July 31st, 2010
09:21 AM ET

Letter to the President #558: 'Racing to discuss race'

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Reporter's Note: President Obama is urging, in the wake of the mess over at the USDA over accusations of racism, that our country take up the discussion of racial issues anew. In today’s letter, I’ll try to do my part.

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/02/05/art.getty.obama.jpg]

Dear Mr. President,

I’ve been thinking about your call this week for a broad American discussion of race. You and I have been exchanging letters for quite a while now (and by that I mean I have been writing every single day since you took the oath and you have not responded even once, but still…) so I feel that I can speak freely. And I want to tell you a story from around 1965. It’s kind of long, but heck, it’s the weekend. I have the time if you do.

When I was in first grade, my family travelled from our home, which was in South Dakota at the time, down to see my grandmother in Alabama. My grandfather had died suddenly a year or so before and my folks wanted to help her out, and share Christmastime with my mom’s side of the family. So we piled into the Desoto, a hulking bullet of white and aqua, and rolled away from the Black Hills, over the Badlands, across the Great Plains, and down through the Delta.

The ride was interminably long, and my brother, sister and I lolled around in the back seat as if we were crossing the ocean in steerage. No air conditioning. No iPods. AM radio at best and the stations were a hit and miss patchwork of hillbilly tunes, scratching in from the ether as we passed some small town, and hissing out again as it faded to a speck in the rear window.

Stops were not common. Sandwiches were made and packed before we embarked, a jug of water passed when we grew thirsty, and restroom breaks were like pit stops at Indy; screech up, bail out, back in, let’s roll. My parents were not unreasonable. They were just efficient drivers who knew that if we three kids, all under the age of 12, had half a chance we’d turn a two day drive into a month long trek and we’d be due to head home before we’d even arrived.

So the miles rolled by, the sun rose and set. We somehow slept somewhere at some point, although for the life of me I can’t recall a hotel of any sort. And eventually, we reached the land of Dixie, and a couple of hours later turned down the remote red dirt road where my grandmother lived; where my mother still lives today, miles removed from anything that even looks like a sizeable town. The sun was long gone and the darkness had closed like a hand, stars exploding overhead unchallenged by any light from the land, and dust boiling up in the faint red gleam of the tail lights.

We pulled up to the patch of sand that passed for my grandmother’s yard and tumbled out in the yellow light of the single bulb that flicked on over her porch at the sound of the engine. We stumbled out like explorers emerging from the wilderness, were swept up in hugs and kisses, and then hustled inside to the fireplace where scraps from the lumber yard where my uncle worked cracked and popped. The fireplace was the primary source of heat in the simple board house that my grandfather built with his own hands. We kids sat on the floor watching the flames, and listening to the adults catch up on family news, while the rockers creaked, and little showers of sparks rose each time my father poked the fire.

In the morning, the smell of the pines and the call of jays and mockingbirds would fill the front room where my brother and I slept, and we’d open our eyes to a world revealed, as if the long drive had been some kind of magical transportation. Which, in a way, it was if you can say anything about a Desoto was magical.

On this particular trip, We were planning to be there for a rather long time, and my parents did not want us kids to miss that much school, so they spoke to the local principal about enrolling us for a couple of weeks. I wasn’t entirely keen on the idea, and while I’m no psychic, I’m pretty sure my brother and sister were also less than thrilled. But the arrangements were made and a few days later I walked into a class, the lone outsider in a room full of insiders; local kids who’d been born here, lived here, and even by first grade knew that they belonged here while I did not. On top of which, despite my mother’s pedigree, I was a Yankee.

I remember the look of the room; high ceiling, bare wood floor, old fashioned desks all in a row, big windows to our back. A long, old-fashioned coat closet ran along the right side of the room, the front was dominated by the teacher’s desk. There was a flag hanging above the chalkboard, alongside the cardboard alphabet in print and cursive. I seem to recall a photo of President Johnson as well. There may have been ceiling fans, but I’m not sure.

The teacher seemed tall (but in first grade, they all do) and nice enough, but nothing compared to the teacher I had back home. There my teacher was Mrs. Butler. She was smart, loving, engaging, interested in us all; taught us French for fun, and led us into the big world of school with a grace and professionalism that, were it translated to every teacher in land, would utterly transform American education into a model of world excellence. She was also, and I mention this purely as an aside, a black woman. And no kidding, I did not realize it. Years and years later my parents were talking about her to some friends and mentioned that she was black, and it suddenly dawned on me that indeed she was. I absolutely am not joking.

Anyway, back to Alabama. I remember clearly only three of the children in the class. One was a thin, somewhat pretty girl by first grade standards. I say, somewhat pretty, because the girl I had a crush on back in South Dakota had a tendency to fall and often sported an assortment of scabs on her face, elbows and knees, and I thought she was as hot as the beach in August. So my standards may be suspect. Still, this girl down south had big, bright eyes, a small face, and a shaggy kind of haircut that I liked.

She was quiet, shy, and poor. Now, many of the kids in that class were certainly not rich, but this girl was dirt poor, to hear my Grandmother tell it, and in one of the nation’s poorest counties, that’s saying something. Maybe that’s why she sort of kept to herself.

I’m going to call her Brenda, and for caution’s sake, I’m going to change the names of everyone else in this story too, except for Mrs. Butler.

Another student I recall was Toni. Hulking, slope shouldered and square-jawed. She had dirty blond hair chopped short at her neck, and dark, mean eyes. Her voice boomed through any crowd in a what would be called a whisky-rasp in someone old enough to have been a long time heavy drinker. She was one of those girls who even in first grade towered over the rest of us, physically and emotionally. We were at best adventuresome sheep. She was a fighting bull and asserted herself over every one.

And then there was Abraham. He was, oddly considering the makeup of the town today, the only black student in the class. He too, like Brenda, was quiet, thin, and seemed to be shy. His hair was trimmed close to his scalp, as most young black boys wore it then. He had buck teeth, and wore long sleeve shirts more than most of the other kids. What’s more, his desk was placed slightly away from everyone else’s.

Until that point in my life, I had lived almost exclusively on Air Force bases, where integration started ten years before I was born. I lived alongside black, Hispanic, and Asian families without a thought. But the civilian world was still in the early years of grappling with this issue. In Alabama, George Wallace (whom I would later cover as a reporter) had blocked the doorway at the University of Alabama only two years earlier to keep black students out.

Mind you, I want to digress here to address a pet peeve. Having traveled all over this country many, many times, I have often found a tendency for northern folks to dismiss their own racial tensions with a quick reference to the south; something along the lines of “At least we weren’t like those rednecks.” But I think I have found as much deep seated racial animosity in northern towns as I ever found in the south. The chief difference, I think, has often been that the south was open about it, and in the north it was hidden. The legacy of slavery has allowed people in historically “free” states a cheap pass on their own sins, which are more than numerous enough to forbid them looking down their noses at their southern kin.

Back to the story. I wanted nothing more out of my brief sojourn in this school than to keep a low profile, avoid any excessive amounts of work, and get out for Christmas break after which our whole family would head home. The last thing on my mind was embroiling myself in a controversy. And yet, during our very first lunchtime recess, that is precisely what I stumbled into.

The yard behind the school (which held students from K-12 or as long as they would stay, whichever came first) was a sprawling lot of scrabbly grass, bare dirt, and the football field which wasn’t much different. The team, the Tigers, had a reputation for being tough; and they were much more successful than the town’s tiny size should have permitted. At lunch the biggest boys gathered to pour packs of peanuts into their Cokes, and drink them down in fizzy, crunchy mouthfuls, lounging against the brick wall like gladiators. They, and the pretty, older girls who sailed in their orbit, were the top of the food chain. Next came the somewhat younger athletes and their circles of cool. Then the next and so on, until it came to the first graders where Toni reigned triumphant.

Overall, this was not a place full of mean or bad kids. But like many schools, especially back then, strength, size, and your social standing dictated the pecking order. And considering I had precious little of any of those qualities going for me, I was pretty much on my own.

Toni and her crowd pushed past me on the way out to play with focused disregard at best, a vague threat of violent suppression at worst. The quieter, seemingly nicer kids in the grade simply steered away because I was an unknown character whom they knew was not going to be around long. And I was left leaning against a far stretch of wall by myself.

I can’t recall why my brother and sister were not nearby, because they certainly went to that same school. I suspect that the lunch periods were slightly staggered so that while I saw the older kids enough to get a sense of them, they did not stay with us the whole time; so probably we shared a quick “hi, how are you?” before they had to go back in and I was left alone. Whatever the reason, there I stood staring at all the other kids playing, and wondering if there might be a way for me to break in to their circle for some fun during my short couple of weeks as a member of their proud student body.

Kids of that age, you may recall, are not exactly social wizards. Most of us are easily intimidated, quick to be embarrassed, and certain that any mishap will seal our fate as hopeless losers much to the shame of our families who will probably have no choice but to leave us for adoption at some church in a big city. So while I am not feeling sorry for myself here, I think I am accurately reflecting my overall start of mind and the sense of limited options I felt I had at the time.

Then I saw Abraham. Wonder of wonders, he too was leaning against the wall, not terribly far from where I stood, and he too was alone. I was honestly puzzled. After all, he went to school here every day. All the kids knew his name. He seemed polite enough in class, and I had not heard him exchange any sharp words with anyone. In fact, I was not sure that I had heard him speak.

I sidled over tentatively and took up a closer position. Abraham looked at me with what appeared to be the same mix of curiosity and tentativeness.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi,” he answered.

A good start. Solid. Not too chummy. Not too standoffish.

“Do you want to play?” I asked.

I don’t remember what he said next. All I remember is that glorious explosion of emotion that children experience when they launch into a bout of wild running, and giggling, and spinning, and exploring, and chattering, and laughing, and marveling at how the world around them has suddenly been made brighter by the presence of a friend. In a heartbeat our collective loneliness fused into desperate, overflowing, and exultant joy. The wall we had leaned on was left behind, the wall between us vanished. Recess was probably only fifteen or twenty minutes long; thirty tops. But I felt as if it were a whole summer, so great was my relief at finding I would not have to be so terribly alone during my sentence in this faraway place.

When the bell sounded, we staggered back to the building as fast friends. Laughing. Pushing at each other. Kidding and laughing some more. Two boys who were outside the circle, who’d drawn a circle of their own.

Then as we reached the line of students preparing to go back inside, Toni erupted from the crowd; eyes wide, bellowing an accusation. “You were playing with Abraham!” she shouted. “I’m going to tell!”

I am not a saint. I think sometimes I am not even a good person. But I was a child, and in that moment I was truly befuddled by what she was saying. How could playing with anyone be wrong? From where I stood, even then, I felt as if denying play to a child was like denying water. And yet, there I was in a sudden desert of hostility, wondering where I had made the wrong turn.

I’ve gone on too long, and sorry about that. I’ll complete the story tomorrow. Hope all is well.


Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.

soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Windy

    Truly beautiful! Thank you for sharing with me.

    August 1, 2010 at 9:06 pm |
  2. Windy

    I don't think Tom really wants comments from anyone, except maybe from the President.

    August 1, 2010 at 8:57 pm |
  3. C

    Mr. Foreman,
    I liked this:
    The wall we had leaned on was left behind, the wall between us vanished.

    and this:
    Two boys who were outside the circle, who’d drawn a circle of their own.

    thanks for the anecdote. Sometimes stories solve many problems rather than strategic 50,000 pages of plans people spend countless hours arguing about.

    Lover of stories,

    August 1, 2010 at 12:31 am |
  4. Draco

    Previous presidents were routinely referred to as "Bush," "Clinton," etc., while in office, without the title.

    "Allowed"? We're "allowed" to call the occupant of the WH anything we want, Queenie.

    August 1, 2010 at 12:26 am |
  5. Queen Edwards

    Mr. Cooper,
    I have the highest respect for you and your program, but why is it that people are allowed to refer to the current president by his last name without acknowledgeing his tital? When they refer to former presidents they almost always refer to them as former President, even when they are speaking in reference of our current president in the same conversation.

    July 31, 2010 at 7:39 pm |
  6. Sr. Michelle

    Finish tomorrow? No fair! I'm totally captivated!

    July 31, 2010 at 10:47 am |