The Conscience of a Conscious Boy

At Kirkwood High School, I ran in two groups: a white one, and a black one. There were my white friends, male and female, who were generally middle class and lived closer to me due to housing segregation. I could easily ride my bike to many of their homes. My black crew was mainly guys, and they, along with my girlfriends, were mostly lower-middle class, and lived either in or around the neighborhood surrounding Meacham Park in Southeast Kirkwood. You really needed a car to see them.

In my four years at Kirkwood High School, most of the parties I attended were in white homes. There was a circle of about a dozen girls and a dozen guys who socialized regularly. Over those years the guys and girls rotated going out with each other. For instance, Jeff would go with Ann. Then he would see Joy. Jenny would go with Bill. Then Jenny would talk to a different Bill. It went like that.

I got the lockout. I wasn’t super-interested in any of them, but I would have liked the chance, just to fit in better when it got late, and the beer was running out. That’s right.

Upon approaching them, (not in one night; over years), several girls told me separately, in private, the same thing: “I couldn’t do that to Charmaine.” Huh? I hadn’t been with Charmaine in months, or, usually when they said this, years. Also, everybody else seemed to be getting around, and these were people within the group. It didn’t make sense.

One day in ninth grade, when I was going with Charmaine, a tall, white male senior passed me in the hall. He said, “You’re a nigger lover!” and kept on going. I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t use that word. I never heard it in my house growing up. It was so jarring that I had difficulty processing how to think about it. Do you know what I mean?

So, it began to dawn on me that I was fighting a war I didn’t know I was in. I had been conscripted into some ancient struggle that I had nothing do with, or so I thought.

Race consciousness was not something that came naturally to me. I could not tell you, “I don’t see race.” I’ve always thought that was absurd. But, looking back, it occurs to me that my parents raised me with the philosophy we (meaning those who are woke), call “that ‘All Lives Matter’ shit.” I can remember being at Kirkwood Park when I was 5, and my mother said, when I remarked on a black kid being nearby, “We are all the same.”

Race consciousness was forced on me by racism. The interesting thing was, I had no problem turning on a dime, philosophically. Here’s what I mean. I had a strong sniffer for hypocrisy. I hated hypocrisy, and hypocrites. I always have.

I grew up in a culture of hypocrisy. My parents were not hypocrites, but there was a ton of hypocrisy around me. I instinctively knew that I could not appreciate Jimi Hendrix, or Lou Brock, or Diahann Carroll, and hold racist beliefs. How would that look? How would it feel? How could I live with myself? I couldn’t carry the banner for the St. Louis Cardinals if I had some kind of inchoate resentment towards its best pitcher. I couldn’t genuflect before the image of Martin Luther King, Jr. if I said racist things to a friend.

I just knew it was wrong. That’s cheating. That isn’t living up to any kind of code. That is trash. I had to go all the way, right away. I had to be aware of what was going on around me. I took to noting, and then undoing, some of the assumptions that got pumped into my head in a racist society.

When I was a kid, I thought the world was one way, and I was a finished product. We were making progress. We’d had the Great Society. My parents were very enlightened, they just weren’t woke, not like me. I pushed in this area quite quickly. It was like an awakening, and I began to seek out anything related to the struggle for racial justice. Books, TV shows, radio stations, people. At Kirkwood High, I wanted to fit in with black folks more than I did white folks early on.

The fact is, I idealized black folks. I came to believe they were superior to white folks. This is what an upper middle class teenager who hadn’t grown up around blacks did to compensate for the guilt around racism.

I tell anyone who will listen that “Roots” changed my life. The TV mini-series “Roots” came on ABC-TV at the beginning of 1977, when I was in seventh grade. I was drawn to it immediately and didn’t miss a minute.  I grew up watching Ed Asner as the wonderful boss Lou Grant on my favorite TV show “Mary Tyler Moore”. I don’t know if I have this right, but in “Roots”, I recall that his character was a virulent racist who traded in enslaved people. I seem to recall him slamming the door on the hold of a ship where slaves were being held. This other character he was playing revolted me. It shocked me, deeply, and I remember crying every night when I went to bed after each show. I also fell for Ren Woods, who played Fanta. Glorious Ren Woods, from “Car Wash”.

We white people were guilty of a cosmic crime, of that I was certain. In seventh grade camp some months later, I roomed with a boy named Terry Swayze, from Meacham Park. We talked about “Roots”, and his roots, and he told me many things, good and bad, about his experiences. Those stories made me cry, too.

I wanted this duty. I wanted to be known for my consciousness. I sought it out. I could be the guy. When I put The Autobiography of Malcolm X down at the end one night in high school, I thought I heard him speaking to me from the top of the steps. I understood that I imagined it, it was only in my head, but I knew that nobody was gonna call me a racist, because there would be no racism there.

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