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“Musings” excerpt

GettyImages LOST_108268634“MUSINGS OF A WHITE BOY”…excerpt for Man Alive writing session 9/16/15

I was a small boy the first time my parents took me to the movies. It was the early ‘50s and this particular Baltimore movie house was not that far removed from its earlier life as a venue for vaudeville stage and minstrel shows. It was said that even the great Al Jolson once 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. 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 late 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.

Fast-forward one decade.

I am in high school…myself and about 1200 other boys. One of them is named Gerry. He is the first black student in the school’s 120-year history, at a time when racial tensions and violence are being whipped into a perfect storm by forced integration, assassination, hatred, and fear. 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. Gerry was one, at least virtually so. (I think there were maybe two other younger black students by the time we graduated.)

Had Gerry been one of a dozen blacks in our school, perhaps those twelve would have bonded, 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 a movie theatre’s “Colored Section” at a wide-eyed white boy staring up from the stairwell.