Sunday, August 30, 2009

Equally Yoked, Part 1

March 24, 1992

Dear Grandpa,

I hope this gets to you in time for your birthday. And I hope that you have a nice day.

I’ve had a busy year. I suppose Mom and Dad have told you about Laura McBride and her kids—the people I spend most of my non-working time with. They are a family I have known for the seven years I’ve been in Nashville. I’ve spent most of my holidays with them, and I’ve been there for all kids’ birthdays and celebrations…

…I don’t mean to take up you birthday note talking about my life, but I do have a couple questions for you about this situation. I do love Laura and the kids and I am dating Laura now. I remember Grandma saying at one point that it was okay to associate with white people, but that “we should not be unequally yoked” (2 Corinthians 6:14). I don’t think that’s what that verse is about. I think it has to do with people who believe differently than we do.

Anyway, Laura is white (I guess that’s obvious now). I want to know what you think about this issue. If our relationship comes to that, I don’t have any illusions about the marriage being easy. But I still consider it because I love Laura, I love the kids, they love me, and I think we could be a family together. Obviously, I’m a grown man and I will make my own decisions, but I would appreciate hearing what you think.

I still hope to see you sometime soon. I hope to hear from you sooner. Again, I hope your birthday is special. I’ll be praying for you.

Much Love, Your Grandson,


The question I asked Grandpa Peterson was prompted by a conversation I had had with Grandma Peterson back in 1977. The bus tour of the US that I took that year included a visit to Grandpa and Grandma’s little farm in Grove City, Ohio. It was my first trip to the farm as an adult and my first trip to see Grandma and Grandpa without either of my parents.

We kids had grown up with great affection for our grandparents, even though we didn’t see much of them. With all of our moving around, we lived nearby in Columbus, Ohio, only two years, when I was in 2nd and 3rd grade. In those days Mom and Dad took us out to “the country” as often as possible. I remember strawberries, blackberries, and gooseberries, Concord grape vines, apple and walnut trees, and cornfields. We explored the old barn and walked along the railroad track at the edge of the property. We drank from the handpump. I can’t forget the smell of the cellar, which housed all of Grandma’s canned fruits. We always ate well.

We loved it out there, even though there wasn’t that much for kids to do. We always hoped our cousin Jeffrey would be there. Sometimes our other cousins from Mom’s side of the family would come out with us.

There was a lot of serious talking, but it usually didn’t involve us kids much. Dad and Grandpa spent a lot of time together; I gather Dad was trying to soak up Grandpa’s wisdom. Dad revered his father until the day Grandpa died in 1996, maybe even until Dad’s own death only four years later.

On this trip I had Grandma and Grandpa to myself. I was a little nervous. What would I talk about? How could I sound impressive or at least not stupid. All I knew to do was talk about my life. I was in the middle of my sophomore year at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, so I talked about school—mostly about friends and activities. This particular conversation was just Grandma and me. She asked me if there were other “colored” students at the school. I replied that there were a few, but that most of my closest friends were white. “That’s okay for friendship” she said, “but just remember what the Scriptures say about being unequally yoked.” I wanted to correct her theological interpretation, but I remembered my manners and kept my objection to myself.

Grandma was, of course, a product of her generation. She was also a product of her scriptural teaching, the backing for what some thought to be a self-evident reality: Races should not mix.

I have never agreed with Grandma on this issue, but her words stayed with me until the days when I was contemplating marriage in 1992. I don’t know if her sentiments had changed by then. She died in 1990. I still didn’t know what Grandpa thought, and although I disagreed with Grandma’s comment, I did not want to disrespect my grandparents, so it was important to me to hear what they thought.

I have lost Grandpa’s response letter. But it must have encouraged me since I’ve found later correspondence from him on the matter. In one letter from September of that same year, he recounts all the mixed race couples he knows of in our family. And he goes on to talk about their love for one another and when appropriate, their shared Christian ministry.

Grandpa was not well enough to come to our wedding. Shortly after our wedding, my cousin Jeffrey bought the farm (No, people, I mean he literally bought Grandpa’s farm). Laura finally made it to the farm in 2000 for Dad’s burial, when Grandpa was already gone.

If Grandpa’s approval is based on the love between me and Laura and on our shared ministry, Grandpa would be thrilled with Laura. And she with him.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Oreos Aren’t for Everyone

The story you are about to read is true. The names have been changed to protect…me.

When I was a younger man, I worked for three years as the part-time Jr. High minister of a large church in a major city of the American Southeast. The church buildings were in the inner city, but the congregation outgrew that property and began to hold its Sunday services across town at a school that accommodated more people. The church was predominantly white; if memory serves, I was the only black person in any kind of leadership. But they were vocal about their desire for racial integration and what they called in those days “racial reconciliation.”

I had been in my position for about eighteen months when the senior pastor suddenly (and I mean suddenly) hired a youth pastor to be my supervisor. Stan Olivier was a tall white man with short cropped curly, almost kinky hair. He and I met weekly on Wednesday afternoons. From my perspective, he seemed to have no sense of what teenagers were like, but he had a clear idea of what he thought Christian teenagers should be like. As we met weekly, we were learning to tolerate one another.

Stan had been on staff a few months when we were both called into an all-staff meeting, which followed one of our Wednesday meetings. The elders of the church were committed to serving their community, so they found a way to return home and build a larger facility. Staff members were brought together to discuss temporary use of facilities. Toward the end of the meeting, Ruby Smith, the white woman who directed the extensive ministry to the poorer, predominantly black residents of the community, made a comment. “You know when we get the building built, there will be a lot of people from the neighborhood joining us. We need to educate our teachers for a few weeks to prepare them for it.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but they will need more than a few weeks. We will have to continually educate because we’re gonna have a clash of cultures. We’ll have to learn from each other.” To which Stan responded, “I’m ready; I have the hair for it already!”—trying to be funny. I don’t remember if anyone laughed. I said nothing.

That night at youth group Stan began to impress upon the youth the importance of evangelism, bringing their non-Christian friends to church. In the midst of the predominantly white suburban group were three black inner city kids Oscar, Tykesha, and Maria —kids from the neighborhood who were part of the youth group since before I started eighteen months prior. Stan went on to say “It’s great that the Jr. High kids have brought these three kids from the inner city here. Now high school people, you need to start bringing your non-Christian friends too.

There were SO MANY things wrong with that verbal display. But let’s begin with only three. Stan assumed
1) that Oscar, Tykesha, and Maria were brought to the church by white kids (which means they are not “our” kids),

2) that they were not Christians, and

3) that they would not mind hearing themselves referred to as these second-class citizens.

He made several other unwise comments about younger adolescents in general, but those comments don’t fit this discussion.

By the end of the meeting, I was furious, too angry to think of anything constructive to say. I spent the week talking through things with friends and decided to wait until our next one-on-one meeting to address the issues with Stan. And so I began:

“Stan, last week you said a few things that bothered me. I know that they offended some other people and I just want to point them out to you to warn you of the possibility of offending more people with similar comments.” I started with the comment about his hair. I said. “Not only did you totally invalidate what Ruby and I were saying, and not only did you apparently miss the point, but it made me wonder what kind of experience you have had with black people.”

He responded boldly, “Extensive, I’ve had extensive experience with black people! I’ve told that joke about my hair many times to black people and they think it’s funny. You are an overly sensitive person, and that is sin. That comment doesn’t offend most black people. But you are not the typical black person. You are what they call an Oreo, black on the outside white on the inside. I know how to deal with black people. I don’t know how to deal with you.”

There was no way to respond. I took a deep breath and said, “Stan, there’s another reason I wonder about your relationships with black people.” I referred him to his comment in front of the youth about Oscar, Tykesha, and Maria. His response “You are reading something in that I didn’t intend. You’re being over sensitive again.”

I said, “What bothers me is that you assumed these kids are not Christians when they are.” Wrong thing to say.

“Oh they are Christians, huh?” he said. “Have they been baptized?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re their youth minister, and you don’t know if they’ve been baptized?! Don’t you think baptism is essential to salvation?”

“I guess not. I think it’s important. I think Christians should be baptized, but I guess I don’t think it’s essential.”

And so began the examination of my beliefs. “I’m concerned,” he said. “Do you believe that the Bible is the inspired, infallible word of God? What about abortion? What about homosexuality?”

At the end of it all, Stan said, “You and I are very different. We have some different beliefs, but we also have different approaches to ministry. I am bold and say what I think. You are sensitive and deliberate. Of all the people on staff it is people like you that I have the hardest time dealing with.”

Okay, people, where to begin? Let’s start with this. One barrier to race relationships in the church is the racial assumptions we hang onto. The beauty of Stan is that in his boldness he says out loud what some others only think and others still can’t even bring to their own consciousness. I don’t mean to assume that racial assumptions only go in one direction. They go in all manner of directions. This is why talking openly with good will can help us all. And for the mission of the Christian church it’s the sacrifice we must make to be truer to the Good News of Jesus.

So I addressed three specific assumptions above. Are you aware of others that become barriers to our bridging races and classes? How do we move forward?

Monday, August 24, 2009

How Deep Is Your Love?

We were late visitors to the worship service on Easter morning 1992. Laura and I had just started dating, and we were both without a church home. My friend and co-worker, Karen Williams, had invited us to her church, Braden United Methodist, for the Easter service.

We arrived at the entrance to the church, the back of the sanctuary, to find a full house. The usher greeted us and asked us to wait. He walked up to the second row and ushered out all of those men, the deacons. He signaled for us to come down the aisle and fill the row. So I walked with my white girlfriend and her four white children into this otherwise black assembly. Although I had prepared myself for this, I still felt self-conscious, especially for the children. As we were hurrying out at the end of the service, a few people greeted us. But the obligatory acknowledgement of our presence was not enough to erase the discomfort. I don’t know if the kids remember that church visit. I know Laura does.

After fifteen years worshiping and serving in another congregation, Laura and I started searching again for a church home in January 2009. We had visited around for a few months when we decided to save the actual decision for the end of the year. We wanted to be free simply to explore and enjoy the ways Christians worship in Nashville. We were six months into the worship tour when one Sunday as we were heading home, I said, “You realize that we have not visited a predominantly black church.”

There were a few moments of silence. And then some verbal wrestling. First Laura said, “I’ve been to black churches before.” In the early 1980s, Laura lived in a predominantly black New Jersey neighborhood working with black children (while I was living in a predominantly white Washington State community working with suburban white teens). For five years she interacted with children and their families and she occasionally attended black churches with white friends. “Although we were obviously visitors” she said about the church visits, “it seemed to me, that it didn’t really matter that we were there.”

Then she reminded me of our Braden visit. Of course the Braden experience was fraught with discomfort potential. And to be fair, the Braden people, who were not expecting this intrusion on Easter Sunday, took it in stride and acted with as much Christian hospitality as they could muster on short notice. But I don’t blame Laura for not wanting to repeat the experience.

Still there had to be something else. In our 2009 tour we visited many churches that treated us as if we didn’t matter. Finally Laura said, “There’s another reason I’m not excited about us going together to a black church. I would go WITHOUT you. I just don’t want to be the white woman who walks into the black church with her black husband, as if to say to black women ‘Look, I have him; you can’t have him.’”

I couldn’t let that go, “Well, Honey, they CAN'T have me. I don’t belong to black women. I belong to you.”

“I know,” she said, “but I don’t want to stir up that feeling in them.”

If you know Laura, you know she was speaking from her heart. And just like that, she demonstrated how complicated these issues are. This was not as simple as, “I feel fine in your church, why don’t you feel fine in mine?” No, the issues are myriad and interconnected. No wonder that individuals, racial groups, and churches don’t venture into them. This is not easy stuff.

The conversation that Laura and I had on the way home from church was eased by our love for each other. But we are still a man and a woman, a black person and a white person with drastically different backgrounds. If this husband and wife have to rely on our deep love for one another to get toward the core of these issues, why would anyone else bother to have these conversations? There is too much involved and too much at stake, and seemingly there is more to lose than there is to gain.

But Laura and I should not have needed to have this conversation at all. The travesty behind our predicament is the simple fact that the overwhelming majority of Christian churches are heavily single ethnicity gatherings (I hear your exception, people in Hawaii!). It’s as if we Christians believe that the first rule when establishing a church is “Gather a bunch of people who look like you.”

I know that historically there are some very good reasons for some single ethnicity churches. There are also some very bad reasons. And many of the original good reasons are now obsolete. It is time to examine them and to examine our own hearts. Don’t be mistaken; worship with people who do not look like us is not simply for the benefit of this interracial couple. I believe it is essential to the movement of God’s Good News.

So I am asking Christian people to accept no excuses. I am asking Christian people to look at their congregations and ask, “Is this single-ethnic gathering what God is up to? Is this what the Gospel is about?” If you agree with me that it is not, are you willing to have the conversations that move us forward? Are you willing to experience the discomfort that can lead to something better?

And whether or not you agree with me, are you willing to chase down anything in your congregation that would make a visitor feel unwelcome in your church?

Despite the potential landmines, we can exercise the Good News. It took the fierce, dedicated, patient love of a husband and wife to get Laura and me to a deeper level of understanding on this issue. But we Christians claim a love that is even deeper, broader, and more powerful.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Are We There Yet?

It was 1987. The assassinations of MLK and RFK were nearly twenty years in the past. The Voting Rights Act was more than twenty years old. Ronald Reagan was in his second term in the White House. And the Cosby Show was in its third season as America’s favorite TV show.

In January 1987, The Vanderbilt Hustler, the university’s student newspaper, reported the news that an African American woman had pledged a white sorority. The pledging either sparked or was sparked by (which came first is unclear) a mandate from Vandy’s provost and chancellor demanding that the sororities and fraternities develop plans for integration. The story made national news; at least the Washington Post took brief notice.

The Hustler published a letter to the editor from Blair Robinson. That letter conveyed the sentiments of many people I talked to; they wanted to know: “Why is this front page news?” I was studying at Scarritt Graduate School at the time, taking my Bible classes at Vanderbilt’s divinity school. As a quasi-member of the Vandy community, I wrote my own letter to the editor in response to Ms. Robinson et al.:

"To the Editor

I agree with Blair Robinson’s letter in the January 23 issue of
The Vanderbilt Hustler: The event of a black woman joining a traditionally white sorority should not be a big deal. Michelle Alexander and Pi Beta Phi should be applauded for not making an issue of the pledging. But The Vanderbilt Hustler deserves equal applause for recognizing and publicizing the significance of the event.

Eighty-three years of discrimination is a big deal! Perhaps we were all aware of racism at Vanderbilt. Perhaps we have grown sick of this annual focus on racism every January. Or perhaps we are content to ignore the problem, hoping that it will solve itself. Perhaps it will. But 83 years of history have shown otherwise. Any successive approximations to true integration and equality deserve to be recognized, if not for the celebration of the progress then for the acknowledgement of the continuing tragedy.

Blair Robinson understates our goal saying, “Until an action like this can happen without gaining front page attention, we still have a long way to go.” I would add that until an action like this can happen without prompting a controversial administrative mandate, we have a long way to go. Until blacks and whites can live together without denying their heritage, we have a long way to go. Until whites and blacks can recognize their dependence on each other, we have a long way to go. And while at Vanderbilt the issue is black and white, until we recognize that respect and interaction among ALL races is both just and mutually beneficial, we cheat ourselves out of the enrichment in diversity. Until we can learn, work, and celebrate together because of and in spite of our differences, we still have a very long way to go.

So Pi Beta Phi did not choose Michelle Alexander because she is black. And Ms Alexander did not join Pi Beta Phi to make a statement. But I suppose they are learning to live with the unsolicited publicity. Michelle Alexander is a black woman in an otherwise white sorority . And at Vanderbilt University in January 1987, that is still a big deal."

Now another twenty years have passed. Barack Obama is in the White House, and we haven’t had a bona fide American assassination in some time.

Bu I can’t think of any top-rated TV shows that feature black (or Latino or Asian) casts. And we still seem to be squeamish talking about race.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Just Thinkin'

I’m wrestling with when and whether I will meet Damon for lunch at school. At first it was a no-brainer: I’d love that, and so would he! After all he visited me at work on a number of occasions. And we first went out into public—just the two of us before he was two weeks old (We went to Home Depot).

But then I remembered: kids can be cruel. And innocent, curious kindergarteners can be unintentionally hurtful.

When Timothy was in kindergarten, I ate lunch with him once after his persistent requests. I met his friends, and we had a great time. Damon has his Uncle Timothy’s take-it-or-leave-it confidence. But he also has his daddy’s desire to make sure everyone is getting along (“No-one should be left out!”). What would my presence in these early days do to a little boy who is trying to fit in and to make sure everyone else fits in? How would he handle their innocently curious questions? What would their questions tell him about what is “normal”?

I knew those questions would be inevitable for our kids. Before I asked Laura to marry me, we had been close friends for ten years and had dated for three years. I had a lot to think about before deciding that this was what I wanted to do. At the top of my foot-dragging list was the knowledge that the kids would have to explain to other kids something that they did not choose.

One day, after we had been married about five years, I was down in the basement sorting through stuff (I have a little bit of stuff). The kids, all teenagers except Timothy, were gone for the weekend. My mind started working; and when I would let it go like that, it usually focused on the kids. All of a sudden I was overcome with emotion. The thought that prompted the flood was the realization that I had never once asked the kids what happens when people at school learn that they have a black stepfather. I had not asked, and they had not told. I started thinking of all the possible reactions.

During the next week, I asked each of our children in private.

Kimberly said, “I go to Hume-Fogg (Academic Magnet School). There are a lot more unusual family situations than ours!”

Thomas said, “My friends think it’s cool, and I don’t care what anyone else thinks.”

Charlie said, “Nothing happens.” When I pressed him, it wasn’t clear if to me if the subject never came up, if he was ashamed, or if he was protecting me. Now that he’s a little older and a lot more mature, I might ask him again.

Timothy said, “They ask me ‘So are you mixed?’ and I say, ‘Do I LOOK mixed?’”

So I finally asked them, and I think their message to me was, “It’s not a big deal.” But in case you’re wondering, I wasn’t asking about how much they love me or anything like that. I think the kids and I have all come through that “Can I trust that you really love me? stage.”

Likewise I have no doubt about the bond between Damon and me. But love often comes with a cost, sometimes with a burden. Real love can bear the burden, especially once we reach a certain level of maturity. By the time I asked my kids that question, they were all veterans of school society and they had already borne some burdens.

Damon is new at this. I think the lunch visit can wait until he gets his classroom and schoolyard legs under him. Unless he persists.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Some People Change

It was no secret that Don McMillen hated black people. Don was a young American soldier who started dating my German sister, Karla, during the last months of our time in Germany. Don was not allowed in our home. And according to Dad, Don forbade (It was the early 1960s!) Karla’s coming to our home, but she would sneak over anyway. Don and Karla married, and Don moved his new wife back home to ol’ Kentucky.

When Dad was transferred to Fort Knox, Kentucky, in 1970, we were not far from Karla, Don and their girls in Louisville. Karla couldn’t have us that close for a year and not see us. So we would pile into the car and drive to Louisville to visit. All I remember about those visits is that regardless of the time of year or weather conditions, it was always the same scenario: We’d arrive. Don would go out to his car and stay there until we left. His racial prejudice became legendary in our family discussions.

I started getting brave in my young adulthood. During my sophomore year of college I decided to spend my winter break visiting family and friends around the country via Greyhound’s Ameripass. Louisville was one of my stops.

I have access to the hour-by-hour (in some cases, minute-by-minute) activities of that visit. I’ll spare you some of the tedium, but there were significant points.

The bus from Columbus, Ohio, was 50 minutes late. Karla and her family had just returned home from the bus depot when I called to say that I was in (This was before cellphones, people!). I waited and eventually saw Susie and Don coming. I recognized eleven-year-old Susie from a few days before when I passed through Louisville but didn’t stay. Karla and Susie had met me at the bus depot and brought me something to eat. This time we left the bus depot with Don talking to me about the damn cold and damn everything else with a little s--- mixed in. I wrote in my journal, “He was very nice, though.”

I was greeted at the door by Donna, only seven years old and acting like she knew me from years earlier when she was a newborn. After learning where I was to sleep, I went in to the TV room, where Don was watching the Dallas Cowboys beat the Minnesota Vikings in the playoffs. As we watched together, Don commented on all the damn plays, while Susie interjected all the news of her life. Donna was helping Karla in the kitchen. I kept hearing my name from her little voice, “Where will Tony sit? This chair’s for Tony. What will Tony drink?” She came out and whispered something to Susie, to which Susie replied, “I don’t know; ask him.” She asked, and I answered, “7-Up.”

We ate at halftime, and I was seated at the head of the table. Don did not eat, apparently distressed over a friend he just heard had died. But after supper Don invited me to go with him to “The Convenient.” I had no idea what he was talking about. Fourteen-year-old Nancy warned me that he was planning to go “drown his sorrows,” so I declined. I spent the evening playing board games with the girls as the two younger ones campaigned for my attention.

They were all in bed when Don got home. He came into the room I was staying in and asked if I needed anything. He apologized for “Fraulein,” the clock that would be chiming every hour while I tried to sleep (And Fraulein DID chime!).

The next day I had promised Susie that I’d go with her collecting for her paper route (against Donna’s wishes). We set out into the bitter cold. We had reached what Donna called the “stinky neighborhood,” when all I could think of was getting back home. But I was amused by all the people staring at this 12-year-old white girl in the company of this 19-year old black guy. Before long, I looked up and saw Karla arriving in the car. Seems several concerned citizens had called Karla to report that they saw Susie with some guy. I’m not sure how they described me, but I have some guesses.

At everyone’s insistence I stayed a day longer than I intended. There were a lot of board games to play; jigsaw puzzles to be put together; ballgames game shows, and soap operas (I was into “All My Children” at the time) to watch.

Don has since passed away. I’ve never asked Karla or the girls what transformed him from the legendary bigot to this gracious man falling over himself to make my stay enjoyable. I always give God the credit for that stuff, even if the subject isn’t aware of God’s intervention.

Don obviously did not die a perfect man, but in this one area he emerges as my favorite example of the foolishness of holding people to their past deeds. Some people do change. As a Christian, it is a basic tenet of my faith that every person CAN change. It gives me delight to remember Don McMillen as a man who, the last time I saw him, treated me like royalty in his own home.

Don't Tell Karla!

It'll be news to my wife, Laura, but Karla was my first crush. She was a white German teenager and I was a black American preschooler, but I was determined to marry her when I grew up. Shortly after we moved to Germany, she became our babysitter. Within a few years she had essentially moved in with us. Knowing that most of our memories would fade, Dad later wrote about those days for his kids. Note that Dad intentionally misspells Karla’s name to match his, Carl:

"Carla Leipold had been coming to Camp King for a year or so before we arrived. She must have been about 14 then. She visited a black family who left shortly after we arrived. They were a really rowdy bunch and were partly responsible for the negative image of blacks which prevailed at Camp King.

Carla was dating David Morgan a black MP. I still must smile when I think of this little blonde-haired blue, eyed German girl with black American [language and accent] coming from her lips. When the other family left, Carla latched onto us. David was allowed to visit here at our house, but only under close supervision.

Eventually, Carla was spending every day after school and all weekend with us. She was our daughter, housekeeper, and live-in baby-sitter. She went to her real parents’ house to sleep unless we were going to be out late and we obtained permission for her to spend the night. She wanted blanket permission to stay overnight every night, but her parents would not consent, and we didn’t pursue the issue. Carla finished 8th or 9th grade while she was living with us…

By most people’s standards the relationship between the Leipolds and Petersons was a weird one. The daughter of Susie and Karl was also the daughter of Rena and Carl. And Susie and Karl considered us to be their schwartz (black) daughter, son, and grandchildren. Many times while Carla was at our house, one or more of you would be at their house…"

Dad had a lot more to say to us about Karla, but not all of it was intended for public consumption, so I’ll take over here with my memories. The Leipolds lived just outside the Army base gate about a five-minute walk. We kids loved going off-base to visit Karla’s parents, who were like grandparents to us. I remember them taking us to the candy store, where we would buy a ring wrapped around gummy candy. Later in high school when I bought Haribo Gummi Bears from the German Club, it took me immediately back to Germany.

Karla is still in my life today as are her kids and grandkids. She and her family were at my graduate school graduation,
they were at my wedding,
they were in Hawaii for my nephew’s wedding,
and they were at my daughter’s wedding.
Mom and Karla talk on the phone, Denver to Louisville, nearly every day.If you see Karla; her daughters, Nancy, Susie, or Donna; and her grandchildren hanging out in Louisville, Denver, Nashville, or Waipahu, with my mom, my siblings, my wife, my children, or my grandchildren, you could easily be confused by the brother, sister, daughter, aunt, uncle, mother, grandmother, grandfather language. It gets really complicated when you add in Karla’s German mother who still calls my mother her daughter.

But wait, there’s more. Our family history with Karla is a little more complicated...

And…nobody tell Karla about that crush thing!

Monday, August 17, 2009

My Bad

If you walk up the hill from Wahiawa Intermediate School, after four or five blocks you end at California Avenue, the main street through the “country” town of Wahiawa, Hawaii, near the center of Oahu. California Avenue is itself a long hill leading about five miles into Wahiawa Heights. That four or five block trek to the main drag was a daily one for my three eighth grade friends and me.

Some days, we would part ways as soon as we reached California. John Imperial, a Filipino and Mark Faulkner, a white guy would head down the hill to their homes. Ron Nagasawa, a Japanese guy would head home straight through the Wahiawa Botanical Gardens. I began the long (maybe two mile) journey up the hill to the Heights. The journey was worth it, even in the Hawaiian sun or rain.

The four of us became friends simply from having signed up for Newswriting as our one elective course. As eighth graders we shared and rotated editorship of The Lance and Shield, our school newspaper. Later in the year we also worked on No Koala, the school’s literary magazine. The projects kept us after school many a day, and I loved it.
Wahiawa Botanical Garden
I also loved the days when we got out early enough to walk up our first hill and then to tarry before going in our respective directions. We would walk into the Botanical Gardens, rest on the bridge and talk. I remember the day I told them about Donna, the girl at church who I liked but was too shy to tell. This was my first group of confidantes. I had had a couple best friends in the past, but never a whole group like this.

By the end of the school year, we felt like we owned the school and we were well aware that our ride was about to end. We were headed to Leilehua High School, where we would be bottom-of-the-heap freshmen.

Our last gathering together was actually not the “proper” group. It was my 14th birthday in July.
By then my family had moved on Schofield Barracks, the Army post near Wahiawa. My parents let me invite whomever I wanted. John couldn’t come, so I added Lance and Lance, who were both Japanese, to replace him. I had gotten a stereo for a birthday gift, and Ron says he remembers my dad playing Bill Cosby records for us. I remember sitting on the porch talking. We were anticipating high school. We were guessing about where we would be hanging out and what we would be doing together.

And then at my birthday party I laid it on my best friends: I would not be hanging out with them at Leilehua. I tried to explain that my brother Carl and my sister Marcia were already at Leilehua and I would be expected to hang out with the other black students like them.

True to my word, I ignored my friends at Leilehua. Like most of the other black students, I arrived by bus from Schofield Barracks each day and headed directly to the front of the cafeteria, our area. I usually sat on the stage and looked out at everyone else. When the opening bell rang each day, most of the girls went to class, most of the guys disappeared. I went to class.

We started an official school club called the Soul Society. Marcia was the secretary, I was the treasurer, which meant that I held the dues after they were collected. I don’t remember if we ever used the dues for anything.

The black students were like family to me, but I had no close friends, no confidantes. My Leilehua experience was that sharp distinction between that social situation and my academic time. There were black students—most, but not all of them were girls—who negotiated those two worlds much better than I did.
More to the point: I was attempting something in my innocence, timidity, and ignorance that was unnecessary. I was afraid that someone would label me a “Tom”—in those days we left off the “Uncle” (If those imagined people could only see me now!) And I was afraid of embarrassing my siblings. Marcia and Carl both revealed to me years later that they had no expectations of me other than that I be Tony--that I do what Tony does.

And had I stayed at Leilehua more than two years, maybe I would have matured to the point of feeling more comfortable in my own skin (I don’t mean skin color), and maybe I could have merged my worlds better.

But we moved again. I looked for a new school and ended up at a school where “black community” was not much of an option. There I met a (half) black guy who years later would encourage America to “eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” While we’re at it, let’s also work on the assumption that says the only way to be “authentic” is to only hang out with people who look like us.

That mistake is not the fault of my multiracial group of friends, my African American group of friends, or my siblings. That mistaken assumption is on me.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Am I Black or Am I White?

Damon, my five-year-old white grandson, announced to his Aunt Kimberly recently that he was black.

Kimberly: No, Sugar Booger; you’re white, just like Daddy.
Damon: Well when I get bigger, I’m gonna be black.

Only a few weeks later he asked his pregnant Aunt Kimberly, “Is your baby gonna be a Mexican?”

Kimberly: No silly, Uncle Drew is the Daddy. The baby will be white like me and Uncle Drew.
Damon: I don’t want Mexican; I like white.

And days later, Damon asked his mom “Am I white or am I black?”

For the record, Damon doesn't even know what "Mexican" is, but he has heard someone, probably not in his immediate family, say something negative about someone "Mexican."

Damon has learned the truth at an early age: Race matters. It is not just a matter of skin color. Somehow it means something. For Damon it’s an issue of identity as well as identification, preference, and (he thinks) choice.

When I was five, I don’t think I put any value on the differences among skin color. From birth I had been surrounded by a broadness of hue amongst those who loved me. I drew this picture of my family (I think it’s just us kids) and used the orange crayon even though a brown one was available. I think I perceived skin color as just gradations on a spectrum with no social significance (at five I probably used different language). If so, then biologically speaking, I was right.

But Damon knows that biology is not what matters with race. And he’s trying to figure out what does matter.

Whatsoever Things Are True III

Almost a year ago (September 11, 2008) I drafted a post which I never published. It sat on my blogsite unfinished. I just re-read it, and I'm thinking its time has come. Eleven months later it sounds disgustingly familiar.

"I've ended my siege over Steve [Bell]'s Notes page on Facebook. Steve and I and another friend of his were going at it for a few days about the election, Christian values, the nature of our associations and stuff. I had to stand down and surrender his page because I was getting nowhere productive.

If you've read this blog before, you know that I made up my mind about the Presidential election a long time ago. My reasons are legion, but I will not delineate them right now. I am no undecided voter. In fact, my political mission right now is to persuade undecided voters to the ticket I believe is best for the country.

What I've faced is that many undecideds are not so undecided. It has baffled me how some claim open-mindedness but then argue only one side. I think I'm making a rational argument and the response is venomous demonization. I'm not interested in trying to force my opinion on anyone--that's not the persuasion I seek. But the selective hearing of some people, Christian in particular, is stunning to me.

I say 'Christian in particular,' because I'm disturbed at how many Christians believe the negative about any candidate when confronted with the overwhelming positive truth. I'm not saying that everything about my candidate is positive. I am decrying the bloodthirst that believes unsubstantiated innuendo and negative lies over positive truth. There are two issues here: obsession with the negative and willingness to believe lies."

Before some of my Christian brothers and sisters jump all over me:
If you disagree with my political views and are speaking the truth in love, then my exhortation is not about you. I applaud you. If you do not agree with me based on clear facts, I have no quarrel with you as a brother; we simply disagree. And if you basically agree with me politically, and are lying about the facts, this IS about you.

But here we are again with people willing to believe and disseminate lies that can be proven as such, and once again I am disgusted.

Friday, August 14, 2009

I Know How Chelsea Feels

My memories of Germany are mostly impressionistic. I remember fearing the Germans on the other side of the fence, except for the ones we knew and loved. I remember idolizing my big brother, Carl, who we called “Co” --short for Cochise. I remember the feeling when my baby brother, Keith, was born (If he’s the baby brother, then what am I?). I remember a similar lost feeling when Marcia, my one and only sister, went off to German school.

We moved to Camp King, the Army base at Oberursel, Germany, before my first birthday. We lived there until I was five. For the first four years of my life, Marcia was my best friend. We were only thirteen months apart, and eventually people started to think we were twins. We loved that.

Once Marcia abandoned me for German school, Kelly Reinhart became my best friend during school hours. I have no specific memories of her, only fond feeling memories. She was a curly haired white girl (That's her on the tricycle). Our families lived in the same Army quarters. Her dad and mine were both soldiers and worked together at a second job at the NCO club. We got to go to the club at least on Sunday afternoons, so we saw a lot of the Reinharts.

But Army life is all about making friends and losing them in the next assignment. After Germany we lived in Kansas, Ohio, Virginia, and Hawaii; and I started seventh grade at Fort Knox, Kentucky. When Dad orchestrated a return to Hawaii, we were all relieved and thrilled, partly because the Reinharts were now there. I remember the anticipation of seeing my old best friend.

But thirteen-year-olds are not five-year-olds, and socialization was in full swing. I remember being at a backyard barbecue in Hawaii and someone telling me that that girl over there was Kelly; she had long wavy hair by then. I was shy. She probably was too. I don’t know if it was simply boy/girl stuff that kicked in or if anything else was lurking for either of us. But I don’t think we even spoke to each other—ever again.

But it was okay since Marcia and I were back to being “twins”—for a few more years. So I gotta assure Chelsea: Damon will be back.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Another SCOTUS Nominee

More contentious than the Sonia Sotomayor Supreme Court justice hearings, more salacious than the Robert Bork hearings and more racially devastating than the original OJ Simpson trial were the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings. I was living single in a one-bedroom apartment. And I was sickeningly obsessed with the hearings. I could not stay away.

On October 14, 1991 I wrote in my journal:

“Thank you, God, for the merciful Joe Biden, who finally ended the proceedings. The fact is that no-one will ever know the truth besides Professor Anita Hill and Judge Clarence Thomas. Meanwhile souls are ripped apart--the soul of the nation, the soul of black America, the souls of black people.

I am torn as a supporter of Thomas on general grounds: that he is a black man who is apparently in agreement with my views. But he is apparently being coached by Republicans more than by his own conscience. I’m torn because Anita Hill, whose views I am probably less comfortable with is more convincing to me. I think she too is being coached, if not by the Democrats then by women’s activists. But somehow her charges still ring of greater authenticity than his denials.

It doesn’t help that they are both apparently Christian people with spotless reputations. The soul of Christian America is also ripped.

The sickest part is that confirmation will not answer the questions. This was not a confirmation hearing; it was a spectacle; it was a political war. It was not a confirmation; the parties have made it an issue of defamation of character. They’ve used a black man and a black woman to fight their wars, to further drive a wedge between in the race, to further strain the national image of black men and black women.

If I were Clarence Thomas (and it feels like I am) I wouldn’t want the nomination at this point. I’d rather retire to relative quiet in a less visible job than to live with the bittersweetness of an appointment under these circumstances. He is a severely wounded man, regardless of whether the charges are true. For some time he will be an inadequate justice. For much longer, he will be suspected, not trusted. That is the devastating blow this process has dealt. That, plus the stealing of black role models who 'deign to think for themselves.'

No, this process was not about blacks and whites, men and women, but the effect has been felt. So if I were Judge Thomas, I would prefer not to serve. It all leaves such a bitter taste in the mouth.”