Tom Foreman | BIO
Reporter's Note: President Obama wants to have a national discussion about race. Here is my contribution.
Dear Mr. President,
So to continue my story from yesterday (and sorry again that it is so long)…
Toni appeared not so much angry, as astonished and righteously indignant. I had clearly walked brazenly across some social line that simply was not to be crossed in polite company (or at least not in her company) and her tone, body language, and expression all said retribution was at hand.
I looked to Abraham for some kind of answer, but he’d regressed back into the shy, quiet kid who was not engaged with others. I looked at the rest of the class, as they quickly stepped away as if I had some sort of contagion. And then we all shuffled back into class. Toni was at Mrs. Johnson’s side before I even entered the room; whispering, casting sidelong looks, and striding back to her desk with the smug satisfaction of a prison snitch. I was nervous. Unsure of what I had done, and worried about the repercussions.
To my relief and Mrs. Johnson’s credit, her sympathetic look instantly told me that she did not share Toni’s malicious joy in my misstep, but my heart still jumped when, as soon as she had everyone scribbling away on some assignment, she wagged a finger for me to join her in the long corridor of the coat closet.
“I understand that you were playing with Abraham,” she said.
I nodded. “Yes, maam.”
“I know that you’re not from here, and maybe people do things a little differently where you come from but…we don’t play with Abraham here.”
My panic ebbed. This wasn’t about me. But right behind the relief came burning curiosity. This business of “not playing” with someone as a permanent state of punishment was something I had never encountered. The most ill behaved child I’d ever met up until that point had at worst been paddled or put into a corner or sent to his room for a while. The idea of being ostracized from the entire universe of play, seemed so unthinkable, so medieval, that I could not imagine what crime could have landed him in such straits.
“You don’t? What did he do?” I asked wide-eyed.
“Well, he…we…we just don’t play with him.”
I waited for more. Surely that could not be the entire answer, and it wasn’t. Sort of.
“We just don’t. So you can play with the other children during recess.”
I did not bother pointing out that whatever Abraham had done to deserve his fate was something that I obviously had stumbled into as well, since none of the other kids seemed interested in playing with me either, despite her helpful suggestion. I went back to my desk less concerned, but more confused about what was going on. And a little upset. I had solved the puzzle of “who will be my friend for the next two weeks in this strange and vaguely hostile place?” and now my solution was undone because Abraham was apparently some kind of childhood equivalent to a serial killer.
That evening, back at my grandmother’s house, I told my parents what had happened, still flinchy that the teacher might have called ahead to inform them that I had strayed into the wrong crowd. My mother smiled the way mothers do when they have to explain something horrible about the world to their children.
My mother, I should note, grew up in this town and had attended this same school. She knew all the people of the town as well as anyone could and understood how they thought. She’d also met and married my father, who was from Chicago, and together they had seen a bit of the world by that time; skipping from state to state as his military assignments dictated, crossing the ocean in a ship to give birth to my brother in Africa, building their own sense of self-reliance and their own opinions and values all along the way. She was and will always be a daughter of Alabama whom that state should be very proud of, and maybe never more than on that day. Because her answers were direct, fair, and neither condoned nor condemned the choices of others, but made it clear what our values would and should be.
“They don’t play with Abraham because he is black. Some people see black people as different from white people and they don’t think the two should be together. That’s how it is in that school. It was that way when I went to school there, too.”
“So it’s not something he did?”
“No. He hasn’t done anything wrong, and there is nothing wrong with him. You know Ronnie back home?” Ronnie was a wonderful, funny, kind and to me hugely accomplished young man who lived across the street from us on the Air Force base outside of Rapid City. “There’s nothing wrong with Ronnie, is there?”
“No. Not Ronnie.” To the contrary, he was a near hero in the world of us little boys. “I like Ronnie.”
“I like Ronnie, too. And I like his family. They are nice people.”
“So what should I do?”
“If you want to play with Abraham, you go right ahead. I’ll call the school.”
And that’s what happened. She and my dad had a discussion with the principal, and despite some lingering animosity and snips from Toni and her crowd, I went on to play with Abraham every day. We generally stayed to the far edges of the football field where we would not find ourselves in a direct line of contempt, but there was plenty to do, so we had no complaints. We looked into a chicken yard behind a man’s house, and watched the hens tending their eggs. We ran and pushed and wrestled as kids do. We talked about the problems of having older brothers and sisters. And we basked in the pleasure of finding a friend in a forbidding place, if only for a couple of weeks.
The other kids gradually grew bored with badgering us, and seemed content to hurl the occasional “n-lover” comment at me, and heaven knows what they said to Abraham, but that was about it. Christmas, after all, was coming fast and the entire school was taking on a holiday spirit. Cardboard decorations were appearing in class windows. Snowmen and snowflakes were being scissored out of paper by children who had never seen a flake. My experience of having lived through several blizzards caused a brief sensation, and shifted my position from that of pariah to mere outcast.
One day we drew names for class gifts. The box went around, hands of various and debatable degrees of cleanliness dipped in and came out clutching scraps of paper. Giggles, whispers, and secret smiles ricocheted around the room. I’m pretty sure I remember the teacher saying she would take Abraham’s name. I drew Brenda’s, and under the rules of the class, that meant she had mine.
Christmastime in Alabama can be chilly. It’s not the biting cold of northern states to be sure, but frost can spread over the Bermuda grass and crisp up the stubble in the fields, and the kudzu along the roadsides. Mornings can seem gray and nippy on a drizzly day, or the sun can shine brightly against a knifing breeze. Sometimes I think the issue is that no one expects it to get really cold, so they don’t bother buying serious cold weather clothing. Instead, year after year, they try to sneak by with a few flannel shirts and light jackets. Except the deer hunters. They seem to know better and bundle up against the bone aching temperatures of pre-dawn.
I don’t recall how it was that December, other than that it must have been cool enough. I say that because one Saturday my parents took us into a small town nearby to see Santa and it was cold that day. As best I can remember, there was some sort of family connection to the man in this particular red suit, so we knew to be extra polite and appreciative. But it was not an encouraging experience.
For some reason this Santa had seen his last visitor hours if not days before we came by. At least it seemed that way. He was sitting in the middle of an empty, desolate storefront. The room was as bleak as foreclosure: tattered acoustic tile ceiling, unswept linoleum floor, no lights except the blue shadows of late afternoon seeping through the front windows. And there Santa sat by himself on a metal folding chair with a sad bag of candy as his side, drawling out “ho ho ho’s” so thin and reedy it was obvious that if he lived on either pole it was the south one.
Nonetheless we sat on his knee and passed on our wishes for the holiday. I think my brother and sister went along with all this just for my sake, since I was still young enough to believe, although even at that tender age I did not believe this guy’s act. Still, I wanted a ventriloquist puppet that year more than anything else (except perhaps a trip back to South Dakota) and I dutifully registered my request with the man in red.
My expectations were low. I enjoyed my leisure time at my grandmother’s house every time we came, and this was no exception. But the school had cast a damper on the days, and that deepened my concern that the real Santa might be hard pressed to find me way down here when he would undoubtedly be looking for me out west.
And on the morning of the school gift exchange, I was told to keep those expectations in check. “You know,” my grandmother said, “Brenda’s family doesn’t have much money.”
“They’re very poor,” my mother added.
I already knew this and wasn’t sure of the point. “Mm hmm.” I said.
“So I would not expect much of a gift today,” my mother said. “But make sure you don’t let on. Be nice. Tell her how much you like it and say thank you, no matter what she gives you. Even if it’s homemade or something like that.”
I don’t want to overstate it. This was hardly Little House on the Prairie. I don’t know how poverty stricken Brenda’s family was, but it’s not as if she were braiding corn husks into a GI Joe. I regret to say I haven’t the faintest recollection of what I gave to her, but sure enough the gift she brought to school for me was extremely modest. It was a somewhat faded paperboard checkers set, almost small enough to slip into a pants pocket. Despite my private disappointment (remember, I was in first grade where no matter what people say about the innocence of children some measure of personal greed, especially at Christmas, is a constant) I thanked her, smiled, and took solace amid the chatter of happy kids around me, that one way or the other this was the last hour I would have to spend in this particular school. I would say good riddance to Toni and her gang, and goodbye to Abraham. My family would celebrate Christmas with my grandmother, open our gifts in the Alabama morning, go to worship in the old plain church which my grandfather and some other local men had planed from the timbers that grew around, and then we would head back to South Dakota.
And so it was. I received not only the ventriloquist puppet I wanted, but also a hugely entertaining little, yellow plastic dog with wheels which would race across the floor and flatten his nose into the baseboards if you revved him up enough. Not only that, but back in South Dakota, we found that Santa had stopped there while we were gone too, leaving three shiny new hockey sticks leaning in a corner, one for each child.
Months later, my grandmother told me unbidden that she’d heard kids in school were now playing with Abraham a bit and including him more in their activities. Who knows? Maybe she just said so to make me feel better, or because she didn’t know what to say when I asked about him. I thought about Brenda from time to time too, because it occurred to me that she was also an outsider in that school; not as far outside as Abraham, but certainly enough to feel the pain.
I had not set out to make things better for anyone else. Not for Abraham. Not for Brenda. I was just a child who wanted a friend, and had been taught basic manners. Any good that came from my colorblind or classless view was purely an accident, or must be attributed to the teachings of my parents. And yet, in those few weeks I experienced lessons in race, poverty, fairness, and bigotry that remain with me. I hesitate to condemn anyone in that story, because they…like us…were all products of their time, and in the worst of them there was still good to be found. (Except maybe Toni. She was just one of those timeless bullies for whom I have never had any use or respect.) In any event, it is too easy for each generation to mock and disparage the one that went before, blind to our own faults which will certainly bring the same scorn in years to come.
Furthermore, I don’t think there are any great lessons in this tale, beyond the fact that it illustrates some of the complexity of race relations in our country. The idea that many African-Americans, like Abraham, were treated terribly not only in the days of slavery, but also for generations afterward is indisputable. Many towns in the north, south, east, and west remained de facto segregated long after integration became the law of the land, and many still do at least to some degree. I was born late enough to have only faint memories of the trailing edges of the hard core days, but early enough to have witnessed the long, difficult struggle to put that awful legacy into the past.
The reality of race relations in any one person’s life can and often does diverge wildly from the theoretical racism on the table when we try to have a national discussion. If the nation were filled with only long-suffering, decent black families and brutal, racist white families, it would be easy to see the right and wrong on every stage. But that’s not the case. My whiteness and Abraham’s blackness, made us neither good nor evil. It truly was just the color of our skin, just as it is with all people.
And while injustice often breaks along racial lines, sometimes it follows the faults of poverty, ignorance, or regionalism with just as much cruel efficiency. My parents both came from what almost anyone except them would describe as poor families. (I say “except them” because they always pointed out that there were families like Brenda’s, and it was unseemly to whine when others were suffering more; and after all, by the time I came along, they had worked their way solidly into the middle class.) The poor and middle class of our nation, black, white and otherwise, have long suffered bigotry and exclusion. Maybe the folks at the country club barred the door to your black relatives on sight; but my white kin were not welcome either. Those guarding the gates just had to get a little closer to identify us.
So I suspect the beginning of this race discussion for which you hope, must begin with that acknowledgment; that our battle to overcome racism can’t be based on an overly simple equation of oppressors and oppressed. Because any given American, in real life, has probably been on both sides at one time or another…black and white.
Let me apologize once more for droning on so much this weekend. Hope you are well.