I met my first Black person during my senior year in high school. There were no people of color in my town, unless you counted itinerant workers and I don’t think we did. As I was not included in the class field trip to Jonesboro Arkansas I went on my own. Our Greyhound bus pulled into Effingham Illinois in the dead of a December night. 1969. The driver encouraged us to get snacks and use the bathroom in a now or never sort of voice. My long hair and gold striped bell bottoms set me apart from the other travelers, not that there was a large contingent heading to Memphis in mid-winter.
A young man in a black beret and leather jacket walked into the shadows away from the bus station and motioned me to follow him.
“You holdin’ ?” he asked.
“Nah, nothing on me.”
He pulled a pin roll from behind his ear and fired it up, offered me a hit after he took a quick pull. Skinniest joint I had ever seen. He explained his people couldn’t afford to get too high. Had to stay alert. Police. Black Panther. Chicago life. We didn’t say more to each other back on the bus. Sat where we sat before.
My next encounter was in college. Social studies. The teacher’s assistant wore a professor style sport jacket and an Afro. I don’t remember the context of the class. It may have been related to multi-culturalism or whatever we called it in the 70’s. I was a new jazz enthusiast and was considering a paper about music as an identity marker. I somehow mentioned my bus ride and the TA suggested I write about that, about the difference of getting high as a white or black person. I got an A in the class for supplying him with top grade weed and as research he brought some friends over to my crib to smoke it. I was quick to mimic just enough lingo to pass for being hip, or so I hoped.
Hip was all I saw. Miles, Hendrix, Marley. Poverty, malnutrition, the war, all the underbelly of the beast began to seep through my purple haze. My political education gradually gained some perspective through rap sessions and poetry readings. After dropping out of college and not quite passing an audition for the local music conservatory I joined the counter-culture as a neighborhood food co-op employee and came up against racism in my bid to provide nutrition classes to the ghetto grade school just across the bridge from our store. Seemed weird a bunch of hippies didn’t want ‘too many’ black people shopping, or shop lifting as was inferred, at the community co-op.
I didn’t fight tooth and nail for my idea, but I did write an adventure book for young readers that included some healthy recipes and shared it in an after school reading program. Smoothies proved to be a little too much of a stretch for teen age cuisine so the only upshot of the class was my promise to never breakdance in public. The other relationship, or should I say exposure to black culture I can recall was taking conga lessons in the park on Saturdays and doing some poetry readings at political rallies. It would be another twenty years until I broke bread, well biscuits, with a black family. Getting sober in the mid 90’s led my new bride and I to join a small racially diverse church and that meant cook outs, Gospel choir, and peculiar to the House of Refuge, a prison ministry at San Quentin State Prison.
Token Caucazoid was a sort of tongue in cheek description of us following our Pastor into prison chapel for the next five years. I began to learn incarceration was a family stressing reality of staggering proportion. I kept up with volunteering in prison chapels until Covid 19 put the kabosh on that avenue of connection. Church life did bring me to Africa twice and through childhood friends of my bride Jamaica became a preferred destination of ours, it will be hard to top a Full Moon on Valentine’s Day listening to Toots and the Maytals give a beachfront concert.
The point I’m meandering toward is that Black Lives matter more when real relationships are friendly, familial, and fun. Truly the hard work of replacing racism with compassionate political and personal solutions is made more tangible when its someone we know benefiting from connection or suffering from the oppressive lack of it. It’s not my place to suggest being polite and culturally curious is enough to achieve racial harmony, but it certainly is some part of the framework. I live in the boonies of Northern California, think redwoods, beaches, and a booming agriculture. The local university does bring in some diversity in the form of international students but for the most part, except for entertainment and sports, the local scene is pretty homogenous.
To keep my finger somewhat on the pulse of cultural creativity I scroll through my Twitter feed to find poets and political activists and when I can buy a book of poetry (Jericho Brown, Matthew E Henry, Tianna Clark, Quintin Collins and Khalisa Rae all made this year’s Poetry Month a marathon of fabulous!) or donate to a cause. All you can do is all you can do, but all you can do is enough. A football coach taught me that years ago and it does age pretty well.
I wanted my first blog for Fevers of the Mind to be encouraging and perhaps spark some conversation. I’m pushing 70 years old and I can count my friends, black and white, on one hand and I hope they can count on me to carry some weight. It’s the other in brother that makes life interesting. A poet said that. I say a lot of things but it is the listening that gets things across.
Wolfpack Contributor Bio: Will Schmit