Commentary: Swapping stories about race opens door to real conversation

John Young, former Associate Dean of Multi-cultural Affairs and long time Upward Bound leader at Wittenberg University. CONTRIBUTED
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John Young, former Associate Dean of Multi-cultural Affairs and long time Upward Bound leader at Wittenberg University. CONTRIBUTED

Nine eleven.

The JFK assassination.

Pearl Harbor Day.

Every generation of Americans has them - days embedded not just in the national conscience but in the bones of those who will never forget the feel of the earth moving under their feet.

For African-Americans of a certain age, Aug. 28, 1955, is one of those days.

Most who tell the story refer to a picture of the grotesquely swollen and misshapen head of Emmett Till they subsequently saw in Jet magazine.

But John Young was jolted by a much larger version of that photo, one that greeted him from a marble step in the vestibule of his family’s West Baltimore home.

Unsure of what to make of the awful image and stories on the front page of The Baltimore African-American, “I asked my aunt,” who was in the front room, Young said.

He doesn’t remember just how she told him about Till, the 14-year-old black Chicago youth so hideously beaten and lynched for purportedly whistling at a white woman while on a family visit to Mississippi.

But the now 73-year old Springfielder remembers the day just before he turned 9 as a turning point in his life. He calls it the moment “when I realized race matters.”

Young considers it a fluke that he enrolled at Baltimore’s Morgan State University a few years later. It was mostly because the powerful bond he had with a friend who was attending and encouraged him to do the same. Another nudge came because a second friend, who was no Einstein, was a student there, too, something that made Young think he might have a chance.

Sharing stories

It was the right turn for the thoughtful man who this summer is in his 38th year of teaching Upward Bound students at Wittenberg University and who retired last year as associate dean of the school’s multi-cultural programs and adjunct professor of political science.

That thoughtfulness - coupled with his awareness of how we humans learn - was the reason I sat across a table from Young last week sharing medium coffees with cream and stories of our lives.

Because, to him, sharing our stories is the best way to get beyond a preaching to the choir; the best way to fly below the decibels and the rhetorical shrapnel of righteousness and defensiveness — the best place to begin a discussion about race.

And, as it turns out, aside from an eight-year difference in age (I’m younger than Young), he and I are close to being mirror images. Because, until early adulthood, television was virtually the only place we saw people on the other side of the black/white divide.

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The only white kid in his early life lived a couple of blocks away. Young caught glimpses of the kid’s parents through a front window, but they remained curiosities of a sort, because “I didn’t really see them outside.”

I told him I can’t be certain, but do not recall a black kid in any of the schools I attended in the western Detroit suburb of Livonia. My only real contact with blacks was through a woman who came to clean our house on Saturdays during a stretch when my mother was working full time , taking classes and working on a doctorate of education at Wayne State University.

For some reason, I remembered her asking me one day if we had any lard in the refrigerator as she was getting ready to make my brother and me some lunch. So far as I know, we’d never had lard in our house.

I also remember my high school girlfriend’s mother saying she’d seen a couple of black people in the Livonia Mall, where her daughter and I worked. When she said she didn’t think they really belong, I shook my head.

But blacks were enough of a novelty that I remember wondering what it was like for the kids on my high school basketball team to play against Campy Russell and the mostly black team from Pontiac Central High School in the quarterfinals of the 1972 Michigan high school basketball tournament.

Watching movies

Young said another boyhood race awareness involved one of the few white businessmen in his neighborhood.

Like me, Young started working in 10th grade, and, like me, for a Jewish business owner.

In his case, it was the owner of three groceries — a man his neighborhood looked on with less suspicion in the 1950s because he had hired a black man as his general manager.

Young’s years stocking shelves, in the meat department and as a cashier transformed the meaning of a movie he had seen at age 13 in 1960 while eating hot dogs and popcorn in one of three all-black theaters in his part of Baltimore.

“Mein Kampf,” one half of the double-feature, wasn’t your run-of-the-mill World War II picture.

“It didn’t take me long to realize that this was real,” he said of the documentary of Hitler’s rise and “final solution” to what Nazi’s called the “Jewish problem.”

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“It showed the concentration camps. It showed the Warsaw ghetto - the bodies, the gold teeth in piles,” Young said.

Whatever ill feeling people in his neighborhood held about his bosses Sam and Bucky, Young remembers thinking, Jewish people “didn’t deserve that.”

His sense of shock was “heightened,” Young said, when he learned Nazis considered the Jews a different race. The film made him dreadfully aware of the consequences of that attitude.

The film I most remember about race from my youth was “To Kill a Mocking Bird,” a black-and-white film my Dad took me to the theater to see when it came out in 1962. That year I was the same age Young had been when he saw the picture of Emmett Till.

A conversation Young and I had about 1960s race riots in Detroit and Baltimore wasn’t quite nostalgic. But it did allow us to trade stories we’ve told others for years.

Mine was from the summer of 1967, when our family was touring Western Europe in a Volkswagen mini-bus and my brother and I were fixated with the words “einfahrt” and “ausfahrt,” which we had encountered on the German Autobahn.

On a rainy Sunday, we were getting hungry in Ghent, Belgium and most of the businesses were closed. But my parents found a bar that was serving cucumber sandwiches — which were high on my “ick” list — and “pommes frites” or French fries, which were not.

There, on the front page of a newspaper, we saw a picture of a tank on Grand River Avenue, one of the streets we traveled when we went to see Gordie Howe and the Red Wings play at Detroit’s Olympia.

Twelve going on 13, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

Young’s riot story unfolded on Sunday of the following year, the first Sunday of April of 1968.

Then an anesthesia assistant at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, he thought his services might be needed that day because of the unrest that followed that Thursday’s assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Young and a dozen other black passengers found themselves in the heart of a riot when the 21 Bus was on Baltimore’s Biddle Street, not far from where John Wilkes Booth is buried.

“All of a sudden, I see this crowd of black folks, and they see (our) white bus driver, and all kinds of missiles (rocks and bottles) start flying,” Young said. “So, I’m in the middle of it now.”

“The bus driver swerves and comes to a stop, and these two cars of white policemen in plain clothes (and protective gear), fly in, get on the bus, take the driver and get him out of there.”

Not long after, a carful of white high school kids, stopped at a red light in the same area and set off a downpour of rocks and bottles from rioters. They had concluded, as Young did, that the kids were only there to do a little race riot sight-seeing.

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Getting to know one another

One of his stories that struck me most deeply involved the first time he was surrounded by white people.

It happened in a University of Dayton classroom when he started graduate school.

There may have been one other black in the class, he said.

But Young recalls being “very conscious” of a sense that his white classmates “were going to see me as representing the black community. My performance in class, my observations, my comments” all would be a part of that.

“You want to be very careful or cautious of how you present yourself,” he said, “because you don’t know what’s going on in their heads.”

That’s because they’re wondering what his story is and he has no idea about theirs.

Defusing the tension of that reality is the purpose of Young’s approach to talking our way into a discussion about race.

“We were all socialized in America,” he said. We all grew up on some patch of ground on its racialized social landscape.

“If you tell your story and I tell my story, I’m going to try to understand how you were socialized and you are going to understand how I was socialized,” he said. “Then, we can critique those institutions” that shaped us.

As we do, he argues, we can first get to know one another, which itself creates common ground. And while we likely will find differences, we can better understand them. He also says we are likely to discover common underlying values that cement a sense of connectedness and build an on-ramp to larger discussions.

At a time when dialog seems so necessary, he said, “Let’s make it easier to have those conversations.”

This is the first of a two-part conversation with former Wittenberg professor John Young about race. Coming next week: John Young and a cop named Cowboy.