LIFE ON THE COLOR LINE:
THE BLACK/WHITE EXPERIENCE IN THE UNITED STATES
Excitement filled me when I first heard about, “Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black,” by Gregory Howard Williams. Having graduated from Ball State University just one year ahead of Greg, I remembered him well. In fact, I've never forgotten him and have talked about him often over the last fifty years. I never knew what happened to him, however, and was thrilled to hear of his success, first as Dean of the Ohio State University College of Law and later as President of CCNY and the University of Cincinnati. Our lives parallel each other in so many ways, and yet have no parallels at all. Though we were both young men from "dysfunctional" families, striving to rise above our roots, our lives may exemplify black/white in America. My "white" path to success was extremely difficult; Greg's "black" path was near insurmountable.
I first met Greg in the fall of 1962, when I was the manager of the freshmen basketball team and Greg was one of the athletes trying to make the team. He was one of those guys right on the fringe. He worked hard, he hustled and he gave his all. He seemed one of those guys good enough to make the team, but not quite good enough to gain any real playing time. I liked hustlers though and thought he was a pretty good ballplayer, but got the impression the coaches didn't really like him for some reason. Although I didn't know it at the time, in retrospect, the coaches probably knew he was black. And in those days, a black had to be awfully good to beat out a white for a spot on the team. I didn't know he was black though and, for whatever reason, saw something in him I liked.
Several times we shared conversation over "cokes" in the "Tally-ho," the student hangout on campus. He was shy and evasive though, and hard to get to know. Greg seemed very wary of me, and I wondered why. One day he showed me some pictures in his wallet of his friends and his "girlfriend," and they were all black. I looked puzzled and he must have noticed, for he said, "You know I'm black." I remember only continuing to be puzzled, as except for his height compared to mine he could have been my brother. After that conversation, I still wanted to be his friend, but he seemed not to fully trust whites and he hung around primarily with other black students who were mostly Muncie locals. After reading his book, it is easy to understand why. "My survival depended on my ability to conceal my emotions; I sought to reveal nothing about how I felt." In my wildest imagination, I could not have envisioned how difficult his life had been to that point. I wish both of us could have tried harder somehow at that time. I believe we would have liked each other had we had the chance. Let's look at the "parallels" of our lives.
Greg spent the first ten years of his life in Washington, D.C., and the nearby Virginia area. He lived in several different homes, and was basically of a white middle-class background. His mother was white, from Muncie, Indiana, and Greg and his brother Mike would spend some time every summer in Muncie visiting with their maternal grandparents. Greg's father was of dark complexion and "Italian" descent. Greg had no paternal grandparents that he knew of at that time, and never did know his paternal grandfather. I spent the first ten years of my life in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, living in several different homes, basically of a white middle-class background. I visited my maternal grandparents regularly, but saw my paternal grandmother only infrequently, and she died when I was about ten. I also never knew my paternal grandfather.
About the age of ten, both our lives changed. His parents fought, his father's business went "belly up," his parents split and his father turned more and more to the bottle. His mother took two children with her and left Greg and Mike behind with their father, siblings raised in two separate families. Greg entered a "lower-class" life of poverty.
When I was ten, my parents fought, my father's business went "belly up," and my father turned more and more to the bottle. I was eleven and my brother nine, when the "second" family was started. My father, in a drunken stupor, would come home and impregnate my mother again, and again, and again: five times over the next seven years. In effect, two separate families. We entered a "lower-class" life of poverty. But Greg discovered he was "black." I remained white.
With Greg's mother gone and his father broke, his father, "Buster," had nowhere to turn but back to his own family in Muncie. A family that was all black. Greg and his brother were now told they were Negroes, and a Negro woman, whom they had met once as an "employee" of their father's business for a short time, was their grandmother! They now moved from the privileged white society of Washington, D.C., to the poverty stricken black neighborhoods and schools of Muncie. "Before my eyes he (Dad) was transformed from a swarthy Italian to his true self - a high-yellow mulatto. My father was a Negro! We were colored! After ten years in Virginia on the white side of the color line, I knew what that meant." Greg was black, whereas I was lucky, I remained white. I could only imagine what being black meant.
Greg was a boy, forced to experience the fear of Alan Paton's Kumalo, "the fear of a man who lives in a world not made for him, whose own world is slipping away, dying, being destroyed, beyond any recall." The details of Greg's life from elementary through high school are so incredible as to be almost incomprehensible to those of us who grew up "white." Tales of outhouses in the city, "slop jars" on the porch, sleeping on a shared cot next to the toilet bowl, little or no food, living in a tar paper shack with no heat, cold water or no water, tattered furniture and tattered clothes, and his constant struggle with an alcoholic father bring tears to your eyes and incredulity to your mind. As Kumalo wondered to himself, "How does one find one's way in such confusion? It is too much to understand."
Add now being ignored by your white grandparents, who lived only minutes away, the hatred experienced from both blacks and whites, the overall racial prejudice of the Muncie community, a love/hate relationship with your father, and just the daily struggle to survive. It is miraculous Greg had the drive and will inside him to escape, let alone achieve what he has done. "Though only ten years old, I faced one of the hardest choices of my life: to dream or to despair. Too young to realize the odds against any one of us ever walking away from those (railroad) tracks and changing the circumstances of our lives, I chose to dream." Again Greg parallels Kumalo's thoughts, "Who indeed knows why there can be comfort in a world of desolation? Who indeed knows the secret of the earthly pilgrimage? Who knows for what we live, and struggle, and die? Who knows what keeps us living and struggling, while all things break about us?"
Although my youth could never approach the horror of Greg's, we were often on welfare or unemployment, sometimes without heat in Wisconsin winters, and often short on food. What we did eat was normally "government surplus" and the cheapest hamburger or other meats. I was thirteen before tasting my first steak at an uncle's house. I didn't have my next one until I was twenty-two. My father was also an alcoholic. Greg and I both experienced "carrying" our father home to bed more than once.
Both our fathers were "institutionalized" for short periods of their lives. Both of us saw our fathers in jail on occasion. Both of us were oft embarrassed and hurt by actions of our fathers. Both our fathers worked irregularly and gambled or drank away what they did manage to earn, though both were intelligent when sober. Both of us wore rummage sale clothes and shoes with holes in the bottom. Both of us suffered difficult Christmas'. Both of us had fathers who tried to get involved with politics and politicians, to no avail. Both of us had younger brothers who went different, less acceptable, directions than we did. Both of us had one "best friend" in school that helped us get through the most difficult times. Both of us learned lessons from athletics that carried over to other parts of our lives. Both of us were forced to fight our drunken fathers as teenagers, causing them to never hit us again. Both of us developed "big shoulders" at an early age. And, most important, both of us chose to dream. "I knew who I was and what I wanted to be." "(father's) irresponsibility had given me a great gift. It made me realize I could survive a crisis without him. I could stand up for myself." But Greg was black, and I remained white.
Greg and I continued to experience many similarities in our time at Ball State. We both were one hundred percent responsible for financing our own education and worked wherever and whenever we could to pay for tuition, food and books. We both studied primarily in the social sciences and found college "opened up a whole new world." We both saw education as the way out and accepted responsibility for our own success. We had both "had a lot of responsibility for a long time." As Paton's Father Vincent said, "We do what is in us, and why it is in us, that is also a secret." But Greg was black and I remained white.
We may have been involved in some of the same "protest demonstrations" on campus. Perhaps I even met Greg's beloved Sara. I remember well being asked by several black friends to join them in a march against Governor George Wallace of Alabama speaking on our campus and I did so. I was called many names, led by "nigger lover," and spat upon by whites, some of whom I had previously thought of as friends. That was the day I awoke and learned the depth of racism in this country. But Greg was still black and I was still white.
So many of Greg's experiences I never had and, in truth, never thought about. I never sat in the back of the bus except by choice. I never was rejected by blood relatives because of my heritage. I was never told who to talk to or not because of the color of their skin. I could ask whomever I chose to for a date. "Muncie would not permit me to date white girls, and apparently couldn't tolerate seeing me with black girls either. Muncie's white community would only be satisfied with an inconspicuous and unobtrusive eunuch. My very existence made people uncomfortable and shattered many racial taboos." Muncie was filled with ignorance and so was I.
When I think about my four years in Muncie, 1961 to 1965, I remember a different world than the one that really existed. Greg's work has changed my thinking in so many ways. I lived by the university, the white side of town. I knew nothing of life on the other side of "the color line." I knew Muncie had a Negro population but I don't remember thinking of it as very large or of any real significance. I certainly wasn't aware of the poverty and conditions described in this book. I had no awareness that blacks couldn't live near campus and were forced to commute from far across town. "Only much later in the mid-sixties did the more exclusive suburbs of Muncie open to a trickle of black families, and even then there were incidents of harassment and cross burning." Why didn't I know?
Why didn't I know? There is, perhaps, the crux of the entire black/white problem in America. We know nothing of each others lives or of each others "culture." And it appears we don't want to know! Ernest Gaines' fictional teacher, Matthew Antoine said it takes a long time to "scrape away the blanket of ignorance that has been plastered and re-plastered over those brains in the last three hundred years." Some years later I read an article in a Knoxville, TN, newspaper quoting a large tomato grower about getting workers, "Migrant (Mexican) workers are used by many of the growers. Many migrants live here year round." The irony of that statement speaks for itself. We simply refuse to acknowledge others as part of our community if they are not white. How long must this go on? We live in the land of the blind, rejecting even the one eyed man, for we don't wish to see.
What is the solution to a problem with infinite questions and infinite answers? Who is to be included in the American dream? Dr. Martin Luther King, in a passage from a speech at Lincoln University on June 6, 1961, said, "(The Declaration of Independence) does not say some men (are created equal), but it says all men. It does not say all white men, but it says all men, which includes black men. It does not say all Gentiles, but it says all men, which includes Jews. It does not say all Protestants, but it says all men, which includes Catholics." William J. Bennett, former Secretary of Education, said, "And I say, what Martin Luther King did dream, others may dream, but we must teach them how." Adding, "Education is about skills and standards and know-how and jobs - yes, all of these - but it is also about dreams and other dreamers."
But when it comes to action, Bennett pointed out a study of King's life reveals "a young man deeply committed to helping his people, but unsure of how to do so." We cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are, but even King didn't know which direction to go. Society has been no different. When speaking of our universities over the last forty years, the one obvious failure according to Allan Bloom, "is the relation between blacks and whites. White and black students do not in general become friends with one another. Here the gulf of difference has proved unbridgeable." Perhaps Greg and I, two people who cared, are even living examples of that.
As Bloom states further, "The programmatic brotherhood of the sixties did not culminate in integration but veered off toward black separation. White students feel uncomfortable about this and do not want to talk about it. This is not the way things are supposed to be. The universities are formally integrated, and blacks and whites are used to seeing each other. But the substantial human contact, indifferent to race, soul to soul, that prevails in all other aspects of student life simply does not exist between the two races." Blacks and whites appear to share equally in the blame for this evolution, or lack of it. I pray Malcolm X was incorrect when Alex Haley quoted him, "But things never are fully right again with anyone you have seen trying to kill you." Yet Malcolm X was changing his opinions of whites before his tragic death. Had he lived, perhaps he would have become a positive force in bringing black and white together.
Sure, there have been changes. Solomon & Solomon point out, "There is no doubt that matters have greatly improved. On many large campuses the percentage of minority faculty has doubled and tripled in the past few decades. But the new emphasis and concentration on race and cultural differences threaten to maintain the old inequities under a new name." Problems persist even after fifty years of so-called affirmative action. Role models in the schools at any level are still hard to find. The fact is there are still relatively few minority candidates for full professorships, a problem with it's roots going back hundreds of years. Yet today, rightly or wrongly, we are returning to the past. The Solomon's further state, "The civil rights movement has all but collapsed, the courts that once legitimized it now chop away at it's gains, the students who once supported it now feel threatened by affirmative action, and the government that once encouraged it now turns a blind eye to human rights violations and economic oppression that still cause shock and outrage even in foreign countries."
Others see different problems. "The real problem facing the black community, (Political science professor Alvin) Thornton candidly stated, is the lost identity of the black male. 'For the foreseeable future,' Thornton said, 'he will not have cars, money, or the material goods that give significance to his existence.' As a consequence, his self-image is low. "We have to convince the black man that he is significant.' Only then will he exercise social responsibility ...." (D'Souza). But according to Bloom, Solomon & Solomon, and others, even this probably wouldn't make any difference in racial relations. In speaking to the condemned Jefferson, Gaines' fictional teacher Mr. Wiggins says, "Do you know what a myth is, Jefferson? I asked him. A myth is an old lie that people believe in. White people believe that they are better than anyone else on earth - and that's a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity is in all of us. It would destroy their myth. They would no longer have any justification for having made us slaves and keeping us in the condition we are in. As long as none of us stand, they're safe."
We claim to be a Christian nation but we do not practice any real semblance of Christianity. Fifty years ago Saul Alinsky said, "Christianity is beyond the experience of a Christian-professing-but-not-practicing population." We believe in the brotherhood of man, but we do not want it in our neighborhood. We believe in help for the underdog, but we prefer he stay there. We do not wish our Christianity to be tested too deeply. Alan Paton raised the question, "Which do we prefer, a law-abiding, industrious and purposeful native (black) people, or a lawless, idle and purposeless people? The truth is that we do not know, for we fear them both." Kumalo prayed, "God save us from the fear that is afraid of justice. God save us from the fear that is afraid of men." Fifty years later and thousands of miles away, can our prayers be any different?
So is there any hope for black/white relations? For this country? Mahatma Gandhi was once asked what he thought of Western civilization? He replied, "I think it would be a good idea." I think it would be a good idea also and remain optimistic. I agreed closely with Saul Alinsky when he stated, "A word about my personal philosophy. It is anchored in optimism. It must be, for optimism brings with it hope, a future with a purpose, and therefore, a will to fight for a better world. Without this optimism, there is no reason to carry on." Another characteristic Greg Williams and I have in common.
Greg quotes the serenity prayer:
Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
The courage to change the things I can.
And the wisdom to know the difference.
I carried that prayer in my wallet for many years. We both believe we can change the world. We both pray for courage. We both pray for wisdom. We both pray for each and every one of us to be allowed the opportunity to reach our potential, whatever "color" we may be. We must continue our efforts, both for us and, most important, for the next generation. Are we any different today than Paton's South Africa of the '60's? "Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end. The sun pours down on the earth, on the lovely land that man cannot enjoy. He knows only the fear of his heart."
In ending his story, Greg states, "I often think about life in Muncie and even sometimes in the middle of the night, halfway between sleep and consciousness, I go to the place where that bewildered boy of long ago still dwells in me, and my eyes fill with tears. We share the disbelief that all the things that happened to him in those early years of his life could have occurred. We cry together and, and I tell him that he is now in a safe place and that a wiser and stronger friend is here to protect him. But the wounds are deep, the scars on his soul ache, and he is able to draw little solace from my presence. He wishes me well, but in his little manly way asks why it had to happen to him. Was there some deeper reason for the turn of events of his life, or was he just the victim of circumstance?" Substitute Milwaukee for Muncie and I have the same dream. Neither Muncie nor Milwaukee has paled in significance.
Black and white, we have much in common. Commonalities far greater than our differences. Neither of us know the answers, but we have both continued the search. Never again do I want to ask myself, "Why didn't I know?" I will know. I must know. We all must know what is going on, and we all must act on that knowledge to create the better world we all desire in our hearts. When all people, of all races, accept their commonalities and no longer judge others only by their
differences, our children will sleep sound at night and perhaps Muncie, Milwaukee, and the cities of your own memories, will all pale in significance. Perhaps Greg and I will someday have a chance to be friends. Perhaps our grandchildren will. One day, I must believe, we all will.
"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."
Come walk with us.