Thursday, August 26, 2010

Black Like Me

I was reminiscing today and two memories collided.  An early one was when I was in elementary school.  I tried out for the sixth grade play at Park Hill Elementary School (Denver).  It was 1963.  I was twelve.  By 1969, a senior at East High School, we were featured in a Life magazine article as the only fully integrated high school in the country.  East High was a model of integration in a battle over civil rights and my high school was closed and all students sent home when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.  I had a black girlfriend.  But back in 1963 things were still quiet, I guess, I was just twelve and trying out for  the school play. Years later as an adult I would recall this memory with amazement and horror and also some humor.  The role I was given was of the Black porter at the train station.  I had to put black-face make-up on and talk with a dialect.  The script called for it. 

The-years-later-recollection-as-an-adult had me realizing that I stood before an integrated audience of blacks and whites, children and adults in black face.  What amazed me was - I wasn't stoned.  Either by the audience or by being on drugs.  I never was aware of any reverberations, no riots.  It amazed me that in 1963 my teachers had a play with a black porter at the train station and a white kid in black face. I still can't quite "get my mind around it."

Black Like Me the non-fiction book by journalist John Howard Griffin was first published in 1961. Griffin was a white native of Mansfield, Texas and the book describes his six-week experience travelling on Greyhound buses (occasionally hitchhiking) throughout the racially segregated states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia passing as a black man. Sepia Magazine financed the project in exchange for the right to print the account first as a series of articles. Griffin kept a journal of his experiences; the 188-page diary was the genesis of the book. In 1959, at the time of the book's writing, race relations were particularly strained in America; Griffin's aim was to explain the difficulties facing black people in certain areas. Under the care of a doctor, Griffin artificially darkened his skin to pass as a black man.  And a little white kid at Park Hill Elementary School (Denver) put black face on for the 6th grade play.

The other recollection that came back recently was from my 10 day intensive Centering Prayer retreat at St. Benedict's Monastery, Snowmass, Colorado. It was 1989.  I was a Presbyterian minister working for the Archdiocese of Denver and my boss was a Catholic nun.  One morning at 2 a.m. I was hiking up the dirt road from the farmhouse to the Monastery for Vigils.  Walking beside me was a new friend, a black City-Councilwoman from Rochester, New York.  As we walked along she suddenly blurted out, "My God, man, you've got rhythm!" Somehow it was a great validation for me.  It was as if she said, "My God, man you've got SOUL!" 
Dr. Laura Schlessinger got in big trouble for using the 'N" word recently.  I have some suggestions for her.
And you?
Got Soul?