[Photo: Larry in 1965]
I was speaking with a young man recently whom I had not seen since his time in the Navy. As we spoke of certain current issues, I suggested that he might view certain current events “a little less white’.
“But I am white”, replied my young friend, “Am I suddenly supposed to be ashamed of that?” “Not at all”, I tried to explain. “However, whether it be the immigrant experience or the black experience, we can allow ourselves to be better informed by not dismissing the life-story of those not exactly like us. We have much to learn.”
It was during the early 1960’s that I first came into substantive contact with Charlotte’s black community. My uncle owned a small supermarket in the Greenville area of the then segregated city. Located on Oaklawn Avenue directly across from Fairview Homes (the city’s first affordable housing project long-since removed), our store served an African American community.
It was there that I first experienced the value of stepping out beyond my own white culture. For me, this area became something of a “second home”, where I grew up under the protective and watchful eye of the customers I sought to serve.
I would soon realize that I probably knew more people of color than white. I recall waiting for a bus on Trade at Tryon, and realized that if I crossed Tryon I would find many of my customers. (In those days all buses parked facing the Square, pointing North, South, East, or West.) So I left the white folk at my bus stop and crossed over. There I could visit until my customers would remind me that my bus was coming.
I grew to adulthood working at the little Piedmount Super Market, often managing the Produce Department. I recall fondly when after I was newly married, that one of my customers recommended that I take home some collard greens to my wife. She even sent me home with written instructions on how to prepare them.
To this day, I think of her every time I prepare collards, following her cooking directions .
Over thirty years later I was teaching an introductory computer class for the building maintenance staff of UNC -Charlotte. After class one of my students, a black man about my age, asked if I could show him how to use the internet to research the area where he grew up. When I told him that I used to work in his old neighborhood, he responded with excitement, “I knew it! I knew it was you. I remember you when we were both teenagers. I lived in Fairview Homes.
He even described how I used to leave marks above my apron’s pocket where I kept the black or red marking crayons after writing the price on the bag of produce that I had weighed for my customers.
Feeling a connection with this “white guy” who had visited his world decades earlier, he shared details of a troubled life, complete with a failed marriage and loss of his family, of despair, and a stint in prison where he had seen several others that I remembered. I later visited in his home and met his current family. There I found a man of religious faith, a survivor of the old neighborhood.
Embracing and being embraced by people of color does not make me an expert on, or participant of, the black experience.
Nonetheless my interactions outside of my white culture have become a part of my personal story. If we truly are the sum of our experiences, then this has changed who I am.
It changes how I view others. It also allows me to feel no shame in thinking “a little less white.”