Crossing Division Street

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

I never got over the wall.

It was after the water fountain incident that I began having to spend long hours in a little room off the nurse's office at Angell School trying to put round pegs in round holes and square pegs in square holes for a lady who sat across the table from me and never spoke, examining me as if I were a partially dissected frog. She may even have been the same person who was trying to do speech therapy on me. Whatever she really looked like, by now she has melded permanently and inextricably in my mind with Nurse Ratched in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

My parents and I were called in at some point for a family conference with her. In the car on the way home afterward my father was irritated and high-strung. He hit the dashboard with his fist, which frightened me. He told my mother he thought he probably had tons more training as a counselor than the peg lady and that he didn't think much of her techniques. I don't remember anything at all about why he was so hostile toward her. I suppose at some point in the conversation she must have asked him what he had been smoking when he sent his kid to the colored school.

And you know, what were my parents going to do about it, anyway? They were Roosevelt liberals. Instead of helping the colored children in his first-grade class become more like white children, their son had turned into a colored child. In the contest of culture and personality between noble white saviors and the indomitable survivors of oppression, the survivors had taken the day hands-down. What could my parents do but ride it out? Nobody ever said squat to me. I probably figured the peg thing was a Chinese water torture for making that kid bleed.

For the next few years we continued to live next to the church, and I commuted to Angell School on city buses. I played with my white friends on the playground at school and continued to hang out with my black friends at home. Then at some point the church bought us a large beautiful house on Onondaga Street across from a baronial fraternity house and well within the area served by Angell School. And my world became properly monochromatic.

I never saw my black friends again until the first day of seventh grade at Tappan Junior High School. That day, I was so excited about being at Tappan that I could barely keep my feet on the ground. Tappan was a huge gleaming new school, thronging with well-dressed shiny-faced kids, a temple of postwar American prosperity. On that thrilling first day, those of us who had come from Angell searched anxiously for each other in the crowded hallways and embraced joyously when we met.

And then at a certain moment in the day, when I was walking down a broad corridor with a big gang of my Angell friends, we rounded a corner and there in the distance, huddled like birds on a far branch, were my Jones School friends.

I ran even harder, and I remember clearly that they were very happy to see me. They called me "Jimmy," which I hadn't been called at school since the first grade, and we hugged and embraced. My sense--who knows how much of this I impose in retrospect and how much was really there?--is that they were a hundred times more excited and nervous and apprehensive than even I on that day. This was not just the first day at Tappan for them: It was their first real day in the white world.

The next vision is so clear and animate, even after all these years, that I do not doubt it in any detail. I had my arm around Eugene's shoulders. I turned, expecting my Angell friends to be standing inches behind me, having followed me down the hall to meet these new kids.

They had not moved an inch from where I had left them at the far end of the hall. The expressions on their faces were of shock and horror.

I said goodbye to my black friends. I hurried back down the corridor to my white friends.

They were aghast. They wanted to know how and why and when I had come to know colored kids. They wanted to know why on earth I was behaving in a way that was buddy-buddy toward the colored kids. They wanted to know what in the world was wrong with me. It was as if I had revealed myself to them as some kind of frightening avatar, a being totally unlike what they had always believed me to be.

I do remember clearly trying later in the day to think it all through by myself and, in that process, marveling at how huge was the difference my white friends perceived between themselves and my black buddies. It took my breath away. The white kids talked as if the black kids were not fully or truly human.

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