I was a small boy the first time my parents took me to the movies. The theatre was on Washington Boulevard, once a vibrant commercial venue of Baltimore’s Pigtown neighborhood. Back in the early ‘50s, going “up the boulevard” was special, the Crown Theatre having been one of its prime attractions for more than thirty years. Originally built to accommodate vaudeville and minstrel shows, the old structure had played host to the best. It was said that even the great Al Jolson sang for his mammy there—in blackface, of course. Now, black faces appeared in the audience, albeit within certain parameters.

The theatre’s downstairs was especially crowded that night, so my parents headed for the balcony in search of three seats together. I excitedly climbed the plush, carpeted staircase ahead of them. I was sorry that I had. Reaching the top, instinct thrust me back like a stiff wind. I was terrified, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away. Smoke hung like a shroud over a sea of tawny eyes looking out from muted blackness. Breathless, I stared at the “Colored Section,” and it stared back at me.

I imagine it now like entering Louisiana’s Cajun bayous at night, the big gators languishing in the sluggish, slimy creeks awaiting the arrival of prey to make opening their lantern-like eyes worth the effort. You should not be here, their eyes say. You will pay dearly for the mistake.


My parents never instilled in me that I should be wary of “colored people,” though that thought certainly hovered in Baltimore’s heavily segregated air. It’s just that colored people were different, and different is where prejudice breeds.


There was a character in the old “Amos ’n Andy” radio show called Lightning. One of the more unfortunate depictions of black men in entertainment history, and one of the most indelible on my generation, “Lightning” became synonymous with every black male who mumbled and shuffled, and many more who did neither. Just up the street from the grammar school I attended was a corner grocery store where a young black guy named Tyrone, probably in his late teens and certainly older than us parochial school kids, worked as a delivery boy. I can picture him still, sitting astride his delivery bicycle with its huge front basket, his toothy smile wide and bright. Tyrone was our friend, always warm and happy, and I think all of us kids genuinely liked him. Yet, behind his back, we called him Lightning. This hard-working, friendly soul who, had he been white, would have been someone whose companionship, even endorsement, we would have sought, was instead a covert outlet for our prejudice.


In 1964, I met Mike, my first college roommate. Mike was from New York City—a political science major, a member-to-be of the debating team, an avid supporter of Barry Goldwater, and a Jew. I had never been to New York City. I had no idea what my major would be. I was terrified to stand up and talk out loud, much less debate. And I was considerably more interested in the new Goldfinger movie than the Goldwater presidential campaign. And I didn’t know any Jewish people.

Mike was different, and it was a difference that I was going to have to live with in a 10 x 10 foot dormitory box. Physically, we were Steinbeck’s Lennie and George—a short, curly-haired Jew and a tall, hulking gentile. Intellectually, we had nothing in common, except for the prejudicial lens through which we observed one another. After a very long first semester of forced cohabitation in search of precious few common denominators, Mike and I went our separate ways. For the next three-and-a-half years, we passed like ships in the night, rarely seeing each other, yet constantly aware of the other’s profile—the class politico and the football player.

Then came graduation day. After the ceremonies, thousands of graduates and their families milled about, extending the moment. Suddenly, I saw Mike and his parents approaching. We came together that day with congratulations and best wishes that were as deeply felt as any I have ever experienced. In some strange way, we were bonded over the journey of our four college years. Our preparations could not have been more different. Our paths rarely intersected. But we started on the same shaky footing and that made the finish feel all the more solid. Unwittingly, we had helped each other see beyond the cultural isolation of our pre-college lives.


In the mid ’80s, as AIDS was rapidly becoming part of the vernacular, I lived for several years with a woman—a Jewish woman, in fact—whose considerable repertoire of homosexual friends had earned her the title, the fairy godmother. In those days of alternative lifestyle flamboyance, pejorative labels like “queer” and “homo” were being displaced by “gay”—a moniker worn with such pride and flash that its constituents seemed determined to not only come out of the closet but aggressively flaunt their sexual wardrobe. I had no trouble accepting them as they were, but I found that their defensive shock value behavior often invited prejudice where it need not have been.


In the 1990’s, I lived in London and directed the international development of an American advertising agency. My work took me around the world, building partnerships with other companies and promoting the creative product of my own. In so doing, I often referenced a catchphrase that reflected our approach to building effective communications. Discover the truth. Confront the prejudice. It was the encapsulation of a belief that every product and service embodies certain truths and faces certain prejudices, and that by understanding these dynamics, one can craft the optimum communication strategy. In the UK and the US, the truth & prejudice catchphrase triggered immediate recognition and acceptance. But in many other world markets, notably France, Australia, the Middle East, parts of Asia, and even South Africa, the word, prejudice, was often met with blank stares.


Prejudice permeates our lives, yet we all see it differently, whether or not we actually acknowledge seeing it.


Did those eyes in the “Colored Section” see prey…a threat…or merely a small boy momentarily lost and afraid?

Did Tyrone believe we kids were his friends, or did he knowingly look past our duplicity as a survival mechanism?

Did Mike first look at me from the perspective of a superior Jewish intellectual, as I undoubtedly thought he did, or was he intimidated into self-defensive stereotype by my difference?

Did the fairy godmother’s gay friends feel so threatened that they were compelled to be threatening?

Did certain foreign nationals really require definition of prejudice, or were they simply unwilling to accept its relevance to them?

I don’t know. And even if I thought I did, my answers would be prejudicial in and of themselves, as a function of the unique prism through which I observe the world.


There were 1200 boys in my high school. One of them was named Gerry. He was the first black student in the school’s 120-year history. Our high school years spanned the early ‘60s—a terrible period of segregation, forced integration, and violent racial turmoil. Yet I never heard of a single negative incident in my high school involving Gerry. He was simply one of us. That was the key, I think. He was one. Had he been one of a dozen blacks in our school, those twelve would most likely have bonded, possibly erecting a “wall of difference” between the twelve and the twelve hundred. But by himself, Gerry was…just Gerry. I never thought much about it then, but I wonder now what was it like for him. I wonder how he felt when he looked out at the 1199 white faces swirling around him each school day. I wonder if, as a small boy, he ever looked out from the “Colored Section” at a wide-eyed white boy.


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