Thursday, August 1, 2013

Milestone: Coming Out...Coming Clean

I admit it...

I have used the "n" word.  Actually, growing up in the rural South during the desegregation era, I used it quite a lot.  I think that any white person who lived in the South during the first 3/4 of the 20th century who denies using it is probably being less than candid.  It's ugly.  It's demeaning.  It's purposely hurtful.  It engenders generations of hate and distrust.  And it is WRONG.  But I used it and I want to cleanse myself of my offense by taking ownership of it.

Incomprehensibly, the word was used ON ME as much as I used it on others!  You see, I am no less a product of my circumstances than anyone else...  

I was a bookish, tall white boy in a newly desegregated school system (1966-1974)) who possessed a modest amount of talent at playing basketball (mostly defensive) in rural north Georgia. My teammates were as different from me as they could possibly be: varying heights and ages, extraordinarily talented in basketball (especially on offense), not too great in the classroom and all were black.  The fact that James Strickland, Chris Byrd, Dwight Thomas, Ronnie Jennings and I became a team is really a little mystifying, even to me.  But we were the starting 5 players in our 7th and 8th grade years at Canton Elementary and friendships formed.  Recently, I've learned that some of those teammate friendships still endure, despite the years and a formidable set of circumstances that separate us.  As in all friendships, some are closer than others.

I played center.  What a spectacle we must have been on the court!  Chris and Ronnie were guards, Dwight and James were forwards as we played 2-1-2 defense (we occasionally played man-to-man but it was much less colorful).  Our offense was more "run and gun".  Together, we were the best grade school team in the county and region.  My forte was rebounding, blocking shots, and outlet passes.  I very infrequently visited "our end" because our offense tended to "ricochet" off of our defense.  I was the biggest, slowest, least shooting-talented of the five.  My presence on offense was usually just not needed!

Off court, I felt "tolerated" by Dwight who was our most prodigious talent, by far.  His older brother had recently signed to play at basketball powerhouse Marquette and it appeared that Dwight was destined to follow in his footsteps.  Ronnie was our MTV star.  Always conscious of his look with a comb standing up in his "natural", he was always singing or humming.  Ronnie's energy level reminded me of a hummingbird, always busy.  James usually had a scowl on his face.  It took me a while but I finally figured out that if he was angry, it wasn't me that made him that way.  Eventually, I decided that he was angry at the world but, at that tender age, I couldn't figure out why, exactly.  Oh, how I've learned about that kind of anger!  Then, there was Chris...

Chris Byrd is one of the most affable, easy-going, natural people that one will ever meet.  He had an easy smile and a ready laugh that made everybody happy to be around him.  He and his girlfriend, Cindy, had recently had a baby (in 8th grade) that they named Shatasha Terease.  Although I never met her, her photograph revealed that she was the cutest possible combination of both parents.  Chris was a proud but unprepared father, as I guess most 8th graders would be.  But he was a prince among young men!

When we were together, the "n" word floated around like dandelion blossoms, blown by the wind.  "N" could mean any of us, including me, or all of us, collectively.  "What's wrong with you, "N"?  You couldn't see that outlet pass comin'?"  " 'N', you got to get on those rebounds!  Step it up!"  Hearing the "n" word when we were together became as natural as my mother asking, "Tony, please pass the butter" at the dinner table.  I distinctly remember Chris telling me one time, "T, you are an honorary 'n'."  I was thrilled!  I was thrilled to be included in something so special, so unique, so important as our little basketball dynasty.  For a naive while, that's what I thought "n" was all about.

Our playing success allowed us the opportunity to travel outside our home county, Cherokee, to play in invitational tournaments in the region.  Our winning streak continued but there was one tournament that will always stand out in my mind.  It required our team to travel to the county seat of neighboring Forsyth County in Cumming.  This was a problem.  Black people were notoriously unwelcome in Forsyth County (Oprah Winfrey visited there in the 80s and broadcast one of her most famous episodes from Cumming on the subject of racism.)  To be sure, "unwelcome" is the epitome of understatement for how black people felt about Forsyth County.  It's history could have come straight from the pages of Isabel Wilkerson's THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS.  None of my teammates made the trip.  We won our game but not by our customary margin and NOTHING about that trip felt right.  When I asked my parents why Dwight, Chris, James and Ronnie refused to go, they told me a truth so ugly that I refuse to repeat it!

I was not raised in a racist home, against all odds.  The "n" word used by my family was "negro" which, at the time, was polite and accepted.  The use of that word demonstrated to all that my family was progressive and forward-thinking.  I just didn't realize that then.  I have no evidence that my home, my family were treated differently by white friends because we were this way but we were NOT the norm!  And a visiting friend or distant family member was always dragging the "old South norm" to the door with them when they came.

The family who lived next door, for example, had their children attend a different school because of their views on "mixing."  Although I had grown up with their two children of approximately the same age as my brother and me, the fact that we attended different schools was mostly just a curiosity to me.  Their father's racist views were "out and proud".  This man was one of those "bigger-than-life", John Wayne, man's-man types who my brother and I more-or-less idolized.  In adulthood, I know that his views were predicated on his fear and ignorance.  He most certainly passed those views to his progeny, my friends.

To some degree, I guess that I was somewhat protective of my "basketball life" and teammates.  They validated me, made me part of something important, something bigger than myself and it helped me to minimize the emerging "other" difference that made me unique in all the wrong, most unacceptable ways.  Although I was keenly aware that race was not the only thing that made me distinct from my teammates  and all the other boys my age, I couldn't put my finger on what that other distinction was, exactly.  I would certainly not have recognized that distinction's name (actually several, not-so-nice names), although I had heard them before:  queer, fag, gay, homo.  I will repeat here what I recall having heard about "those" people: "Queers are like snakes.  The only good ones are dead ones."  I participated in the condemnation and persecution of other boys and men who were more effeminate than our strict Southern code deemed acceptable.  Isn't it ironic that I was much more contemptuous of gay people than of black people?

Is it possible that I successfully hid my homosexuality from my teammates and others?  I can't really say.  Chris, Ronnie, James and Dwight certainly never made an issue of it, if they were aware.  And they were VERY sexually aware: much moreso than the other kids in school.

When we all made the "leap" to high school at the age of 14, our team was disbanded.  As freshmen, we were stratified by our individual talent levels and cast into new roles on the Varsity team (Dwight and Chris), B-team (James) and 9th grade team (me).  I don't recall what happened to Ronnie but he had other issues.  It wasn't JUST about the basketball.  Dwight's star burned bright, garnered him much attention and then fizzled.  The increasing rigor of high school academics soon overwhelmed my former teammates. I traversed the next 4 years successfully in academics but my interest in basketball waned as did the notoriety I had enjoyed as part of "the team" which no longer was.  The teen years are tough on everyone, us included.  We lost touch.  I don't recall hearing of or from Dwight or Ronnie again in the years since.  I wonder...

Almost 30 years later, I ran into Chris at a hometown funeral home upon the death of my great aunt.  He too had come there to memorialize a fallen relative and we recognized each other immediately.  The circumstances were so strange, so other-worldly.  Both of us were compelled in opposite directions with little time to "catch up".  But the sheer elation of having seen and recognized him after so long and the JOY I recognized in his face at having seen me moved me to my core!  Chris was still the Chris of old with a ready smile.  Did he find me to be the same Tony?  Two old friends shared a moment nearly totally devoid of words yet so powerful, so meaningful.  It was an amazing encounter on so many levels.  In our "salad days" it is exceedingly unlikely that such circumstances would have brought us together so.

Blacks and whites would have never used the same funeral home.  In spite of racial desegregation, certain aspects of life would need far longer to "homogenize".  One of those aspects being death.  Thirty years on, societal evolution set the scene for our meeting.  How serendipitous, how karmic that meeting was!

It was such a sudden event, and over as suddenly as it began.  Chris was swept away by his conventions to mourning, as was I by mine.  There was no exchange of information, no attempt to perpetuate our reunion.  In retrospect I have chided myself, "Why didn't I make the effort?"

During the final three years of my father's life, I returned to my hometown often and experienced that peculiar phenomenon of "reconnecting" with one's past.  Places and things can seem so familiar when one revisits one's childhood home....people, not so much.  My little town had become a "bedroom" to metropolitan Atlanta.  The few faces that seemed familiar, I later learned were the children or GRANDchildren of the names I recalled for those faces!

One night, while shopping for a new set of bed linens for Dad's recently-arrived hospital bed (he was in hospice care at that point and I was acutely aware that we were nearing the end of our journey together), I noticed a strikingly beautiful, middle-aged black woman.  Her beauty was amplified by the fact that she was animated, happy and in the company of a very nice-looking black man with an "upright" posture and purposeful bearing.  He looked vaguely familiar.  I had returned to concentrating on the task at hand when I heard, "hey, didn't we go to school together?" asked in my direction.  I turned back toward the voice and IMMEDIATELY knew that I was looking into the adult iteration of James Strickland!  His chronically dour teen face had morphed into the most relaxed, contented, beautifully-proportioned, wall-to-wall smile I've ever seen!

"James!?"  I was incredulous and elated.  I sensed he felt the same.

Before I could get hold of my verbal skills, James started by introducing me to his lovely wife.  They had met while he was stationed in the north on one of his military assignments.  James followed the path of many from our part of the world; he enlisted at a young age and had fully-capitalized on his opportunities in the military.  He received a college education, found a gorgeous mate and discovered the potential within him that had longed to be free of the yoke of our historically segregationist world.  In many ways, his journey out of racism paralleled my own out of the prison of the small-minded.  We were both thriving in our new realities!  The beauty of the moment was overwhelming.

YES!  I wanted to shout without even knowing why.  At 52 years old, I couldn't wait to rush home and tell Mom and Dad all about it.  That chance meeting with James, much like the one with Chris, "completed the circle", to some degree. At least two of the friends who had been so important when I needed that importance were OK.  They were better than OK.

I couldn't help wondering, "did seeing me have any effect on them?"

As we parted company that night, I overheard James' summation of me to his wife.  His off-handed remark about me is the greatest compliment I've ever received.  It sounded like the continuation of a conversation, already in progress:

"Tony was one of the "good" ones."

What more could I ask for?

Yes.  Of course I have used the "n" word.

I commit to never use it again.

But maybe not for the reasons you think...

"Old" Canton Elementary School
(until 1976)

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