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Reflections: I Was a Minority White Boy

We were the children of the first racially integrated neighborhood in Chicago. Twenty years later we still can't talk about it, but maybe we don't need to.

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A Coast Guard air/sea rescue helicopter loomed over the speakers' podium at my high school Silver Anniversary Gala, and I was glad. I was always at sea in high school. I was a minority student, connected only mysteriously to the great white world beyond. True to my minority roots, I'd scammed my way into our $60-a-head gala in the Hall of Science at the Museum of Science and Industry with some cock-and-bull story about writing a newspaper piece. I couldn't have paid my way in like the normal people did because I wasn't normal, whether the normal people knew it or not. The normal people all around me, hundreds of them, dressed in tuxedos, evening gowns, and their business best, were mostly people who 100 years ago would have been called "the talented tenth." Nowadays, when they're labeled at all, they may be called the "black bourgeoisie" or "buppies," and they are the truest and most confusing proof I have ever faced that the American Dream, whatever it's good for, isn't just dreaming.

More than 20 years ago, when I and most of my sensible friends back in high school were assiduously smashing the state and seizing the day by "whatever means necessary"--taping red fists to our high school windows, yanking fire alarms to make school strikes unanimous, buying pot cheap and selling it dear--one of these normal people asked a white friend of mine between revolutionary actions, "What are you marching for, anyway?"

It was an unusually honest question. Most of us middle-class kids, black and white, had given up on knowing each other, though we had a neighborhood if not a world in common. We were the children of the first racially integrated neighborhood in Chicago, a neighborhood that many white Chicagoans still wouldn't visit on a dare. After all the hugging and screaming that had accompanied my neighborhood's integration when I was in diapers, no one was interested in talking about race anymore except when they shouted about it. Dialogue didn't exist. Twenty years later I've begun to understand why.

What happened to us kids who'd been lifelong friends until puberty, who then drifted into separate black and white worlds, was mystifying, archetypal, deeper than words or thoughts could tell. Race in America is so elementally confusing that there may have been nothing sensible we could say to each other, except the things we said: "Hi," "'Bye," "Be cool." We'd gone to the same grammar schools and birthday parties all our lives. We'd played Spin the Bottle together and shuffled each other into dark corners to the beat of the same slow songs. Though we middle-class kids of different races were seldom still friends once puberty had forced its definitions upon us, we'd remained friendly. That, anyway, was nice to know.

It still is. The night before our Silver Anniversary Gala, celebrating the school's founding 25 years earlier, my Kenwood High class of 1971 had its first ever, much looser reunion in a Hyde Park motel. Our reunion motto was as anachronistic as our common memories: "Marching to the Beat of a Different Drummer." Whether the motto was a nostalgic token of the trouble we'd so famously caused our keepers and ourselves, or only an explanation for why our first reunion was on our 21st anniversary, was a question no one asked, and no one cared. Our reunion was a hoot from start to reluctant stop, even though after 21 years we still hadn't much to say to each other. We were still giddily glad everyone was so friendly.

As I said, I was a typical minority student. We white kids made up about a quarter of our school's population. Yet we were the only reason the high school was built. Yet it wasn't our school. This gets confusing, because I'm beginning to talk about race.

Our Kenwood high school district--now celebrated by the African American elite of Chicago for being "Committed to Excellence in Education for 25 Years!"--was lopped out of a much larger Hyde Park high school district after the big school turned black. Many impeccably liberal white families were making the heartbreaking moving-van trek to Evanston by the mid-1960s, as their children graduated eighth grade. To stanch the dripping that would undermine integration, some leaders angled to create a magnet high school; others advocated carving the big Hyde Park campus into several intimate, specialized schools, one of them a haven for middle-class kids. But finally, after years of dialogue and screaming, Hyde Park High was formally abandoned by the neighborhood of Hyde Park. Our new, much smaller school district, to no one's surprise, corresponded quite tidily to the patrol zone of the University of Chicago's campus police.

Everyone understood that our new school existed first and foremost to preserve, protect, and educate a critical mass of white kids; without white kids, the university's frontiers on the changing south side were as good as lost. The U. of C. had already invested heavily in neighborhood stability--in the 1950s and early '60s, it spent $30 million of its endowment on, for example, buying and bulldozing old buildings where too many poor blacks lived; it spent millions more to buy out extortionate landlords who threatened to "turn" their buildings immediately if the university didn't buy on their terms.

But the policy was more nuanced than it sounds: blacks who weren't poor and scary were welcome to live in the neighborhood. Since much of the best housing stock in Chicago available to blacks in the 1960s was in Hyde Park and adjacent south Kenwood, well-off blacks were virtually steered into our new gerrymandered school district, where they benefited from it without discrimination: property values, like middle-class values, were defended for these blacks as for whites. So things became even more confusing: though race had made necessary the campaign to "save Hyde Park," after initial success the campaign's foundations ceased to be racial.

The way of the neighborhood was summed up by Second City's founding wits, soon after they dropped out of the University of Chicago and just before urban renewal drove them out of Hyde Park, in a locally famous sketch. They sang that Hyde Park was the place where "black and white unite to fight the lower classes." That's how it's been ever since, ever more successfully, from the days we children of the class war first looked bewildered upon each other, and aspired to burn it all down.

The emcees of the Silver Anniversary Gala introduce themselves from beneath the helicopter. They're Kenwood alums, though not from the pioneering classes I know, a handsome man and a handsome woman who have both become TV anchorpeople. They welcome us, and each other, and the volunteers who've made all this possible, and the principal of the school, now called Kenwood Academy. They regret that Mayor Daley is unable to be with us tonight, but direct our attention to the "Mayor's Proclamation" on the first page of our programs:

"WHEREAS, Kenwood Academy has a distinguished history of both diversity and excellence as a public school in Chicago; and

"WHEREAS, Kenwood's accomplishments are especially noteworthy in light of the financial challenges confronting our public school system; and

"WHEREAS, while Kenwood has access to community resources, it continues to have many pressing needs. Currently, the most critical of these needs is appropriate computer equipment to enhance both administrative management and student achievement; and

"WHEREAS, on May 9, 1992, Kenwood Academy will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a festive fund-raiser at the Museum of Science and Industry; and . . . " so forth. Mayor Daley's is the only request we will receive all evening for more money. When his father broke ground for Kenwood High School 25 years ago, we students were accumulating, year by year, in an old grammar school next door. As construction continued and we piled up, our old school was surrounded by mobile classrooms.

We went to gym at the Hyde Park Y, played ball in Farmer's Field. Eventually 1,100 of us were banging around in a grammar school built for 550 little people, so our lockers lined every stairwell, and our water fountains watered our knees. The new building was finally ready for us when the original freshmen had become seniors and I was a junior.

Our first year in the new building was doubly memorable. First, the engineers were still figuring out how the thing worked: clocks often ran backward, or forward at an hour per minute; squawk boxes, fire alarms, and motorized classroom partitions, and sometimes all of the electricity in the building, randomly went off and on, and on and on; doors mysteriously locked or unlocked; men with ladders clomped into classrooms to bang on things and shout through ducts at each other; windows fell out. There was a splendid chaos surrounding our first year in the new building, chaos only sporadically interrupted by organized education.

Second, there was a revolution going on, and our cushy new building actually encouraged us to feel alienated and restless, bereft of our old school's familiar challenges. By Christmas, pockets of whining and open rebellion had broken out. Soon history and war overswept us, in the form of strikes, sit-ins, Chicago Police Task Force paddy wagons hauling kids off to jail, preposterous local "SDS membership lists" supplied to what we could only facetiously call "law enforcement agencies." Government assassinations, secret wars, Kent and Jackson State all brought history home to us that year, and Hyde Park mothers by the score descended on the local precinct house to spring us before we got booked.

The principal who had created Kenwood High School--who had assembled a gifted and eager multiracial staff glad to be part of such a bizarre place at such a bizarre time--took refuge in venerable Board of Education folkways to meet every crisis. She squeezed her way out of every tight spot we put her in. For a taste of the times: I recall how contemptuously she dismissed student assertions that our school guards carried guns; a year and a half after her denials were accepted, one of those unarmed guards shot and killed a 21-year-old just inside the school's front door.

After our first rambunctious year in the new building, the principal determined which student leaders were to be bought off with tuition money to attend alternative schools; which ones were to be thrown out like yesterday's news; and which ones were to be, yet more insultingly, ignored. She had the power; everywhere the counterrevolution was triumphant, and only the most deranged idealists and nihilists among us were blind to the way the wind blew. We agitators who were still in school respected our principal as a consummate slickster, and hated her all the more for it.

So it was unsettling to hear that our festive fund-raiser at the Museum of Science and Industry had called her back from her California retirement. But I wasn't surprised--she had, after all, survived when all of us tried to do her in, and had run the school well for 20 years. I watched like a cat watching a canary as the emcees introduced her. Loud applause, even cheers greeted her, and people started standing up for her as they clapped. It was appalling. Was forgiveness this cheap? Was the hold of history so faint?

I had a moment of afflatus as I watched the well-dressed multitudes of normal people greet her. It was clear that most people just wanted to be happy that night. Many no doubt had no idea what the fuss was once about. But some knew. An old teacher of mine, long through with teaching and now able to afford an impeccable tuxedo, slouched into his small talk as he sat with his back to the stage, ignoring the applause. Others too--old parents and students, local loudmouths, longtime teachers--also ignored it. Yet my old teacher was smiling. The principal was smiling. Almost everyone was smiling, whether they stood or sat. We were celebrating the Silver Anniversary Gala as one hell of a lot of water over the dam, most of it long gone now. A haunted feeling came over me that perhaps I'd thought about all this a bit much for these past 20 years.

Our old principal told us in her brief remarks what a pleasure it was to be retired, and free to speak her mind exactly as she wished. Having said that, she didn't speak it but thanked us and sat back down. All of our conflicts were old, old news.

I had that haunted feeling again a little later, when I tried to talk with my companions at table about race. We'd just been reminiscing about the great sit-in where 22 students got arrested, and none of us could now remember what for. The other people at table had been a year behind me in school, but I was pretty vague on the whys and wherefores too. Then I brought up what a blast my class reunion had been the night before, and I mentioned that we still hadn't much to say to each other across the impassable racial divide, yet it didn't matter.

No one said anything. It was the first time all dinner that no one spoke. It was as if I'd just started blabbing about dirty underwear. At last someone merciful said, with apocalyptic finality, "It's like the Rodney King thing," and the silence thinned.

I'd been horribly inappropriate. I felt awkward and self-conscious still. That's the feeling I remember best from being a minority kid, feeling that at any moment I might do something that I didn't even know was dumb, because in some mysterious way for no good reason at all I'm not like these people, though I know these people are, underneath something or other, just like me.

I have a dream. I dream that somewhere, someone will want to talk about their dirty linen with me. I dreamed it that evening as my self-consciousness dissipated: I imagined being with some other addled victim of all that we are--Madonna, say--and saying to her, "Say, Madonna, what is it about you and underwear, anyway?" and hearing her answer me.

But my daydream cheered me up as soon as its nonsense was clear to me: I realized the odds were dollars to doughnuts that Madonna too would look at me like I'd asked her a very dumb question. The things we're queasiest about we can't talk about, or we'd have sloughed off the queasiness centuries ago.

And then something else began happening to me. Again I looked over all the beautiful normal people in their finery, and recalled my classmates reunited the night before. The white kids who'd come had turned into diffuse white grown-ups: one was a boat bum/oceanographic researcher, another managed a bookstore. Some were raising money, others babies, or both.

The black kids who'd come were more straightforwardly mothers and doctors and such. In fact, there were more doctors among them than I could count. There were more genuine make-your-mom-proud, all-American success stories among my African American classmates than I have ever seen this side of Winnetka.

More than 20 years ago, these very same people were the kids whose feelings I hurt by avoiding school dances. All the white kids did. Back then these had been the student government officers, the Junior Achievers, the glad-handing natural salesmen, the normal kids. These were the people who, because their world was good, were hurt and offended by my alienation from their school, their world. These were the people to whom I couldn't explain how weird I was afraid I'd feel if I went to their damn dumb dances, and couldn't dance, and couldn't talk, and couldn't connect over the invisible divide.

Can I explain it yet? No. But back then, when someone asked me to explain, I suppose I just glared at them, like they'd asked me an inappropriate question.

And now, for the first time, I imagine feeling different. So many of my thoughts seem unnecessary here in the Hall of Science. I think about how much I've thought about race, ever since those long-dead days, and contemplate this crowd of happy people who are thinking far different thoughts. It crosses my mind in a queasy way that things might not be worth thinking about so much. Thinking about things less, I might see less to think about. Society's problems seem unsolvable, impossible, like the Rodney King thing; but I'm just a person like these people, who don't make it look so very hard or bad to be human.

Thinking about the racial divide can bridge it, or broaden it. I say this because, strange as it will sound by now, I've had good black friends ever since high school, and I've seen what happens as we become friends. We cease to be colors.

I think the problem isn't finally just about race, it's about all the labels created by bewilderment, the labels that differentiate other people from me: Woman, Black, Fundamentalist, Suburbanite, Jerk. As lives emerge from underneath their labels, I forget to read the labels, and find my friends.

I spot an old friend cutting through the crowd. He came to the reunion last night all the way from Tahiti, where he's the boat bum/oceanographer. He's another white kid, and he's pulled off a glorious trick to fit in with the museum crowd tonight.

"You did it! You really did it!" I laugh, admiring his jacket and chutzpah. He's dressed like a Hollywood yachtsman, with a yellow ascot fluffing up from his collar and three stripes of gold piping stitched to the sleeves of his blue blazer.

"This is the U-505 submarine commander's uniform," John replies. "I couldn't resist."

He hadn't brought a suit--he doesn't have one in Tahiti. But years ago he worked a student job here at the Museum of Science and Industry, which inspired his plan for dressing appropriately tonight. He knew that the weekend staff at the museum tended to be people like he once was. So he came over early on Saturday afternoon to beg one of his peers for the loan of a tour guide's blazer and tie. He found a properly whimsical guy with no problem. Once down in the laundry room, John fell in love with the uniform, modeled on a World War II German commander's regalia.

John and I haven't seen each other in 20 years, but we have more in common now than ever. When he was first casting off into the South Pacific, I was going into self-exile in France, where my skills at not feeling like I belonged seemed more purposeful somehow. When that wore thin I'd started wandering east, and made it halfway across Asia before I was heartsick enough to turn tail for home. As a traveler in faraway worlds I had felt, for the first time in my life, a sense of belonging. The other misfits and whimsy-wanderers from Europe, Australia, and the Americas, straggling along the overland trails before and behind me, were there just the way I was there, for reasons that, mutatis mutandis, resembled mine. For the first time in my life I had found a community containing people like me. If it weren't for the limits of alienation as an ethnic identity, I might be a traveler still.

John and I sat up past sunrise that Saturday night swapping the stories and consolations--recognitions--that travelers offer each other all over the world. We recognized each other at once as people we would have recognized anywhere, though when we'd last seen each other we'd been just a couple of muddled white boys. It turned out we'd both hung our hammocks in the jungle palapas outside of Palenque, and swum in the same Chiapas rivers and waterfalls, along a bend of the Gringo Trail toward Guatemala.

John said he left Hyde Park because "I couldn't keep growing in a place where I didn't belong." And that was why I moved to the north side, though I couldn't have said so at the time, and not everyone would have felt that way. The most precious thing I learned from traveling for two years, apart from what I learned to feel, was that there are at least six billion authenticated ways to work this deeply goofy world, and if you think your way is better than someone else's you're even crazier than they are.

John left my place to go back home as the sun came up. After we hugged good-bye he said, "You know, after all these years being gone and out of touch, I was afraid nobody'd be left. It's really great to see someone who can really see me."

I feel the same way. It's actually our own lives that we see in each other, but that's a quibble, which I suspect comes from thinking too much.

Our Kenwood Academy Hall of Fame is to be inaugurated tonight. Our first 14 Hall of Famers are described, introduced, and applauded; most are here with us, and one by one they gather along the length of the stage. Three were chosen from our first two graduating classes; in an embarrassing show of hands we see that a scant half-dozen graduates from Kenwood's first class have shown up tonight. My class is a bit more abundant, but not much. The classes below ours, who came through when the turmoil of the times had subsided, are better represented here in the Hall of Science, and in the Hall of Fame, too.

My God, there's a ton of doctors in the Hall of Fame! And a fair few musicians, social-service professionals, and enterprising entrepreneurs. It's fun to bask in their glory, though the sullen minority kid in me has begun to gripe, "Yeah, right, lookit who's recognizing their own. Just lookit!" Look at all these well-dressed doctors and businessmen, affirming what works, what's always worked in America. What made America great.

So what's wrong with this picture? Not one of the kids who used to beat me up in gym class has showed his face. No one's gotten out of jail for our reunion. Only one of my old barricade-buddies is here--but he's a tenured professor now, so maybe he shouldn't count. Most of the kids who were alienated back then still think the cord's cut, and haven't come. Plenty more couldn't afford to. It's odd to watch the ramifying fissures of the class war cleave deeper now than our familiar race mess--which tonight is effortlessly avoided. It's odd to realize how my reunion resembles every other reunion in the history of the world.

We always thought we were so different.

The night before, toward the end of my class reunion, I had a fun conversation about race with a woman who complained that growing up in Hyde Park had misled her. She said, "I thought that people everywhere were just normal, like here, but they're not. Those people up there are racist, and I wasn't prepared for that." She was talking about a north-side school where she is taking graduate classes.

What happened? Well, she explained, for example there was this white guy that she and another African American were doing a project with, and the white guy always got his numbers wrong, but he wanted the two of them to "report" to him even though he was incompetent. "And he's always jumping on me for being half an hour late, and the other guy for being an hour late, and so I said, 'Didn't you take your minority-cultures class?' And he says yeah. And I say, 'Then you didn't learn anything in it,' since, you know, what's the big deal anyway? We always show up."

I got excited. "Yeah, he's supposed to expect you to always be late because he took a class in school. Right. See, the code for white people is, if you don't come when you say you will, you're not respecting him. He feels like you're flipping him the bird every time you come late."

My reunion mate sat silent, wonder-struck. A smile grew slowly over her face. "All this time I've been dissing him," she said with a truly touched grin. "I never had any idea."

It's a bit awe-inspiring to me that almost every class in her school could be titled "White-Guys-in-Neckties Culture," and yet basic lessons like this one are extracurricular. Obviously, most students are presumed to know these things already. It's our presumptions that most often get us in trouble.

I keep saying that we're all the same, and yet something's weird. That's the crux of it. What's fundamentally weird is that, as we all give ourselves to our respective, respectful hyphenated-American studies, we forget what everyone knew and said before honesty became politically incorrect. The great consolation of every hyphenated-American who arrives bewildered on these shores is that, to put it baldly, at least he's not black.

He doesn't know any blacks. He's never heard of black doctors. He doesn't know what Hyde Park is. He's barely heard of racial equality, for all the spew about international workers' solidarity that's been drummed into him if he's Polish, as my people are. For many hyphenated white people I know, being any kind of white means, before anything, being not black. A good Pole would sooner go back to Poland than imitate a black man in any recognizable way. And he might try to punch me back to Poland if I remind him that "Slav" is the root of the word "slave"--no matter that most blacks don't know that. All this denial, projection, and tragedy is deep in the roots of America, and when we pretend it's not so, we're just being silly.

On the other hand, being black, back when I was in high school, came down to a comparable sense of being not white: not Beaver and Wally, not wasted away to pasty gray skin and soul. To sum up the two stereotypes quickly, being black, back when I started thinking about this stuff, meant being shiftless and spontaneous (so much so that blacks must be controlled), and being white meant being a walking, robo-beeping dead person. Young white people wear blacks' shoes and styles in order to look alive. Black people wear whites' shoes and styles, the styles people get buried in, in order to make a living.

These stereotypes, as my Silver Anniversary Gala illustrates, are idiotic. But they show how we don't--can't--live in autonomous majority and minority cultures. African American culture, whatever it is, is defined in essential parts by its divergences from perceived white culture. White culture, whatever it is, is defined in essential parts by its distinctiveness from perceived black culture. If I'm feeling lazy, I feel like a no-good . . . and I get the hell out of bed. Or I don't, and suspect what I am. An old friend of mine--blond, blue-eyed--years ago was bent on self-destruction, and he found buying drinks and friends in south-side blues bars to be a most efficient, direct route to doom. One of his playmates said admiringly, "I gotta hand it to you, man, you want to be a nigger worse than any white man I ever knowed!" What did he mean?

What is black culture? What's white? Whatever else they are, if anything, they're two snakes eating each other's tails, forming a circle. Neither is itself but with its other. And all told, I'm coming to think that neither needs to mean beans to anyone with other things to think about. That was the final haunting I took home from the museum gala, which came into my heart while I watched a crowd of elegantly dressed men and women do the power glide.

It's a dance step everyone does in sync. I first heard of the power glide at my reunion, the night before. Feeling at this stage of my life much less like a half-dead honkie than I ever had in high school, I'd staggered out to the dance floor to join in. I never did figure out what they were doing, and didn't have as much fun as I tried to look like I was, and stopped before the music did, and nobody cared.

Tonight, it's a little different. The fast beat of the music is banging around the high railings and banners and F-104 Starfighter above the museum's main entrance where we dance. Above it all, a vertiginous lintel scriven with names of dead white men tops the lobby walls, and trails around the far curves of the museum wing toward the other large wings, stretching the long dead names entirely around the huge museum ceiling. I don't recognize a lot of the names, I suppose because it took so many, who are so long gone. I look back to the dance floor. The women are all in sync, mostly dressed to kill. The men are too, though there's fewer of them. Like a Broadway chorus, they're lined in ranks of ten or a dozen people to a row, lots of rows, tapping, clapping, dipping and spinning to one time, all in step. A couple of minutes into the music, John runs out to join the front line, his ascot flapping loose over his shoulder, the gold braids on his sleeves sparkling like the ladies' dresses. He dips and claps and swerves to the beat with all the others.

Where the hell did he ever learn to do that? How did he hear of it? But it's not so surprising, as it turns out. Traveling can be an awful lot like arriving.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Madeleine Avirov.

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