Essay Non-Fiction posted February 4, 2013


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My pasty white venture into black America

Discovering Black America

by forestport12

My view of black America is still sketchy at best. As I write this, I'm still trying to focus the lens. We go to a thriving church, and within our membership we have families of mixed races, and our church just hired a black song director. But that doesn't mean I should get a gold star because my family fills a pew. What seems relevant is to talk about where I came from and how during my lifetime, I had needed to learn some truths.

As a writer, I prefer to talk about colors and the many hues, not just black and white. The world we as writers create with ink would be boring if we couldn't describe the different tones in one's skin. The caramel skinned Hispanic, The dark golden skin of a half black girl who looks like an Egyptian goddess. I think you get the picture. After all we come in all shapes and sizes, and we come in all kinds of colors, and if our writing is authentic and fearless, we magnificently color the world we create. We make it believable!

I still get the chills whenever I hear a portion of Doctor Martin Luther King's speech. He dreamed of day, "when a man would not be judged by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character." Part of what makes his speech rake my spine is how he gets into my soul. He believed in a truth I hold dear: we were all made in the image of God. Yet the true God is without color. God is spirit. I don't think God needs to be a fat black woman in the book "Shack", anymore than he needs to inhabit the body of Don Knots. We just need to see beyond the skin.

My first taste of how blacks were viewed came from my white Catholic family in the 1960's. I still remember to this day, how my father and Uncle used derogatory remarks about black people, but if Ernie Davis or Jim Brown ran a football for their beloved team, Syracuse University, they wished nothing better, than to have that black man run over every white defender like he was a sack of flour.

I grew up in central New York, where in grade school every one did a mock vote for President. Most voted for Johnson or Nixon, but I made a solitary vote for George Wallace. No doubt, it had something to do with the way I was raised. My dynamic political stance at that time was not helping me win friends and influence people.

Flash forward about twenty-five years later, and as a man in my thirties, I landed a job with ServiceMaster. We worked a contract with the largest power company in NY, and I became the assistant manager for housekeeping. Guess what? The manager I reported to from ServiceMaster was Chuck Shaw, a black man. The person we had to report to for the grid company was a black man. His boss was a black man. As I looked down the hall one of the black housekeepers who was the funniest man I ever met came up to me in my stiff shirt and tie, and said, "How's it feel to have the shoe on the other foot?" It was a Kodak moment, I will never forget. I knew then, the face of corporate America had changed.

Chuck Shaw and I had a good relationship. But one time I challenged him, when he told me, "Stan, you don't know the city. You don't have a clue."

I was offended by Chuck's statement, because I grew up on the west side. The Italians were on one street; we Polish people lived on the next. Our gangs were like reruns of the "Little Rascals."

One time, Chuck offered for me to see the real city. One afternoon, we borrowed our cleaning equipment from the building and headed over to a place called "Tip Hill."
A word to the wise, never trust a place that is described as a crooked or uneven hill. But I was game, and it meant getting out of our drab office without windows.

The big brown ten-story building seemed harmless enough from the outside. On the inside, we rode an elevator. When we stepped out into the hall, I felt then that I had stepped into another world. It was a dim-lit corridor where the air felt stale enough to taste it. Down the way, two black brothers gave me a go to hell look, as if wondering what my real intentions might be. Chuck was a tall dude. So I tried to shadow him, a white shadow, no pun intended.

When we got into the room that needed carpet cleaning, I thought I'd be relieved, but the carpet smelled worse than the hall, some kind of old brown shag, that smelled like wet dog. And there were these bugs that scurried around the edges of the room. It was the first time I'd ever seen cockroaches that far north. I was just glad they were not the size of water bugs.

Then I got brave enough to look at the single mother and her five or six year-old son, I knew it was more than carpet cleaning. He wanted me to see how this one family existed, not lived, but existed. The black woman was frail, mid-thirties. She wore her hair straight, and it had a waxen glow in contrast to her sad blood-shot eyes. The boy had famous afro-hair and was a ball of energy. I would have thought he was stealing pep from his mom, maybe downloading it into his own hard drive existence.

We cleaned the carpet and left. On our way to Burger King, Chuck asked me what I thought. I told him it certainly opened my eyes. But then I asked him what was wrong with the mother.

"She has this disease called Sickle Cell Anemia."

I knew it was a disease partial to blacks.

After that, Chuck and I took turns getting together with our families. Chuck liked bass fishing in our big lake, and sometimes we would skip work and go fish. Secretly, I think we both liked the bass because they were colorful characters in or out of the water.

I guess what I'm trying to say: It's hard to be color-blind and be a writer. But in my humble opinion, a good writer will write about what matters to us all. He will write about the heartache in the city of single black mother who has a death sentence and doesn't know if her hyperactive son will grow up in a gang and die before his sixteenth birthday. At the end of the day we write about the soul of humanity.

"It was never about the carpet was it?"

Thanks Chuck, for making me a better writer.
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Thanks Puddle Jumper for the appropriate picture.

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