Black Like Me

The end of the summer, by the calendar if not by the thermometer, also means the end of Summer Blockbuster movie season and the return to the theaters of real movies for adults, which means the resumption of Sunday movie matinees for yours truly, the mom, and the lady friend. Yesterday we saw The Butler. The movie is really two stories. It is primarily the personal story of a young Black man from the South who by various twists and turns ends up becoming a butler in the White House, serving from Eisenhower’s second term through Reagan. But it is also a chronicle of the slow, at times painful dismantling of segregation and the rise of civil rights, told through various dramatic devices.

Dating all the way back to the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, there has been a steady output of works exploring the state of Black America. The Butler is certainly part of that genre, but also more than that. So often, stories of this type veer toward the treacly, or worse, ham-handed and didactic, with all the subtlety of kick to the groin. The ground-breaking 1977 miniseries Roots belongs to this category. If you are of a certain age chances are you remember it, because pretty much the entire country tuned into all or part of it. Roots was great theater, but as a history lesson left much to be desired. Unrelentingly melodramatic, preachy, and overwrought, it was a one-note depiction of scheming and despicable Whites endlessly degrading and exploiting impossibly beatific Blacks. As a white person of some sensitivity and perceptiveness, watching Roots felt a lot like being in re-education camp. It was not an uplifting experience.

Fortunately, the cinematic craft has evolved much in the intervening 36 years. And the result is a generation of film-makers who are able to tackle complex and emotionally weighty issues with subtlety and intelligence, which makes for a more authentic and believable audience experience. Now make no mistake, The Butler is definitely a Message Movie, and there are a scattering of scenes that verge on the heavy-handed. But on the whole, The Butler makes its points with grace and authority. It hits the right notes, paints a portrait that is nuanced, sensitive, and probably accurate. More important, it just feels right. Rather than beat you about the head and shoulders, it gently and non-judgmentally ushers you along. It is, overall, pretty upbeat, and you leave the theater feeling as though you’ve been the recipient of some ennobling bit of wisdom.

The Butler resonated with me perhaps more than with most other folks of the WASP persuasion because as I watched it, it reminded me of specific persons I have known in my life, friends, companions, rivals, even a love interest or two.

Although by many objective measures, the situation of Black Americans has improved in the last several decades, in many important ways it has not. And despite decades of affirmative action and forced integration; despite an unending flood of media images depicting the races happily commingling like the United Colors of Benetton, on the whole Blacks and Whites remain stubbornly and intractably apart, mixing only a little at the edges. Some see a uniquely American evil at work, an entrenched and malevolent culture of oppression and exploitation. On the other hand, one would be hard-pressed to find a society anywhere on the planet where people of different lineage mingle without friction. Wherever you look, as far back in history as you care to go, you see endless conflict: Arab versus Kurd, Han versus Uighur, Serb versus Croat, Hutu versus Tutsi, Macedonian versus Thracian, Cro Magnon versus Neanderthal. Conflict seems the norm, not the exception, and is so universal and enduring that we are forced to consider the possibility that maybe there is something deeper than “bigotry” at work after all.

There is a school of thought, popular among certain academic types of a certain political persuasion, which holds that “race” is an artificial construct, merely a tool for objectifying others, and that racial awareness is learned behavior. According to this doctrine, people, if not relentlessly conditioned to do so, would never even notice those who look different. This is, of course, pure horseshit. In reality, when we see a person for the first time, the first thing we notice is their sex. But the next thing we notice, a split second later, is their race, if it happens to be different from our own. And if it is, a little alarm bell deep inside our brain goes off and our level of alertness goes up a notch or two. We slide instantly from Defcon 5 to Defcon 4 without even being aware of it. Nobody teaches us this. It is instinctive, hard-wired, an evolutionary vestige of a time long ago when those who looked different than you would most likely do you harm.

I clearly remember the very first time I saw black people in the flesh. I had almost certainly seen them before on television, but their appearances would have been few and far between, just faces in the crowd, and given the grainy black and white picture tubes of the time, would not have made much of an impression. But seeing black people for real was an electric experience.

It was summertime, and we were at a swimming pool in Memorial Park, in Houston. I was four years old. There was a group of five or six kids, boys and girls, probably siblings, all the color of dark chocolate, splashing around and horseplaying. I instantly recognized them as an alternate, unfamiliar form of human and was mesmerized. They were so exotic, so different, so other-ish. I asked a bunch of embarrassing questions: How did they get like that? Why are their palms not dark? Why do they talk like that? Why does their hair look like that? “Those are colored people,” my mom explained, which seemed like a completely ridiculous thing to say, since they weren’t purple or green, just brown. One of the kids noticed my curious gaze and stared back. His siblings noticed too, and soon they were all staring at me, a little annoyed, perhaps, or just returning the favor. Mom grabbed me by the hand, and muttering embarrassed apologies, quickly pulled me away.

For some reason–perhaps I just didn’t get the memo–I have never been the kind of person who hung strictly with his own kind. From an early age I chose my friends from among whomever happened to be available. When I was growing up, for example, our neighborhood was probably about 35 percent Hispanic and 5 percent Black, and so about 35 percent of my friends had names like Trevino, Alvarez, and Gonzalez and about 5 percent of them were Randall Whitney.*

Randall was part of a large, loose-knit group of kids drawn from nearby neighborhoods. He was one of the older ones, a senior when I first met him as a freshman. He was funny, popular, a bit of a cut-up, one of the “cool” kids but not a snob like so many in that elite club. I liked him right away. Teachers liked him too, even though he wasn’t much of a student, because he had a good disposition and was polite and respectful. At that time, though, a friendship was simply out of the question because I was not a part of the group he was a member of, a “fast” crowd into all the things fast kids were into. Sort of like joining the Elks, I suppose, you needed a formal recommendation.

The summer after my freshman year, I became restless. That fast crowd looked pretty inviting and I schemed to find some way to join it. There was another kid who lived around the corner from me, a fellow named Jim, whom I had known for several years but had never really been friendly with. Jim, a leading member of the fast kids, was smart but deeply alienated. I was smart and pretty screwed up myself, and I guess he sensed that, so when I approached him we sort of bonded. I had my intro. So courtesy of my new friend Jim, I, too, could now be one of the cool kids.

There was one problem though. There is, or at least was, a rule about kid friendships. You can be a member in good standing of only one major group at a time. You could not, for example, simultaneously be a Stoner and a Kicker. So to prove my loyalty to my new friends, I was going to have to cut the ties to my old ones. Nobody tells you this stuff, mind you. You just figure it out. My other friends, mostly band geeks, science nerds and such, were guilty of the sin of Insufficient Coolness. And to be a proper member of the fast kid clique, I needed to demonstrate in a clear and convincing fashion my shift in loyalties. So in an act of pure cruelty I keenly regret to this very day, and will until the day I die, I made that symbolic break by casting off my best friend, a fine fellow by the name of Greg, as one would a soiled garment. Thereafter he was dead to me. My betrayal was duly noted and I became, without further ado, a fully vested member of the fast kids club.

Because I knew Randall through Jim, for some time Randall remained a second-order friend. By the unwritten rules I could only socialize with him in the presence of other mutual friends. That would change, though, in my junior year, when after a night of smoking weed, drinking, and watching cheesy war movies Jim decided on a whim to join the Marines. A few days later he was gone, off to basic training. In the void left after Jim’s departure, Randall and I just sort of gravitated toward each other and became, after a time, best buds.

It seems hard to believe in this nanny-state, hyper-regulated age, but once upon a time a minor child could declare independence and nobody would stop him. And that is exactly what I did. About midway through my Junior year, I decided that school had nothing more to offer me, so I dropped out, moved out of my mom’s house, got a menial job and an apartment of my own. I was one of the first kids of my cohort to get his own place, so my crappy little apartment became something of a social hub. Randall was a frequent visitor. He had a car and we both liked to drink beer, smoke pot and cruise aimlessly down country back roads. And so that was how we spent many of our idle days: a case of Schlitz longnecks in the cooler, a bag of weed under the seat, and the back roads of Central Texas filling the windshield. Sometimes we talked, solving various problems and issuing assorted decrees. And sometime we just let the miles pass in comfortable silence.

Randall was the middle child of seven siblings, each about as different from each other as siblings could be. Wyatt, the oldest, had moved to California as a teenager and returned to Austin at age 30. Wyatt had a certain low-rent charisma, a swagger, and an air of mysterious menace. He spoke like a late night DJ from one of those jazz stations at the far end of the FM dial, cool and unctuous. Without giving away any details, he hinted about a glamorous outlaw past with the Black Panthers. He played the role to the hilt, too, right down to the black beret and turtleneck. It was all schtick, of course, but it earned him a certain minor celebrity around the ‘hood. It also got him lots of girls, especially white girls, who swallowed his bullshit without question. They came and went, fawning and fussing over him, competing to be his favorite. They usually left for good, though, after he slapped them around a time or two, which he always did sooner or later. Wyatt fancied himself a chess master, and made a great show of mentoring us lesser sorts. It didn’t take too long to figure out that he was about as much a chess master as he was a Black Panther, and after I beat him one time too many he threw a fit, stormed out of the room and refused to play me again.

Wally Ray, the second oldest boy, was like a lightweight, less charismatic, less menacing version of Wyatt. He was a handsome guy, but not much more. Envious of Wyatt’s high profile, Wally hung around him almost nonstop, hoping perhaps, that the magic might rub off. Wally had way more ego than his talents could justify, and often made exaggerated claims we all knew to be untrue. He was also rather dismissive to me, whom he called “the little white boy,” although never to my face. Eventually he started trying to push me around and we butted heads. One time I was seated in a chair that he claimed as his own, and when I refused to vacate it, he started to pick me up and set me aside. He got only partway there before I twisted violently out of his grasp and leaped into a fighting stance, ready to do battle. Randall got between us and settled things down. Wally, clearly not expecting my enraged reaction, made some tough-guy noises and left in a huff. But he never bothered me again.

There were two sisters in the Whitney brood. Diane, the second oldest child, had moved out some years before but came around at least a couple of times every week. She was serious and hard-working, the classic Good Daughter. Diane was like an understudy to Randall’s mom, a chronically frazzled, busybodyish woman by the name of Gladys, and took charge when she wasn’t around. Diane was old school, and at first regarded rather warily the upstart white boy who kept coming around. But I treated her nicely, engaged her in conversation whenever possible, and eventually she came to approve of me. Phyllis, younger than Randall, was a classic ditz, perky and cute, with magnificent dimples. She was one of the bounciest, happiest persons you could ever meet. I remember thinking that it had to hurt to smile all the time like that. Though I never told Randall, for a time I had a bit of a crush on her.

Two brothers brought up the rear. Paul, tall and skinny, was a serious lad with, as far as I could tell, not even a trace of humor. He always seemed vaguely troubled, and spent a lot of time by himself. Sometimes when he was alone you could see him moving his mouth, as though carrying on a conversation. Paul was a habitual sleepwalker, and once caused a minor furor by wandering into a neighbor’s yard in the middle of the night and trying to enter their screened-in porch. Chris, the youngest, was like an overgrown child, trusting and completely without guile. Like his sister Phyllis, he had an flawlessly sunny disposition, and I never once saw him sad or angry. He took things as they came and seemed to have little ambition. For some reason Chris was drawn to me, in an almost groupie-ish kind of way, and fussed over me endlessly. On one level I was flattered, but mostly I was just embarrassed by the attention. A few years ago I chanced to pull up next to Chris at a stoplight. He had gained a lot of weight and lost most of his hair, but otherwise looked much the same. I made no effort to get his attention, and was relieved when he pulled away without spotting me.

After a while Randall suggested that we move in together to save on rent. I resisted at first, because I was happy, sort of, in my crappy, tiny apartment. But more importantly, I was independent. Losing that independence to save a little money seemed a poor trade. But it also seemed as though it was probably time to do something different. So after months of vacillating I gave in and moved, plopping a mattress onto the floor right next to Randall’s in the single bedroom of his dingy little flat.

Randall was pretty popular, and so most of the time the place teemed with friends and hangers-on. As the only white guy in the group, I was regarded with a mix of curiosity, wariness, and–sometimes–hostility, thinly veiled or not at all. Some of Randall’s more hot-headed friends were quite blunt in their disapproval. To them I was an interloper, a threat, and did not belong. The rumor was floated that Randall and I were, ahem, a little too close.

At first I was simply ignored. If I spoke, nobody responded. If I made a friendly overture, I was rebuffed. But eventually Randall’s friends noticed that I was neither a pushover nor a flake, had a pretty good head on my shoulders and opinions worth hearing. So they began to pay attention. They had never been exposed to anyone with my detached, somewhat cerebral way of looking at things, and seemed to find it, for want of a better term, refreshing. Quietly at first, but then openly, people began to seek out my opinion about various issues or situations. Trying to fit in, I learned to play Dominoes, got reasonably good at it, and in so doing earned more points. I was, if not exactly one of the guys, then no longer the alien in their midst.

But full acceptance never really came. Every couple of weeks or so somebody would have a party and as Randall’s best friend I would get an automatic, if grudging, invite. Forty or fifty people hanging out, drinking and socializing, and I’d be the only white guy there. If I got up and walked to another room, half the eyes there would follow me, silently asking: Who invited THAT guy? Every now and then someone would try to start a conversation with me, but often as not it would be an awkward affair, all tortured phrasing and exaggerated politeness. I felt like the straight man in a bad comedy of manners: Your English is very good. Tell me about your homeland. Because I was a good talker, friendly, and passably nice-looking, not infrequently women would find me interesting and sort of latch on. Invariably, though, if a woman was too attentive, she would be taken aside for a little chat, and then she wouldn’t be interested anymore. Sometimes they even waited until I had left the room.

There must have been fifteen or twenty guys in Randall’s inner circle. I saw these guys daily; ate with them, drank with them, raised hell with them, bullshitted with them, all without ever learning their real names. Everyone went by a handle: Skinny, Hand Jive, Beadle, Smitty, Loafer, Owl, Junior, and so on. Eventually, my conspicuous lack of a handle became too much to bear, so one of the guys dubbed me “Philosopher.” But it didn’t really stick, probably because a good handle needs to be compact, two syllables at most. So we finally settled on “Red,” a reference to my hair color.

Young men on their own for the first time tend not to be the best of housekeepers, and we certainly did our part to keep that proud tradition alive. So after a time the apartment got extravagantly squalid. I don’t think the floor ever got swept. Dried-up beer spills and moldy food scraps covered every available surface. Dishes piled up to impressive height in the sink. If you needed a plate or a glass you just picked one out of the pile, scraped off the dried crud with a fingernail and, maybe, rinsed it off a bit if you could get to the faucet. The electric bill didn’t get paid for a few months and so the lights got turned off. We ran an extension cord out to one of the outside light fixtures and got by with that for a while. But eventually the management had had enough and issued an eviction notice. In a way it was a relief because it just wasn’t working out anyway. So we parted ways, Randall and I. Randall moved back to his parents’ house for a time, and I got another cheap, crappy apartment in a different part of town to go with my crappy just-get-by job. We continued to socialize on weekends and days off, minus the squadron of hangers-on.

For a time, Randall and I were both torn by competing impulses, and struggled to find a fitting path. We were surrounded by toxic yet perversely appealing role models, and both of us were sorely tempted by the siren song of the lowdown life. A little-appreciated fact about males is that for a time in their development they are highly vulnerable. Subject a young man to the right wrong example at a critical moment, and he becomes bent, maybe forever. A boy comes to realize that if he is to become a man, he must make a choice. If the bright side of masculinity is industriousness, loyalty, and responsibility, then the dark side is criminality, recklessness, and dissipation. It can go either way. Randall and I both started down the darker path, he perhaps making it a little farther than I, before eventually turning around.

Little things pushed us both back toward the light. One day, we were hanging out at Gillis Park, at that time a rather dodgy place, a favorite gathering spot for the criminal underbelly of South Austin. One of the regulars, a loudmouth punk named Joe, started talking about his latest venture. Joe was a half Mexican, half white guy deep into the Chicano Power scene. I had never liked him very much. He constantly spouted La Raza nonsense, and seemed squirrelly and dangerous in equal measure, the sort of person who would–literally–knife you in the back to get your stuff. But Randall seemed to appreciate his entrepreneurial spirit and tolerated him well enough. Anyway, Joe had figured out that there was money to be made providing dogs and cats to medical research labs, and so had started going around to people’s back yards and stealing their dogs and selling them. He bragged about how good he was at it. As he was telling this story a wave of revulsion swept over me, I said something like “Dude that’s completely sick,” and turned to leave. As I was leaving I heard Randall tell Joe in a voice serious as a myocardial infarction that if he ever caught him stealing somebody’s dog he would gut him like a fish. That was the last time either of us hung out at Gillis Park.

Randall never really thought of himself as Black, just a guy who happened to be Black. Nevertheless, for a time he got caught up in the whole Afro-American movement. First he started toting around a tattered copy of Black Like Me, the late 50’s best-seller written by a white guy who had darkened his skin with chemicals and for a time lived as a Black man in the American South. Then he began using phrases like “power structure” and talked of being oppressed. He cultivated an impressive ‘fro and began wearing brightly colored dashikis. He greeted everyone with an elaborate variant of the soul handshake that I could never quite master. Oddly, he also got a gold grill, an ornate affair with simulated gemstones fashioned into the shape of an R. Those of us who had known Randall for a while remained politely reticent about his transformation, and eventually, he came to his senses. One day the dashiki, the afro and the grill simply disappeared. And so without a word, Randall the African Radical went back to being just plain old Randall.

Around this time Randall began living with a woman, a nurse named Diane. Randall became a devoted helpmate and seemed content. In due course Diane turned up pregnant. A month or so after the baby’s birth I saw him for the first time. Randall and Diane were both medium-dark Blacks, with features typical of that group. But somehow, this child had skin no darker than a manilla folder, abundant curly–not kinky–hair, and a sharp almost Romanesque nose. Although I easily saw his resemblance to Diane, I could not detect even the faintest trace of Randall in this child.

Eventually, Randall and Diane separated. They worked out an informal joint-custody arrangement. Randall got a good job as a mechanic, bought a house, and became a doting weekend dad. Life went on.

As time went by, Randall and I drifted apart. Randall climbed the ladder at his job, headed for management, and I ended up going to college, and, after graduation, going into publishing. Randall eventually assumed full custody of his son, by this time a tall skinny pre-adolescent with a striking resemblance to the young Desi Arnaz. It had to have been painfully apparent by this time that Randall was not the father, but it didn’t seem to matter. Randall was firmly, lovingly paternal, a good and devoted dad working diligently to keep his boy on the right side.

I last saw Randall more than twenty years ago but I think about him often. I suspect that he thinks often of me as well. I have driven by his house two or three times, hoping to catch him outside. For a while I entertained the idea of just showing up on his doorstep, but somehow never got around to making it happen. His phone number is no longer published. Every now and again I’ll run into someone we both knew, and will get a second-or third-hand, out of date, account of whatever he was up to.

In the intervening years Randall’s parents have grown old and died. Siblings have moved far away or dropped out of sight. A few years ago the house Randall grew up in, a prime property in the 04 zip, was bought up by carpetbaggers and bulldozed. In its place is a hulking, soulless three-story, indistinguishable from a thousand others, built lot-line to lot-line. And it is as though the vibrant, very real, very alive place that once was had never even existed.

 

*Not his real name

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