer.
James McBride was the son of a black father and white Jewish mother and when he was young, he asked his mother about her being different. She would simply say ‘I’m light skinned.’ Then he began to think himself different and asked his mother if he was black or white. ‘You’re a human being,’ she replied. Then James asked her, “What color is God?” For years he asked this question and his mother declined to answer. Finally, one day he asked and she told him, “God is the color of water.”
Some days I’m reminded of the surreal nature of this earth and that I’m a stranger in a strange land. I’m grateful for those awkward days of youth and thankful for a slightly broken smile that reminds me of the way it used to be when we shadow boxed one another in the halls of our school bobbing and weaving and swinging, challenged to understand what it meant to live in a world of red and yellow and black and white, in a Kingdom where all the colors are bleeding into one, in a Universe created by a God who is for all I know, the color of water.