In the past year or more, I have been introduced to the work of Ta Nehisi Coates. This exposure was tardy on my part, which is unfortunately the pattern my life has followed on race issues in America where, though aware of the basic issues, my own understanding of the depth of the problem was always seen from my position of white privilege. My own California exposure in the 50s and 60s, either from within the lens of my family or through my own individual lens trying to make sense of the world as I came of age, was not what I now wished it would have been. As I look back upon that youth and later from my Baby Boomer’s aging eyes, I do wish I had been more attentive and had also participated more in correcting the situation. Mr. Coates has become a sensation in the past several years for his ability to frame the issue of race in historical and personal terms. I was first aware when he wrote the article in 2014 in the Atlantic expressing the moral necessity of the United States to make reparations to the black community for several hundred years of racial policies that, in the article’s thesis, have not adequately addressed the issue. This year, I truly enjoyed his audio book, read by the author himself, that was a letter to his then teenage son about the lessons all black fathers must impart to their sons in America, though this was a specific story about his own personal black history pegged against his father’s history and the emerging, current racial history his son was experiencing. For Coates, it was a story of some progress, but overall was a profound condemnation of this country’s racial profile.
In another recent letter, former NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan, recently coming out as gay, read a letter on CBS to his younger self. In that letter, he explains that all will eventually turn out well, even though much of that life will be tormented and filled with self-loathing, doubt and plans for suicide. These feelings were constant even as he enjoyed success in football throughout school, university and in the pros. In another letter from Peggy Whitson, American female astronaut who owns our the record for being in space for the longest time, she basically wrote a biographical letter to her younger self. In it she had only one plea to do a bit better earlier, by stepping up to the role model she should have embraced more effectively and earlier.
In the vein of writing a letter to one’s younger self and with the focus the history of race in America as told from a person who has not had to suffer one day of prejudice based on race, it is my desire to address thoughts that have been with me throughout my life, but with the main emphasis as that of a plea to that younger self that serves as an admission of disappointment in how that life transpired vis-a-vis race in America. Race is an issue that, the more I research it, am exposed to it and understand it, the less satisfied I am with myself in handling it as racial speed bumps interrupted my journey. I have befriended many individuals of color or in the minority in this country, one in Vienna whom I consider to be among my closest of friends. Yet, I now realize that I missed too many opportunities to engage in my community in so many instances.
When Greg Popovich spoke out recently about how whites have no clue what it means to live in a world of white privilege, he was reacting to the American society that is now splintering due to race-bating, populist rhetoric and releasing the Kraken of white supremacy that had been pushed under the seas of sensibility for much of my life. Now we see too often what too many in this country feel, believe and say about race, exposing their hatred and ignorance, and often without remorse and never with contrition. Indeed, we have a slimy leader who does not lead, who dissembles and divides as policy, almost always speaking to his hateful white base that is thankfully shrinking. His own racist comments and efforts to thrust racial issues into the political arena have met with far too much success, though, in my opinion. He is the symptom of our problem, not the cause, and it is our responsibility, through all the public avenues available, to refute and condemn all rhetoric that allows anyone to diminish another human’s existence based on the differing DNA we all carry. Though some of us are blessed with a more fortunate construction of this string (but not because of one’s epidermis), no one can claim theirs is superior for political or preferential purposes.
So, starting with David Miller, the 10 year old living in Alexandria, Virginia, while your father worked for the Marine Corps at Henderson Hall, the Headquarters for the Marines, and Mr. Coates, current spokesperson for the black race in America, here is my letter to the two of you. It will be addressed to the younger self of varying ages, but it is also an admission to others.
Your parents came from a simple rural background, growing up in Appalachia mining for coal on Miller’s Creek in Kentucky. It was a wonderful community of good people who dealt with that society as honestly as they could, even though I now understand it better and it has been referenced in J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy for others to comprehend. Yet, my immediate family is not uneducated, nor unemployed, even if many of them do support the politics coming out of these roots. Some of this family is still in Pikeville, some took the Hillbilly Highway to Detroit, some lived in rural Ohio, some have relocated to Florida from their initial life in Ohio to escape the cold, and some followed my parents to California. it was, for all to them, a white world, but the basic tenets of humanism were always practiced in their households.
You probably recognized that inherent suspicion of anyone “other’, whether it was someone who practiced another religion, spoke a different language, dressed differently or had different skin tones, but it was not the practice in the Miller household to debase anyone directly. Yours was the instruction to keep to yourself, make no waves, keep your head down and get on with your personal responsibility. My note to you now six decades later is to read more, ask more questions, see that you are aware of such things reported in the news, even if you are only a child. Coming of age has responsibilities, ones that should make the individual better aware of the world’s issues and pitfalls, to offer him protection from those who could do him harm. But, also it expects the individual in assuming his adulthood to become a better member of his community, offering sustenance and betterment through participation and offerings. All religions have these expectations and these lessons were implicit in the Miller family.
Yet, the explicit nature of that world was not so apparent in your family as events unfolded in the 50s and 60s. Conversations about the news of the world did not frequent the dinner table discussions. It would be useful to be aware of those incidents and decisions made in the country that are of the most paramount, to take the day’s events and digest them through the family lens. Yet, though my parents are complicit in creating who you are, you realized at probably this age, that you were the one responsible for who you would be. You need to hone the necessary tools earlier and use them with more force.
At the time of the Brown vs the Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court in 1954, you did not know of its import when it took place, and you as an eight year old can be forgiven that deficiency. Now, in this year, 1956, many Southern Congressmen, in reaction to the Supreme Court decision, have adopted the “Southern Manifesto” that expresses the desire to maintain a strict interpretation of the Constitution and to allow states to apply social constructions that give no special rights to any one group. We are still dealing with this sentiment all these years later. You should begin your education now. You are ten. It is not too early. You see the inequities, you just haven’t understood the profound depth of what they mean.
You will find that it is difficult to defend this manifesto, as will one of its authors, Sam Ervin. Its tenets are basically to support the continuation of Jim Crow Laws with all that this implies. Some years later, when James Meredith was becoming history at Mississippi, you understood the basics. It was not a topic that came up with your friends, though. You should initiate this discussion. It’s 1962. You have grown up a bit, but certainly haven’t come of age, yet. As a sophomore in high school, you have been devouring the game of basketball for three of four years now. The coach notices you and you are having fast success beyond your maturity to understand the mental side of the game, which is your present Achilles’ Heel. You will find you are entering a sport that will eventually be dominated by black athletes. Did you follow USF when they became the first NCAA team to go undefeated and win the NCAA Championship? I can’t remember if you did. You certainly appreciate what Bill Russell has been doing in the NBA with the Celtics. You are playing all over town in San Diego with the high school team and are exposed to black basketball culture in the southeast part of the city. This has been your opening for addressing racism. Again, ask more questions, become more frustrated that the Lincoln area of Southeast San Diego is the segregated black area of San Diego, an affront to the name of the 16th president.
It is not lost on your older self that Alabama’s football team in 2017 is nearly all black, while its 1963 team and coach were not and those individuals did not have the bravery to stand against the Southern system of segregation at that time. What public voice did they raise against George Wallace when he tried to prevent the integration of Alabama? A young teenager like you should have asked that question. In 1963, Martin Luther King delivers his I Have A Dream speech. He is speaking to the nation, but you have not heard nor taken to heart his sentence within the speech: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there ‘is’ such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”
Your world is school, a few friends and a lot of basketball. Girls have become interested in you at school and you venture shyly into dating. But, one of the most important American historical figures has just spoken of the need to become involved, to understand your nation, and you have lost that opportunity. From your world to this date, race, for you means ‘you’ and the ‘other’ in society. You should seek an understanding of the ‘other’s’ world. Race can only be an issue if you think of anyone as the other. You have responsibilities here, always.
Notice that the signatories of the manifesto are all from Southern states where racial divisions extended to bathrooms, drinking fountains, schools, means of transportation, eating establishments, sports teams, hotels and such. Were you to look just a little deeper, hopefully you would be affronted by this practice at the age of ten. or fifteen, and ask questions of the adults in your life to explain why it is occurring. I know you would have seen Nat King Cole hosting the first black variety show on television. What did your parents say about it? You did not ask it at that time, which is why I am writing this letter now. Look at the covers of Time magazine from 1956, why are there no black leaders? Have you heard Rosa Parks’ name, yet? Did you notice the absence of blacks and Latinos in your life?
The 60s are critical in understanding American history. Many of the most important decisions and incidents related to race in the States occurred in this short and turbulent decade. It is also the decade when you grew into adulthood. While you handled yourself with some integrity overall, you were not a complete citizen. In looking at the important events from today’s perspective and understanding what they meant to the country as they were occurring, you could not describe their import as they were actually occurring. Indeed, some of them passed by your existence at the time without even making an imprint. This should be remedied. In the return to the States in 2006 after teaching overseas, I will visit the museum in Charlotte which commemorates the lunch counter sit ins of the early 60s. This was a massive incident you should know. You should have been more involved in discussing the implications of the efforts the Freedom Riders and those individuals who braved the system or who sat on a white department store stool and asked to be served.
Upon graduation from high school, San Diego State offers you a scholarship and your exposure continues gradually to racial issues on the court and with the players from other sports, especially the school’s football players. Working in the summer with black football players gives you a somewhat skewed view of the culture, as they are athletes first in your eyes and secondarily black. They respect your athletic talent and you are given a welcomed entry into the family of college athletes, many of whom are black. You enjoy the camaraderie, though your exchanges are based on athletic respect and almost never are issues of race brought to the fore in conversations. You are aware of the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X, but you have not sought an adequate understanding of their cause, for why they feel they need to separate from the United States. You don’t understand what is behind the black power movement, or that a Southern sheriff had killed Jimmy Lee Jackson in Alabama. This led to the March to the Pettus Bridge and the later Selma March. This is one of the most profound eras in American history, one during which you lived and which will define future approaches to racial issues in America. You were absent, even though you are now of voting age. You see images on television, but do not seek newspaper accounts, read the words of James Baldwin or any other black author, and you have only had a few discussions with some black friends about race. Your most successful venture is the mixed race couple, the black husband who has befriended you, where you discuss the issues of race from their perspective and you are open to this being accepted as the norm. But, you will not be aware of the Loving vs Virginia Supreme Court ruling at the time it was decided in 1967. At this point, though, it is only your intellectual acceptance and not your civic involvement in racial issues that gets you anywhere with racial issues. You are aware of changes LBJ made in the Civil Rights Era, though these did not change your life and you did not celebrate them, as momentous as they were. You are aware of the death of James Meredith, of the Alabama racial issues, the Los Angeles riots and the unrest and frustration blacks experienced with treatment at the hands of government agencies. Take greater stock in those issues. They are important.
After your final season at State, you started AAU ball almost immediately. The team was made up of a collection of college players from the area. Most of these were black players, the majority from USD, where Phil Woolpert of USF and Bill Russell fame ended his career. It was then that I got to know Bernie Bickerstaff, Ted Fields and Lem Lemons better. Lem was the nephew of Meadowlark and Bernie would go on to work with the NBA, eventually taking over as head coach. I saw Bernie when we moved to Charlotte some years ago and said hi, but I was always bothered by my absence from their black experience, even though I spent hours in a car, on the court and just palling around with them.
I recall to this day the time in April of 1968, driving to a game, I in the middle in the back seat and the only white in the car. On the radio the announcement came that King had been shot. It was devastating and I said something mild in reaction, I’m sure. I can’t remember what at this point. But, the other four were crushed. They spoke to each other and were deferential to me, but it was not a shared experience. I wish I could tell you now to be the full citizen of this country and to have embraced that tragedy as they did. That year was a horrible one for tragedies and the country was not handling any of them particularly well. That year is populated with racial incident after racial confrontation throughout the country. In California, the college campuses are abuzz with the issues of race. These are in your neighborhood. You watch it as a bystander, though you do have many strong opinions about the world they are engaging in. Find some group to join to express those interests and put them to use.
You were drafted by the NBA that year, but you were not ready for the business of basketball as it was practiced by the San Diego Rockets. You were introduced to some wonderful figures in the NBA world; Stu Lantz, Calvin Murphy, Jim Barnett, Pat Riley and Don Kojis. They would come out to Helix to play during the off season and it was a stunning time for basketball in San Diego. That Pat Riley was involved in NCAA Championship game in 1966, playing for Kentucky and Adolph Rupp and against an all-black team from Texas Western, is one that you let get by you at the time. You knew Pat well enough to talk about the game, but you didn’t realize the importance of the game as a social statement . To hear later that Pat went to the opposing team’s locker room after the game to congratulate them makes me like him even more than I did before. He has been a class act in basketball for his whole life. He was only a couple years older than you, but you would have done well to have breathed some of his air of maturity and awareness.
When you went overseas, that is the time when you began to understand the world and race a bit better. The black player of the London YMCA professional team was from the States and had a great perspective on life. Wilbert Olinde, a UCLA grad who played in Germany gave you an added perspective and you knew him from his high school days in San Diego, too. The biggest opportunity you had though, was the time in Vienna. There the relationships with Mike Maloy and Bernard Stackhouse gave you the best understanding of life in the black lane.
Mike was the product of fist clenched, arm in the air confrontation, coming out of Bed Stuy and playing ball for tiny Davidson in de facto segregated North Carolina: He very much was of the vein of thinking that loved Tommie Smith and John Carlos and their defiance at the Olympics and I suspect approached life with his boundless humor and strong opinions always. While you were leaning towards support of the raised fists, it made you a bit uncomfortable. You, at that time, did not have the courage like the white medalist on the third podium, Peter Norman of Australia. He wears the OPHR badge in support of their protest. It will cost him dearly in Australia, but he was proud of that moment throughout his lifetime. He does not have to write a letter to his younger self. There are statues of Carlos and Smith on the San Jose Campus today: the world has caught up to them. You’re committed to the sentiment behind the statue today, but, again, you’re a bit late.
Related to Mike Maloy’s story and life, it was then, shortly after he left school in Davidson and went into the ABA, that Charlotte, just a few miles to the south of his little college town, became the poster city of busing and desegregation ordered by the Supreme Court. When I arrived there in the early part of this century knowing Mike as I did, I was astounded by the smallness and provincial attitudes at that time of Davidson and was intrigued by the city that Charlotte had become. I worked at an independent school that had opened in 1941 and was wholly white at the time. It now has a ‘diversity’ administrator, the first black head master in the South and works towards full integration in its lame way. There are several other independent schools in Charlotte, all opening shortly after the 1973 court case as white flight schools. Such a shameful decision that has been followed by nearly every city in the country. The solution to the racial issues in America must begin in all of our schools.
Imagine the world Mike faced in Bedford Stuyvesant, his frustration with the South of the late 1960s where he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated for his efforts, and his joyful confrontation of that world in the way that he had of disarming his opposition both on the court and off. When I got a haircut one weekend in Davidson at the only remaining barber shop (in Mike’s day there were two, both run by blacks, but one was for blacks and one was for whites). As it was a Saturday, one of the barbers was an eighty-some-odd year old black barber who, I found out, had previously worked at the blacks only shop. After a couple of minutes in the chair, I leaned further towards my thoughts of whether he might have known Mike and fell into the question and asked it out loud. At that point, the haircut stopped for a bit while the visions of Mike and his stories filled the gentleman’s head. The rest of the shop’s barbers, all black, either chimed in or listened attentively as he spoke. Mike was different, he said. It was difficult for the Davidson black to comprehend Mike’s attitude and approach. He would go into a bar frequented by KKK drinkers, go to the wrong side of the tracks, visit everyone and laugh and hug. He confronted the issue directly. It must have made him very sad. For all the huge personality Mike possessed, I think he was truly a sad man, a misunderstood man, a man whose potential was not fully appreciated or taken advantage of by the communities in which he lived. I had good talks with Mike while in Vienna, but he died too soon. I wish I had asked more, appreciated more. Ask him more when you see him, my younger-though-somehat-older self.
For the past several decades, my understanding of our racial history has grown with my own maturation, the maturation of the country and the continual push to address the divisive, unequal situations found in many ethnic minority communities. I firmly believe in the nurture factor with communities and that those communities have been condemned by continued de facto segregation, poor schools, low paying jobs, incarceration, broken families, drug issues and little prospect for success. That brings us full round to Ta Nehisi Coates. I am now finally addressing the scant knowledge I had of black history. In that effort, I cannot excuse either political party for their treatment of blacks for the past two hundred plus years. But, since Truman and the Dixiecrat rebellion, the issue of race has been simmering and pulled between culture and the constant pressuring of the rule of law in the States.
We finally elected a black president in 2008, one of the happiest days in culture and history Mary and I have ever experienced, and that is comparing it to the first democratic election in Taiwan and the jubilation to the citizens on the streets there, the happiness in watching the anemic autos from the DDR chugging through town in Vienna, laden with a life’s hopes and future on the way down the Westautobahn to a new life in the West. These cars had managed to flee East Germany through Czechoslovakia, through Hungary and into Austria on their way back to West Germany and crossing over at Salzburg. That was the easiest and only path without obstacles, so we were treated to many happy East Germans when the wall was falling. Yet, I was happiest celebrating the maturity and fairness of choosing Barack Obama as our president.
It is so sad that his election triggered a rash of racial resentment and that an additional confluence of events brought Donald Trump onto the scene. Since writing this piece over a week ago, Adam Serwer of the Atlantic wrote an excellent and lengthy piece that dissects the racist, white nationalist background still plaguing America’s politics and its very soul. Many factors contributed to this change and the condition in which we now find ourselves; globalization, disparity brought on by the capitalist model, money in politics, allowing the government to subsidize and support Wall Street business and decisions, and many other factors. The entirety of Obama’s tenure was spent by Mary and me in the South. Our time in Charlotte and Sweetwater could not escape the issue of racism, but it was different in the black neighborhoods. The de facto segregation that continues in California, Boston, Chicago and New York is one accomplished by the power of money. In the two southern locations in which we lived, yes, the blacks were segregated. But, they had confronted the issue through the Civil Rights Movement and mostly peaceful marching and sit ins behind Martin Luther King. The federal government had backed the black transformation out of shame. A Southern urban black now has a backbone and is comfortable in his/her skin. Mary and I loved our exchanges in the stores, restaurants and elsewhere with the black inhabitants of Charlotte. We lived Uptown for two years and I rode the bus to work often, starting off at the central station and navigating the black culture that lives on any of the American inner city streets. We miss that most from our time in the South.
I hope the recent resistance to the Trump phenomena and the tromping at the polls this past Tuesday are harbingers of a turnaround in American sentiment. The ugly faces of the emergent alt-right movement, the pride of the KKK members, the ubiquitous groups spouting Nazi hate slogans and wearing their insignias is sickening. Free speech acts in strange ways and the assist to racism given by Fox News, Limbaugh and the other hate mongers needs to be tempered. I hope it gets better. If you ask Coates, though, he is not sure.