I disappeared for a few days (it may have been longer, after all these years I’m not sure) to make a few bucks working for a real newspaper that paid real money. When I nonchalantly strolled back into the school newspaper office after who knows how long, Mrs. Oshman, the paper’s faculty advisor, read me the riot act. She was furious. How in the world, she demanded to know, could I disappear when we had a paper to put out?
Instead of just taking it and saying, “Sorry, it won’t happen again,” I lashed out at her with the same fury she had just aimed at me. “I was working to make some money,” I told her, “because if I need a shirt, I need money.”
In retrospect, it’s as clear as can be: She was right and I was wrong. But that’s not how I saw it at the time. To Mrs. Oshman, this was about my absence from the school newspaper. To me, it was about something else entirely.
Back then, I couldn’t spell “introspective” and had as much interest in examining my inner self as your typical dummy in high school. But looking back, I’m pretty sure I know what my outburst was about. My family and I had just moved from a tenement in the Bronx to a house in the suburbs in New Jersey. I had never lived in a house before. We had a lawn and a big pine tree. Technically, we had only moved maybe 15 miles, but it felt like we were in a different galaxy. And now I was going to a new, clean high school instead of the gang-infested dump I would have attended in the Bronx had we stayed.
Mrs. Oshman didn’t understand me – or my kind, at some deep level I must have figured. She didn’t know people like me, kids who grew up in lower middle class rough neighborhoods. I needed a few bucks so I skipped out on my responsibility as an editor. If she didn’t like it, that was her problem.
Except it wasn’t. She had every right to question my dedication to the school paper. She had no way of knowing that when I moved from the Bronx I brought a lot of baggage with me. How could she know? I didn’t know! So we wound up being players in the same scene, hearing different things and speaking different languages.
Fade to black and come up in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the house of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.
By know we all know the story: Gates had just come home from China, he couldn’t get into his house, so he tried jimmying the door. A neighbor thought he was a burglar and called the police. A Sgt. James Crowley showed up. Crowley, who is white, asked Gates, who is black, for identification. Gates bristled. The way he saw it he was being hassled simply because of the color of his skin. When Crowley asked him to step outside, Gates reportedly said (though he denies it), “Ya, I’ll speak with your mama outside.” Asked by the police officer to calm down, he wouldn’t. The situation got out of hand, and Gates, the internationally respected scholar, wound up in handcuffs, arrested for disorderly conduct (a charge that was later dropped).
Forgive the grand comparison, but this was Mrs Oshman and me all over again, this time writ large. By all accounts, Sgt. Crowley (Mrs. Oshman) is a good cop who was just doing his job. Gates (me) was the one who got unruly. That will happen when you’re carrying a lot of baggage. You see things that aren’t really there.
The idea that a white cop would confuse him with a burglar, in his own house no less – just because he’s black — was too much for Gates, even though there’s no evidence Crowley jumped to that conclusion. I’m betting that Professor Gates wasn’t simply responding to the white cop standing in front of him. He was responding, I think, to every white cop – no, make that every white person — who had ever hassled a black man in the entire history of the United States of America.
A few days later, Gates was quoted as saying, “I don’t stereotype. I never saw him as the head of the Ku Klux Klan.” Could be, but I’m not so sure. White people don’t have a monopoly on stereotyping. But since we don’t know for sure, let’s at least agree on this much: Henry Louis Gates Jr. is not a burglar just because he’s black. But Sgt. James Crowley is not Bull Conner just because he’s white. And race is the wound that continues to fester.