Neil Newton: Blogger and author of the novel “The Railroad” on Amazon.com
Since I was a kid, talking about race relations has been an uncomfortable thing. I don’t claim to be an expert or an advocate for any political cause. But I did live at a pivotal time in a pivotal place. I think I have a story to tell that describes a sad transformation and a unique chapter in our history.
I grew up in New York City but probably not the New York City most of you would think of. Out on the northeastern edge of the city in Queens there is a small “town” called Bayside. It has been mentioned in perhaps three movies, the most recent being “The Wolf of Wall Street”.
Bayside was once a village on Long Island. Confused? What does Long Island have to do with New York City? For those not familiar with the city, two of its boroughs, Queens and Brooklyn, are actually on Long Island, right across from Manhattan. Before New York City spread its arms out to the east and north, Brooklyn and Queens were simply parts of Long Island. Bayside is no more than seven miles from the Eastern border of the city. Beyond the border is Long Island proper or “The Island” as New Yorkers call it.
Around the time of the march from Selma I was sitting in school in the second grade. In Bayside most of the children were white. But, perhaps not so oddly, there were one or two black children. What is surprising is that there was no conflict between the white and black children. I remember a classmate whose name was Carlos. Sometime during that year Carlos decided that he wanted to be called “Charles”. I remember each of us went up to him and asked him why; we were genuinely curious. He stayed calm and composed, telling all of us that that was what he wanted to be called. No one felt anything more than curiosity; he was just another kid in the class.
Move forward eight years. My mother, an English and drama teacher, was famous In her school for putting on amazing shows, much better than average for the New York City High School system. That year the play was “Brigadoon”. Up on stage a beautiful young woman acted the lead. She had a beautiful voice and was an excellent actress. All in all it seemed like a triumph for both the young woman and my mother.
At intermission, out in the lobby, I watched as the young woman cried, leaning on someone’s shoulder for comfort. I stared at her and wondered what could be bothering someone who obviously had so much going for her. I finally asked my father. He got an odd look on his face.
“There’s something in this country called ‘Taint’,” he told me. “If someone is a little black then they are all black.”
“She doesn’t look black,” I told him.
“I know. But someone knows that either her mother or father is black and is giving her hard time about it.”
I looked at the girl and was completely mystified. I hadn’t learned yet what it all meant but I would.
Move forward again. A few years later found me in seventh grade. I became friendly with a black female student who happened to sit next to me. We used to laugh at our math teacher. It got so bad that eventually we found that we couldn’t stop laughing and the teacher would yell at us. We’d sit there trying to not to laugh, hoping the teacher would miss it if we started again. The girl, Davita, would have tears rolling down her face. Not an easy thing to hide.
Move forward a few months. Davita comes into class crying. After a few minutes where she spoke quietly to the teacher, we were given the news. Davita was friends with a white female student, someone I was also friends with. It seemed that, over the last few weeks, both girls had been taking heat from both groups of white girls and black girls. Prejudice had spread to everyone. By that point I was older and knew what was happening in New York and probably all over the country. But I didn’t expect it in Junior High School.
Ninth grade` A white girl I had gone to elementary school with heard another friend of ours, a black student, speaking to a friend. We had all been friends when we were little, back at the beginning of this story. With no reason, she told our friend to “go back to Africa”.
I stared at her, wondering where that horror came from. She looked back at me and then turned away. I had the odd feeling that she didn’t even know why she had said what she did.
I am not a crusader. Like most people I have my share of prejudice that I try to squash. I’m in the embarrassing position of quoting “The sound of Music”, a movie I hate with a passion. In the movie is a song called “You’ve Got to be Taught”. It describes how hate is beaten into our heads as children. It is a nauseating song in the context of the movie. But I can’t ignore the prophetic nature of the lyrics; how many people have watched as their relationships crumbled because of conditioning from their parents and their parent’s friends.
The fact is that, as a small child I briefly lived in a world where no one carried the burden of having to hate other people and go out of their way to unnecessarily express that hate. And in a period of ten years it all went to hell. I’m not sure who to blame for this. I guess we all have a hand in it. How sad.