Crossing Division Street

How do white people learn what to think about race? It's best not to think about it.

 I have been writing about racial issues in Dallas for almost a quarter-century, during which time my thesis has always been that Dallas is a weird place. A while back I had an experience that caused me to wonder if there might be another possibility--that perhaps I am a weird person.

The occasion was a challenge from Bernestine Singley to contribute an essay to an anthology she was editing called When Race Becomes Real. Her book, which has now been published and is just arriving in bookstores, revolves on her own very interesting thesis.

Singley, a brilliant Harvard-educated lawyer and writer who works nationally but happens to live in Dallas, believes that black writers have to write or choose to write or are expected to write very personally about race all the time, but that white writers always get to lie back a little. We white scribblers never have to really open up. The net effect, she told me over lunch, is an impression that race is really a black thing rather than a black and white thing.

The Schutze brothers, left to right, Bill, Jim and Paul, with their parents, the Reverend W.R. and Peggy, circa 1951
The Schutze brothers, left to right, Bill, Jim and Paul, with their parents, the Reverend W.R. and Peggy, circa 1951

Like all people who are way too smart, Singley talks really fast and flies all over the intellectual map like a jet, so that when I am listening and trying to keep up with her, I sometimes feel an urge to take little micro-naps. But I did see her point, and I even felt...well, not insulted but, shall I say, dared. Like, "OK, mister white liberal, instead of letting me spill my guts and you being all understanding about me, how about you spill your guts for a change? Why don't you tell us all about your childhood experiences of race, and then you can let me be all understanding about you for a change. Maybe."


So I did it. I spent a long time on the essay that the Dallas Observer is reprinting here. Months. I kept coming back to it. The first part, in which I remembered some truly bizarre experiences as a very young child, was fun to write. My memory of the first grade is foggy, to say the least, but I did dredge up things that seemed to explain a lot of my subsequent development.

The next portion, about my adolescence, was not fun to write. At all. I remembered that part with crystalline clarity. I wished I could forget it.

Where does all this leave me with my Dallas thesis (Dallas weird vs. me weird)? I was an editorial writer once, so I am going to take the editorial cop-out and suppose that the truth probably lies somewhere between the two extremes.

Singley's book, for which she persuaded a very interesting mix of black and white writers to contribute, is genuinely intriguing. The thing that interests me most in the essays is all the detail that each of us thought was unique to our own childhoods but in fact echoes and resonates through essay after essay. It's enough to make one wonder if race and racism haven't had all of us playing with fewer than the 52 cards required for an honest game. I think Singley has come close to getting the full deck on the table, as only she could or would. Life would be simpler without Harvard, but not better.

If there isn't a reason, there is at least a little story about why my brother and I, both white kids, attended an almost all black school in Michigan when I was in the first grade and he in the sixth. My grandfather, a German immigrant who came to this country before the turn of the century, brought with him a bitter anti-clerical bent. We were told that when the Lutheran minister came to his house in St. Louis to recruit my grandmother, my grandfather beat him up. Maybe it's an apocryphal family legend, but I do know from good sources that my grandfather was very seriously opposed to organized religion. Other than that, he was probably a typical, tough, self-made, first-generation, conservative businessman.

My father, I believe, was rebellious in his own way. When my mother and father were in their 20s, they were Depression-era Roosevelt liberals, living in public housing in downtown St. Louis and dabbling in good works. Somehow I know--they told me or I gleaned from the conversational cross-currents of the house--that the public-housing days were heady times for them: They drank cheap wine in the kitchen with people like William Inge, the playwright who went on to write Come Back Little Sheba and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. For most of my mother's life she continued to correspond with Martha Gellhorn, whom she met in St. Louis during those days and whom I guess history now remembers as one of Ernest Hemingway's wives.

In this milieu my father came under the sway of the social activist dean of the Episcopal cathedral and experienced a religious awakening. To the serious dismay of my grandfather, my father went off to the Virginia Seminary and became an Episcopal minister. It's clear to me in retrospect that my father's decision was driven by religious feeling and political idealism and that he had little if any idea until later in life what role the Episcopal Church plays in the social and business hierarchy of the nation. If anything, my father always seemed a little clueless about the finer distinctions of the American caste system. Maybe it just takes more than two generations to figure some of that stuff out.

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