Black Like Us

One of my earliest memories is of watching white legs dance. I was two years old, sitting on the floor beside a stereo during a summer afternoon party in Nashville. Before me were many dancing adults; hence, from my view, the moving trees of White Legs Forest. On the floor beside me was the cover of the Chubby Checker album playing. I looked at the photo of the smiling, besuited black man happily frozen in mid-twist. I looked back at the dancing white legs.

I thought: “Okay. We like his music. But we don’t invite him to our party. Maybe that’s not allowed.”

When I was a very young kid living in Georgia, our family employed a black woman, Florida Mae, to help with chores and my sister and me. Florrie was my second mother. One day, thinking I was alone, I climbed a chair so I could reach back into a kitchen cabinet. I felt around until I had my prize: a wrapped slab of Actual Chocolate. I was so excited I couldn’t wait until I was off the chair to do the Kiddie Chocolate Chow. I unwrapped the chocolate, busted off a piece, jammed it in my mouth, and awaited ecstasy. Instead I got agony: it was bittersweet chocolate, which I think Weight Watchers should use to trick people into never, ever again wanting chocolate. It was like putting a block of coagulated snail in my mouth.

“What horrible trick is this?” I thought—and then I turned, and saw that Florrie had been watching me all along. My first thought was, “Why didn’t you stop me from eating what you knew was awful? How could you let this happen?” And then, shockingly, I had my answer. I saw that my pain was bringing her a measure of pleasure.  She wasn’t cackling and evilly wringing her hands or anything, but on Florrie’s face was a very slight smile, and in her eyes was just a hint of that crazy little glint people sometimes get when someone else is getting theirs.

And that is when I all at once understood the terrible truth: Florida Mae Brown didn’t really like her job. She pretended to like her job. But she didn’t like having to wear that white, heavily starched maid/nurse uniform she had to wear every day. She didn’t like that she got the worst of the household chores. She didn’t like having to act like she was part of our family, when, I saw then, she absolutely wasn’t. And never would be. She just worked for us. Nothing else. Nothing else, I saw then, was allowed.

I grew up in an all-white neighborhood in the San Francisco Bay area. One day in high school I got called out of class to come to the principal’s office. There I found our principal standing next to a good-looking black kid my age.

“John,” said The Principal, “I want you to meet Earl Jackson. His family just moved to town; this is his first day as a student here. I want you to spend a few days with him here, help him get adjusted.” He looked me dead in the eye, intensely. “Be his friend.”

“Sure,” I said. “Of course.” As soon as we were out of the office, I said to Earl, “You know, he didn’t say anything about us having to go class right away. You wanna just sort of not go to class? I’m usually pretty keen on not going to class if I don’t have to. I’m seeing this as a Golden Opportunity.” Earl saw the wisdom of my point, and we started right in Loitering, Yet Walking.

Within moments I realized that Earl was so intent on being The Funny Black Guy that it was going to be difficult if not impossible to genuinely communicate with him. He was doing all kinds of high-pitched voices, rolling his eyes, moving real loose and funny: he had a whole Flip Wilson meets Richard Pryor routine that I quickly learned he wasn’t about to give up. While certainly wanting to give him his space to do whatever thing he needed, I also tried to communicate to Earl that he didn’t have to play the Teflon clown with me. But he couldn’t hear that; he couldn’t, I knew, trust it. After an hour together, he and I knew each other no better than before we’d met. I watched Earl through his next three years at Lily White High. I never once saw him drop his act. He had his defense for being a black guy in a white world, and he was no sooner dropping it than a soldier in battle drops his gun. He would be who he really was somewhere else, someplace else, with people he knew would accept him. But not at school. His sense of self-preservation couldn’t allow it.

After high school—before I was through high school, actually—I was taken in by a black family in El Cerrito, California. Those people showed me more love and care than my real family ever did. During that time I used to make a point of spending as much time as I could with the oldest black folk around me. I wanted to hear their stories, know their past, understand how they could have dealt with what they did.

My wife’s step-father is black. He once told me a story about the time he was serving in the Air Force, and went on a date in Washington, D.C.

“I felt so proud,” he said. “I was wearing my dress uniform, steppin out with a pretty girl into the nightlife of the capital city of the greatest nation on earth. Feelin good, ya know? So we decided to start our night by going to see a movie. I buy our movie tickets, and we go inside, and it’s this beautiful theater. I mean, I’d never seen anything like it. So we’re going to take our seats—and I’m from the south, see, and had never been north before. I thought things were different up there. But just as we’re headin down the aisle to take our seats, this young white teenager—this usher, ya know—grabs my arm. ‘Not you, boy,’ he says. ‘You and your date here go up to the balcony section. That’s where your kind sit.’

“So me and that girl climbed the stairs up to the balcony section. It was a pigsty up there.”

I’ve got thousands of stories like these, moments where all that seemed to matter in life was when and how and with whom the wall between black and white and browns of every shade was or wasn’t breached. We all do. Gauging the effects and immediate ramifications of skin hue is one of the great, haunting phantoms of our daily experience, one of the things that most often pervades and perverts so much of what is or should be pure and good in our lives. No matter what color our skin, we’ve all been stained by racism.

I expect soon enough I’ll stop unexpectedly tearing up whenever I think about what just occurred in our country. But that probably won’t happen this week.

(Please pass this along to anyone whom you think might … get it. Also, please join and/or encourage others to join my Facebook fan page here. Thanks very much.)


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  • While we still have quite a ways to go, both as a species and as a country, I can honestly say I've never been prouder than my country than I am right now.

    That'll probably wear off soon enough, though. 😉

  • Ric pointed me in your direction. Tears have been flowing repeatedly from the DNC to last night. Every time they show some old black person on screen crying I lose it. Last night it was Jesse Jackson.

    Thanks for sharing this experience. I'm certain there are thousands of stories like yours – I wonder if someone is posting them somewhere?

  • Very, very cool John Shore. I am passing this along to a few. One of them is a friend who actually got the burning cross treatment… We have come a long way in 40 years. 40 years…where have I heard that before??

  • John, I’ve been avoiding Facebook just because I’m already overwhelmed with electronic communication and I’m worn out with blogging, emailing, texting, surfing, downloading, and myspacing.

    After reading this post, though, my defenses wore out. I joined Facebook just to be your fan. I’ve been you’re fan for a long time, but now I’m a Facebook fan. You’ve converted me. Add a notch to your belt. I’ll spread the word.

    Don’t be in any hurry to stop the tears. They’ve been a long time coming.

  • FreetoBe

    My ex told me a similar story about his father, who was a WWII vet. After his service, he went back to his hometown, expecting changes that just were not there, and having to fit a role the white society placed on him. Living here, I’ve been concerned about the treatment my children receive as they try to establish themselves in this world. The election results are amazing and I am encouraged for our future.

  • I hope so.

    Thanks, and much love, to you guys.

  • I’m a Canadian and I love America. I was betwixt and between through your whole political process … but today, I can’t get rid of the lump in my throat….long-over-due-history was made yesterday in your beautiful country. What happens in America has always influenced what happens to us, your northern neighbours. God Bless America . . .from shore to shining shore! God bless Obama. May he lead with right-ness… I share your joy, John! But I can’t dig Facebook….woe is me! Hope it doesn’t cost our e-friendship….

  • PeachMom

    Thanks so much for sharing your story. You get it. Alot of us exhaled last night with tears.

  • Ah John. I grew up in the 60’s in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, and my only acquaintance with black people were those I saw on TV getting blasted by water from fire hoses. As a kid those images, which are still so clear in my mind, baffled me. And then, when I was about seven, I had the chance to ride a bicycle built for two at my Grandparents’ farm. My two older friends rode on the bike seats, and I rode on the fender. As we turned a sharp corner my foot got caught in the wheel; the bike tipped over and left me lying on the pavement with two spokes sticking out of my ankle. I was lying on my back, screaming in pain, blinded by tears, when a man shadowed by the sun picked me up into his arms. He was the first black man I ever remember seeing in the flesh. As he carried me across his chest in his arms he kept saying in a deep soothing voice, “You’re gonna be alrigh, honey. You’re gonna be fine.” He took me to my grandma’s house, laid me on her couch, and then left without a word. On that day I honestly thought all God’s angels had dark skin.

  • This is truly a great time in America, when we can finally overcome race and elect a non-white president. It’s a disgrace that on the same day we took this giant step forward, Californians voted to write inequality into their state constitution by passing a measure to ban gay marriage. Based upon the results of two (Prop 2 and Prop 8 ) of the many propositions on the California ballot, it appears that voters are more concerned about the dignity and rights of farm animals than they are about the dignity and rights of gay people.

    Bigotry, hatred, and fear still live in our communities. Just because we will have a black president doesn’t mean that people are now tolerant—as we’ve learned in California. Hopefully, the strength and hope that elected Barack Obama president, will bring an end to the meanness in our communities.

  • John, this is a beautiful post. Regardless of where people stand party-wise, few can deny that last night was a breath-taking, momentous night. I feel humbled and honoured to be in the US during this election.

    My greatest worry, though, in all this, is that people will somehow take this to mean that the problem of race is “behind us,” that we no longer have to grapple with our history on a daily basis because, hey, there’s a black guy in the White House and it’s all good now. America has indeed come a long, long way, but there is still so much to be done, to be thought of, to be talked about. I hope we can all keep this in mind.

    On a funnier note, though, one of my black friends joked the other day “So now that he’s in the White House, are they going to paint it black?”

    Just in case anyone’s interested, here’s a link that I found intriguing: (Read James Grossman’s comments!)

  • J

    Thank you for sharing John. For someone living thousands of miles away(I’m from Singapore), it’s extremely moving to read your personal account of how the results of election have had such deep meaning to yourself.

    I’ve been a reader of yours for a long time, just to add. 🙂

  • John,

    Summer on the town square, Pulaski, TN, in 1966, my Uncle Ford and my 5-year-old self saw a black man look at us, look down, cross the street and walk down the other side of the road.

    This 2008 my hope is we’re all on the same roadside, heads up, smiling at each other and hope-full.

    Thanks for your stories.


  • tavdy

    “We have come a long way in 40 years.” – Ric Booth

    There’s still a long way to go. According to the most recent counts I’ve seen, over 17% more Californians voted in favour of improved animal rights (prop 2) than against abolishing existing equal rights for LGB people (prop 8) – it’s not nice being upstaged by a chicken. And the group that voted most heavily against equal rights? Black women, by 75% – so much for learning from the mistakes of the past.

  • Latoya

    Hey John,

    I bumped into your blog a couple days ago and I’ve been trying to read from the beginning so I can catch up. Been really enjoying every moment of it so far. I can’t even begin to imagine life having been this way in the past since I haven’t been around for that long(I’m a 23 yr old Jamaican girl), but I am very happy that it has changed. I only just got the chance to listen to the victory speech on youtube, and I dont know how to explain how I feel.

  • Maybe the place is here. It was summer 1975 and I was visiting a distant relative in Charlotte, NC. She was an elderly lady. One day I heard her speaking to someone at her front door. By the tone of her voice, I assumed she was speaking to a small child; she was using very slow and deliberate speech, and carefully enunciating each word. I was in the living room. When their conversation ended, I looked out the front window to see an elderly black man shuffling down the path back to the sidewalk. (I’d never seen someone shuffle before). When he got to the sidewalk, the man turned to see if anyone was looking—and then, when he saw no one was, he picked up his pace and began walking down the sidewalk in a very normal manner.

  • I have two black cousins. I’m also from a very conservative background (my grandparents were Amish), so I have been to family reunions with black faces and black bonnets. I guess I’m what the news media calls “post-racial”.

    Even so, I started crying while watching the Obama rally, because I realize how far our country has come in a few short years.

    And it can go further, too.

  • John, I’ve posted this to my facebook page and gave it a thumbs up on StumbleUpon.

    My earliest memory, by the way, is of being called “nigger” by a 5 year old white boy named Chester when I was 4 years old.

    Diane L. Harris

  • Hey again, John,

    Thanks so much for your comment on my blog! I feel as though a celebrity has visited my humble home! Haha.

    I've actually been following your blog for quite a while–it's even on the toolbar link-thingy at the top of my Safari page (you know what I'm talking about, right?)–but haven't had the courage/energy to comment on it before. I just felt the need to say something on this one, which of course I did, and now we're, like, totally BFFs.

    Just kidding. Anyway, I do want to assert that I think it is understandable for America to take a breather, now that this whole insane race is over, to reflect a little on what this election means and revel in its symbolic significance. Let us rejoice in it if we can, while holding that sense of victory in tension with the harsh realities of racism still in our midst; keeping in mind that while the election race is over and that is a HUGE relief, Obama's hard work of actually being president has only just begun! And we need to be on our knees for him (in prayer; not worshipping the man, although I'm sure someone's going to start a religion dedicated to him eventually).

    OK, I'm done now! That is all.

  • Dan Harrell


    Great Post, as always. I'm on facebook to keep up with the kids. Anyway, on the train to work this morning and read the transcript of Obama's speach, and started to get all teary.

    I believe we all have the same hope. Safety, freedom from hunger and want, and community. When you read how Obama feels, it seems like he gets it too, and is going to try to deliver it to us.

    It should be a wild ride.

  • tavdy

    The year I started at high school, there was a Black guy in the top year who would beat up White or Asian guys if they got into a fight with a Black guy – even if the Black guy started it. One Black guy took advantage of this and would even bully guys older and bigger than him – because he knew they didn't dare retaliate.

    The next year the guy in the top year wasn't around so during the second week the bully was cornered by a group of about 30 kids and beaten to a pulp – and then he had the audacity to claim that the guys who attacked him were racist!

    Racism works both ways.

  • Excellent piece mate. I grew up the same way you did. Just in South Africa. But it seems as if our path has been similar. Enjoy the ride.

  • Thanks, AA. I read your bio on your blog. Interesting stuff!!! I'm glad you dropped me a line. Thanks.