DENVER — Denver.---- A CONVERSATION I had with a black woman came to mind when I read that Spike Lee, the acrimonious black filmmaker-producer was moving out of his Brooklyn ghetto.
It seems Mr. Lee has invested $390,000 in a two-acre lot and taken out a $750,000 mortgage to build a home in a swanky white development on Martha's Vineyard. It caught my notice because Mr. Lee had often said, ''I don't give a ---- about all that stuff.''
I remembered my conversation with the woman because she became angry with me when I insisted the ghetto is not a healthy place for black people to live. Some blacks will probably put Mr. Lee down for coming to the same conclusion. But I won't put a man down for moving up. In fact, I'm delighted Mr. Lee has grown beyond the anti-social rim of his youth . . . and besides, the Vineyard is a swell place to live. And Spike Lee's certainly earned the right to live wherever he wants.
I recall my own deliverance from the ghetto. It came when I took a job with the Detroit Free Press. In 1967, Detroit had a riot to cover, and that meant jobs for black journalists and photographers. I hired on and became the paper's first black staff photographer.
In the beginning, my white colleagues were annoyed. They considered me a token black. Eventually, as I proved myself, the resentment passed.
After a year with the Free Press, the opportunity came to move into television and I took it. But I was tormented about leaving the newspaper because I remembered how difficult it had been to break the color barrier, and I didn't want to resign without passing my job onto another black photographer. I felt a strong obligation to do that.
Remembering the suspicion toward me, I set the criteria my replacement would have to meet. They included talent, a cunning professional knowledge of 35mm street photography and the guts to tough it out. No one I knew in Detroit met my standard, so I went back to New York to see a friend.
He was a hot-shot street photographer, and I wanted him to move to Detroit and take my job. But like many blacks uncomfortable outside the ghetto, he fretted that white racism might gag his talent. I said he would never know if he didn't take the chance. I persuaded him to fly back to Detroit and to interview for my job. That was more than 20 years ago, and today my friend still is an award-winning Detroit Free Press photographer.
Eventually, the time comes for each of us to grow or to shrivel. That's why I'm not surprised that Spike Lee is moving away from the ghetto of his youth. It was inevitable that as he flourished he would mature beyond the black phobic response to the outside world. It was only a matter of time before his genius became the magic carpet that would spirit him away.
Still, I won't be surprised if embittered black voices denounce Mr. Lee's migration into the mainstream. Underachievers always protest when others grow beyond their reach. Often they denounce such a move as a brain drain on the ghetto community. They present it as a reason for the low regard of education, for high unemployment and the social decay so prevalent among the black underclass.
But the protest won't change anything. If Mr. Lee is to ripen as a man, he has to grow beyond the limits of his youth. Will he lose his status as a black role model? That's hard to say. Now that he is moving away, I suppose the underachievers will toss him onto the rubbish heap of non-relevant blacks. Their pile already includes quality achievers like Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey,
Denver's district attorney, Norm Early, and countless others who've managed to overcome the black fear of white racism.
I wish Spike Lee Godspeed. I believe he's taken the first step down a road fated to carry him far from ghetto limits. Mr. Lee may not know it yet, but I suspect he's well on his way to becoming a respected citizen of the world.
** Mr. Hamblin is a Denver columnist and radio personality.