Crossing Division Street

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

I hungered to be accepted and approved by my white friends. I was even a politician, one of the first seventh-graders ever, I was told at the time, to be elected to the student council. One of the ways I won my white friends over and helped ease any misgivings they may have had was by turning my back on my black Jones School friends, erasing them with my eyes, never speaking, never even acknowledging a glance or nod or hesitant lifting of the eyes. I made them more than dead. I made them into beings who had never existed.

I wasn't only turning my back on kids with whom I had committed crimes against pamphlet racks. There were black kids in the larger circle of my friends from Jones School who never did anything wrong, who came from the sternly determined families who went on to do things like integrate the postal service and send their kids to Harvard. I treated them, too, as unworthy of my gaze. Dirt on the floor.

When the big things happened--the pep rallies and the assemblies and the elections and even the fooling around in the cafeteria--the black kids were invisible to all the white kids. They couldn't be pretty or handsome or cool or important: They couldn't even really be present, not truly present, because we made them not there with our eyes. It's not child's play, that trick of the eyes. It's the first step, the very beginning of the process that ends with the trains and the ovens.

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

Once in a while I slipped. The black kids got me. As I moved down the hall with my group and passed one of the marginal little corners or nooks where the black kids were allowed to gather, Eugene or Mike or one of the girls would look at me and catch my eye.

Their eyes always spoke plainly. Their eyes said to my eye, "Asshole."

I envied the white kids who had never known black kids, because it seemed to me that their cruelty toward them was guileless and unwitting. Unlike me, I thought, the other white kids had never known that the black kids were human, had never been fed milk and cookies by their mothers or felt the joy of having them flowing in and out of the house, smeared with cake. I was the only dirty one, the only one who knew better, the only one who committed social annihilation by choice and for the sake of getting elected to the student council.

In the end we didn't make it in Ann Arbor. When Dr. Lewis retired, my father did not succeed him as rector and was banished instead back to the boondocks of Michigan. My father never said anything about why we didn't make it, because he never said anything about anything. Family legend years later is that the cause of our exile had been his crusading liberalism. Apparently he had led a charge for a local open housing ordinance. After he had campaigned for some months, Dr. Lewis informed him coolly, I am told, that three-fourths of the housing south of Division Street was owned by the senior warden of St. Andrews Church and that the senior warden was not at all interested in either urban renewal or the dispersal of his tenants into rental properties owned by persons other than the senior warden.

But at the time we left my beloved Ann Arbor, my understanding of the causes was childish and personal. I blamed our banishment on the church ladies. I knew from overheard whispers and looks I had spied on their faces that they thought my mother was embarrassing. Perhaps I recognized their feelings because, with great guilt, I shared them. In my exquisitely self-conscious preteen years, my mother made me cringe, as well. She had never even tried to become an Episcopal church lady. By then the church ladies all drove Country Squire station wagons and drank martinis in the late afternoon. It embarrassed me to the point of breathlessness to see my mother careering through the narrow streets of Ann Arbor on her balloon-tire bicycle with her artist and potter friends, especially because she was always so insanely surprised to see me and because she never once succeeded in using the brakes to bring her bicycle to a halt. After school I hung out inside Moe's Sport Shop because the big window in front was tinted and I could see her coming before she could see me.

Whether she was the real reason we had to leave, the fact remains that she was too much for Ann Arbor. It wasn't Athens. It was just the Middle West.

History played a nice little joke with my father's exile to the boonies. In the last small town where he lighted--a typical old farming and light manufacturing community in southern Michigan--he seems to have sunk his claws into the soil and made it his business not to be pried loose. No more Roosevelt-liberal hanky-panky with this parish, not this close to the end of the journey. But in the years after his arrival there, Detroit exploded 50 miles away. Immediately after the '67 race riot, white people by the teeming zillions loaded up their Country Squire station wagons and headed for the hills, terrified of black people.

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