I grew up in suburban Philadelphia, until I was 15 and left for Colorado to live with my Mother in early 1959. I lived on the “Main Line” in the 1950s, where I remember an often played and frequently discussed public service spot on radio that featured the suggestion, “Take a Negro to lunch.” I was about 12, and having had almost no contact with Negroes, I thought that was a good idea. We could all start to get to know each other.
One of my favorite bits of wisdom is that behind every face there is a story. In the midst of racial upheaval in our country, America, I am going to “get naked” and share the racial part of what is behind this face.
That is the subject of today’s 15-minute episode.
Like most of the middle class families in my lily-white area, Dad went to work and Mom was the homemaker. As was common, we had a Negro housekeeper, Elsie Kayah, who came in once a week. She kept to herself and worked hard. I thought it was pretty cool when I heard from my Stepmother, Paula, that Elsie was a Holy Roller. Dad (also William Luden) was quiet, timid, and book smart. I yearned to know him. Paula was the original Wicked Witch of the West. I yearned to get away from her. My Mom had left when I was 1, and I did not see her again for about 8 years.
Included in the discussions about the lunch with Negroes campaign, were specific issues, e.g., would you sell your home to a Negro. One day, during the height of these public discussions, I asked my Dad if he would sell our home to a Negro. I was sure I knew what his answer would be, but he responded, “No, that would reduce the property values for our friends and neighbors.” I froze. My Dad was not perfect. What should I do? Well, I just sat there in disappointed silence.
Years later, after I had moved to Colorado, my Mom, Stepfather, Chuck Warner, and I were in a restaurant in Denver where they had the 1959 Ingemar Johansson/Floyd Patterson heavyweight championship fight on the radio for all in the restaurant to hear. I had allowed myself to be charmed by the romantic image Johansson had built around himself; handsome guy, surrounded by fine things and beautiful women. And he did not seem to train all that hard, and certainly not in the usual sweaty gyms. To this 17-year-old, that was heady stuff. I started getting excited when it became clear that Johansson was going to win. Chuck told me to quiet down and cool it. Mom supported him, pointing out that the black wait staff would not react well to my enthusiasm. And right there was another lesson in race relations; the first one taught to me by my Dad, the second by my Stepfather. Both of them had served in the segregated Army in WWII.
After flunking out of college as a Freshman at the University of Colorado (decades before you had the say “Boulder” to identify the campus), I went into the Army. For 3 years, 2 months and 25 days, I slept in crowded open bays with blacks and whites, and served overseas for 27 months with both races.
My next lesson came at Fort Riley Kansas, after both Basic and Advanced Training. Bill Duvall and I became good friends while serving in the HQ Platoon, HQ Company, 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment. We had the same sense of humor, the same vocabulary and outlook on many things–and we were the only two to go to the Post library at all, much less to try and read Beowulf. I hardly noticed that Bill was black. But apparently his black friends noticed that I was white. One day, Bill came up to me announcing, “I can’t be friends with you anymore.” With his group of black friends standing a few feet away, he continued, “They are calling me an Uncle Tom, and I have to choose between you and them.” He walked away, and that was the last thing he ever said to me. That hit me hard, and I tried to understand what was so different about me that his black friends would force that choice. The only incident that came to mind was the time, the day after a payday, when I was included in the group with Bill and his friends going to the Post Exchange (PX) cafeteria to pay for lunch, instead of eating free at the mess hall. I asked one of the black guys why, and he responded, “When we have money, we are not even supposed to eat that free stuff.” That made no sense to me, but I went along to get along.
In the same barracks, a drafted NYC Cop, I have mercifully forgotten his name, came up to me, referring to my hanging out with Bill, and said, “You’re just a N***** Lover, aren’t you? I had never heard the term, so I stood there parsing the phrase. N***** I knew was an uncomplimentary word meaning Negroe, and I knew what love meant. I did not love Bill, but I liked him a lot, and he was a Negroe, so I said, honestly, if naively, “Yes. Yes, I am.” The draftee, who was soon to return to NYC to resume being a cop, had no idea how to respond to that, so he sneered and turned on his heel.
After Fort Riley, I served 27 months in the Far East. One of my overseas co-worker Army friends was James, same rank, who worked a few feet away from me. James was black, and we were friends. The kind of friends who could talk with each other about just about anything without being nervous. We did not hang out after hours, as Bill and I once did, but boy did we talk. We had honest, fearless conversations about what we saw as racial differences. One of things that James explained was when the monthly payday came around, many of his black friends would spend every dime on clothing, clothing like capes, canes and “cool” hats. Then strut their stuff through the local Okinawan villages. Like spending money for PX food when the mess hall was open, that made no sense to me. But I listened and tried to understand. James and I never hung out together, but we laughed a lot, helped each other out when we needed help, and listened to each other. Actually listened, and listened not to criticize, judge or even imitate–just to listen and understand.
Later on, I managed to be accepted as an MBA candidate at the Harvard Business School. Almost no blacks there, and most of those were foreign students. I did well enough that I was asked to be available in my second-year to assist struggling first-year students. The point here is that one can go from flunking out of a state school to being asked to be a student tutor at Harvard.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted how shameful it was that one of the most segregated hours in America is 11 AM on Sundays. I saw that in my years as a member of the Menlo Park Presbyterinan Church, not surprisingly in Menlo Park, CA. I still have not gotten over how strange it felt to know that we were supporting black churches in Africa, along with a black church in nearby East Palo Alto. Why were we separate? Was it for the same reason that Bill Duvall had to separate from me? If unbridgeable race issues kept the churches from combining, why could we not spend time together and learn from each other as James and I had done? I still do not have those answers.
Fast forward a few decades to when Marcia and I adopted our black son, Sean Ward, at age 10. One day, walking to school hand-in-hand, Sean, feeling the pressure of being black in a white family in a white neighborhood, said to Marcia, “Mom, I wish they could spray you all black or me all white.” Flipping the scene, on one of my visits back to see Sean as an adult in his black neighborhood in Oakland, he turned to me as I was driving us through his hood, saying, “Don’t worry, Dad, you’re with me.”
I saw more racism–on both sides–during my years with Sean than I care to remember. Sean was in the system, and his Parole Officer, remember Sean was 10 and he had a parole officer, Fred, once said to me, “Sean is going to have trouble out there. He is even blacker than I am.” Some of his black jailers were livid that a white family was adopting him. They were challenged by another black officer who said, “No black family wants him, not even his own family. Do you want to adopt him?” The white social workers kept underestimating him, and had him in the slow classes in school. Every day, he would leave the common home room, and walk down the hall to the slow class, so he was growing up believing that he was stupid. But when I talked to him about football, a subject where he had a fact base, he could hold an intelligent conversation. At 10, Sean could not tell time. He did not know the days of the week. Or what a city or state was. At one meeting with the social workers, I got frustrated and said, “Sean is not slow, he simply does not have the fact base of a normal 10-year-old. Instead of having hour-long meetings about him where everyone goes home at 4:30, has anyone ever tried reading to him?” That was the last meeting Marcia allowed me to attend…:).
And Luca Perry. Luca was the GM at one of the two local supermarkets in our neighborhood. As I had done with Billy, my eldest son, when he came of working age, I was out hustling to help find Sean a job. I knew Luca, and mentioned that my son was looking for a job, “Great, I always have a need for a bagger.” I brought Sean in to introduce him to Luca. After taking his first look at Sean, Luca said, “Sorry, no openings.” Bastard.
I grew up in a white middle class neighborhood, with my Dad and a truly mean Stepmother. George Floyd grew up with no dad, and in poverty. I was all but an only child, George had several siblings. I saw racism and racial differences from time-to-time, George was immersed in them. Differences, yes, but the basic difference was that I had voices, direct and indirect, in my ear that hinted that a good life, that success was possible. Neither of my parents nor stepparents succeeded at much of anything. Dad committed suicide at 53, and Paula, my stepmother, died an alchollic, unable to recognize family or friends on the street. I stumbled badly more than once, but I knew that better was possible. I wandered off course often, and got off course badly, but somehow I knew that more was indeed possible. I knew deep down there was a True North out there for me. I had been introduced to God, and had knowledge of people not unlike me who led good lives and succeeded. If that is privilege, white or not, then I was privileged.
In sixth grade, I had two teachers who believed in me, then a perennially poor student. Did anyone believe in George when he was 12?
I remember Sunday School teachers telling me that God is Love. Did Mr. Floyd ever hear that message?
Are we, are you, ready to be the voices that hint to the George Floyds of the world that they, too, can succeed? Are we going to be a person who expresses belief in them? Or are we going to allow them to wander off into unhappy lives of drugs and crime, saying “tsk, tsk” when they run amok?
Yes, George and I are different. But not different in the ways that most people would observe, like race, neighborhood and money. I had a peek into a world where I knew I could succeed, and occasional reminders that I had worth. My take is that George did not, and that was our greatest difference.
Mr. Floyd suffered a horrific, public death. And the symbolism of a white cop choking the life out of him with a knee on his neck was likely not lost on him, and it certainly has not been lost on the rest of the world. If we are going to honor Mr. Floyd, the way to do it is not with burning and looting, or defunding law enforcement. And it is not with more government involvement in race relations. The government’s track record there is spotty at best. It is with each of us becoming personally involved in listening to each other. In believing in each other. Without fail, without quitting.
Perhaps we can start, just as a start, by taking each other–each other–to lunch. And listening.
Remember, The core, driving principles at Revolution 2.0, are:
- Personal Responsibility; take it, teach it and,
- Be Your Brother’s Keeper. The answer to the biblical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is a ringing, unequivocal “Yes.” There is no other answer.
As we get ready to wrap up, please do respond in the episodes with comments or questions about this episode or anything that comes to mind, or connect with me on Twitter, @willluden, Facebook, facebook.com/will.luden, and LinkedIn, www.linkedin.com/in/willluden/. And you can subscribe on your favorite device through Apple, Google, or Stitcher.
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Will Luden, coming to you from 7,200’ in Colorado Springs.
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- Become An Activist, Or Live With The Consequences (EP. 371) - October 8, 2021