Growing up colorblind

January 21, 2002|By Thomas Belton

HADDONFIELD, N.J. - How do you explain race relations to a kid who lives in a town where race is not in your face all the time?

My kids have African-American friends, but the racial differences are not always so apparent. Sometimes you need to reach back and relate stories from the past as if you were Aesop spieling adventures in which the kids probably conjure up images as far-fetched as animals speaking or the clouds opening up to Zeus benevolently smiling down.

When I was young, we lived in a housing project that we jokingly referred to as the Alamo since it was surrounded by some of the toughest neighborhoods in Jersey City. My mother, afraid for me to walk to kindergarten by myself, hired Binky, a 6-foot-2 "colored" teen-ager (black and African-American were unheard of in the 1950s), to walk me to school for a nickel a day.

Binky was this tall, cool drink of water who everybody liked. But it was his brother, Butchy, who was my protective clincher. He was a 200-pound monster who played fullback for Lincoln High School.

So each morning we'd set out, Butchy and Binky and all their friends, all talking at once about how screwed up the Brooklyn Dodgers were last night or whether the Persuasions were better R&B stars than Little Anthony and the Imperials. And there in the middle would be me, this tiny white boy carrying a Flash Gordon lunch box, oblivious to the incongruity, happy as a clam, Bob Cousy to Binky's Wilt Chamberlain, while all the other kids swept out of our way like the Red Sea before Moses.

In grammar school there was Joey, one of my black friends from St. Patrick's, who taught all of the seventh-grade boys how to dance. We'd all gone to the Memorial Center for our first dance, and the girls were out there doing the Stroll and cha-cha-ing their little hips off while the boys were all hugging the far walls of the gym, our bodies in abject chaos, our brains screaming; fight or flight.

Then a tune by Chubby Checker came on and, amazingly, Joey, a rotund little black kid no taller than a Cadillac roof, stepped out from the herd and slowly strolled across the gym floor. Stroll is the right word, since he had this subtle roll to his hips, his arm reaching out with each step like he was pulling himself through chest high water, more stroking across the room than walking. It was a revelation. I never knew you could strut and not look stupid. So Joey strolled across this teen-age abyss of fear and yearning and went up to Vicky, white and a head taller than Joey.

Within seconds the two of them were doing this crazy gyration, the hips going one way as their torsos went the other, and all the while Vicky's chest was doing this incredible thing. For a few moments this chubby little black boy and this statuesque blond held our 12-year-old worlds in sway. And then, as if coming out of a trance, a few of the taller boys drifted over and asked some girls to dance - and then one and then another, until almost the entire seventh-grade class was out there, doing the Twist like we had never done last summer.

When I got to high school, my sister, Fran, went to march for equal rights in Newark with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the same summer that race riots swept through America.

The highest death toll from race riots was in Newark, where my father, a Jersey City policeman, was recruited for riot duty. He told my mom the next morning that the National Guard brought in tanks and removed snipers from the buildings by walking 50-caliber machine-gun fusillades along the roof facades. My father walked away disgusted with the racist attitudes and meaningless drivel that came out of the law enforcement personnel sent to keep the peace.

Following in my sister's footsteps, I would get involved in a variety of public, nonviolent demonstrations throughout the 1960s and 1970s dealing with racial and social inequities in this country, but I could never really appreciate the daily impacts of prejudice the way a person of color could.

A strange incident reminded me of this, years later. When my father died, a black man came up to me in front of the coffin and said, "Do you know who I am?" I said, "Sure, you're my dad's old partner." He said, "That's right, and I wanted to tell you something. Your father was the most decent man I ever knew. When I came up and got my detective shield, he was the only cop that would let me ride with him. Your dad, if he weren't a cop, he should've been a priest."

And I realized all along that Mr. Gaines and my dad were partners, but my dad never made it seem like it was that big a deal. But to a black cop trying to crack a racist ceiling, it was a day-to-day struggle that my dad inserted himself into. He always took people as they were, how they acted and not how they appeared.

He taught us to do the same, and over the years this has worked for me. I hope it will work for my children.

Thomas Belton is a free-lance writer. He lives in Haddonfield, N.J.

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