Life Lessons on Race Relations

I remember when schools were first integrated. I remember adults being really pissed off about it. Then, we got like one black kid from Inkster in my high school and all the ranting calmed down. Inkster. Do you believe that’s the name of a black community? Dearborn’s racist mayor didn’t want black auto workers living in his town so he established Inkster just the other side of Taylor. Encouraged blacks to move there, with a little help from redlining and realtors.

Back to that black kid. I didn’t know him, but I knew how he must have felt my first day at Marygrove College when I was the only white person roaming the halls. I hadn’t known Marygrove was a predominantly black school when I enrolled. I only knew I’d received a badly needed scholarship. I wasn’t that surprised as the school was on Six Mile. One of Detroit’s mayors had drawn the color line at Eight Mile and was known for shouting that white people would do well not to cross it.

Which was strange because me and my friends went downtown all the time. We went to the ruined splendor of the Grande Ballroom and Eastown every weekend for concerts when we were teens. The dealers would line the staircase up to the frayed velvet seats and chant their wares: Pot. Acid. Speed. ‘ludes.  Most of the pills were a dollar. A joint was fifty cents. We got a bit older and switched out drugs for alcohol, concerts for art district installations and poetry readings in our 20s. In our 30s we took our kids to Tiger and Red Wing games. In our 40s there were the free concerts on the river and by our 50s downtown had the best restaurants, art, culture, and music in Michigan.

So white people did not stay north of Eight Mile; we went into the neighborhoods to party and visit friends. Rent was cheap in Detroit. Plenty of people got places there after high school. One of my best friends Suzy had kids with Greg, a black guy who was part of our circle of friends. I visited her in the apartment they had in Detroit. Once I started at Marygrove, I went to house parties and bars with my black classmates. Most times, I was the only white person, but almost everyone was friendly or at least polite. I got along just fine south of Eight Mile.

There were a few exceptions.

Once, at a club, I was buying a round and the bartender called me peckerwood and asked why I was doing in his neighborhood. He was smiling when he said it. I told him we were celebrating finals being over. I had no idea what a peckerwood was; when I asked my friend Lorna she went over and yelled at him. She just said it was a negative term for white people. Okay. We went back to dancing and everyone laughed (even me) when I had too much wine to learn the Hustle. Yes, I was a sterotype.

Another time, everyone in Black Literature, even the professor, cracked up when I said that maybe the “white  witch” in the poem wasn’t a person, maybe it was heroin or cocaine. But it wasn’t rude laughter, it was kind of how people laugh when a baby tries to take her first steps. Another class, Black History, nobody laughed when the lecture came around to the way white southern women routinely used their female slaves as nursemaids to their babies.

“White people is stupid,” one woman said.

That confused me. I knew about verbs and black English;  it didn’t faze me even though I was an English major. I even agreed with her that white people who kept slaves and entrusted their babies to them were cruelly contradictory. Entrusting a slave to feed your baby, but not trusting them to learn to read was messed up. Slavery was messed up. But the word IS seemed to me like she meant present tense. Like right at that moment white people like me (I was the only white person in that class) were stupid. Still. Her words meant all white people, not just slave owners.

It felt worse that the professor didn’t respond to the remark, just let it go with a nod of his head. A few people came up to me after class and said they hoped I was okay, that the student had been wrong to say that. Nice, so many of my black classmates were nice. But still, that was the moment I woke up. Not everybody at Marygrove was cool with white people. Some were angry at the entire pale-faced race and talking about slavery enflamed them even more.

I do understand that, now. But I was younger then and I took those words of that one student too personally. She didn’t know me. And what I didn’t know about black people could fill a book. A bunch of books. What I didn’t know at the time but have since learned is that systemic racism slaps black people in the face the way I’d felt slapped in that class so long ago. Sometimes, it even shoots them in the back. And they die.

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