I grew up in the 1930s and 1940s in New York City. My ideas of race were influenced by the movies I saw, the radio programs I heard, and the conversations on the city streets where I lived. I think of the Marx Brothers as they formed a type of conga line with African Americans (then called negroes) in Cocoanuts. I think of Al Jolson, in blackface, on his bended knee singing Mammy. I think of Amos and Andy and their comic characters (whites playing blacks on radio, but black actors in the 1950s when it shifted to television). I also think of Jack Benny’s sidekick valet, Rochester [Eddie Anderson], and their comedy routines. I think of the song lyrics “Pardon me boy, is that the Chattanooga Choo-choo? Track 29. ‘yes, sir’ … then, boy, you can give me a shine.” Offsetting this I recall two black friends, one when we lived in the Bronx near Brook Avenue and I was in third grade who taught me how to make a ring from a peach pit. The other was a classmate in junior high school whose father was a movie house film projectionist and whose house I visited in Brooklyn. But by far the most influential experience I had on who African Americans were came when I walked into the freshman English class at NYU. My teacher was Charles Davis (then Mr. because he was still working on his PhD). He was brilliant and took an interest in his students and read their essays aloud to the class with the same analysis as the short stories and published essays we had as homework to read. Later he would take me to coffee at a nearby Chuck full o’ Nuts and ask me about my progress. When I thought of switching from Biology to English he talked me out of it because he said the books I was reading showed my love for science. Davis later became the first black professor at Princeton and the founding director of the Black Studies program at Yale. I learned from him the importance of mentoring students and I frequently took students to lunch to teach them generosity as he did for me.
There is an erratic zigzag path to finding our “better natures.” The abolitionist movement before the Civil War was supported by many white intellectuals, ministers, and men and women of conscience. The Civil rights movement had numerous white supporters of a movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr who spoke to the moral sensibilities of white people. The Supreme Court set aside prejudicial laws and the federal government took an active role in enforcing civil rights in the old segregationist south. Despite these victories, discrimination in housing and social discrimination lagged behind. We also liked to believe that electing an African American as President was the last nail in the coffin of segregation and racial prejudice. The response to the deaths of young black men seen as “uppity,” confrontational, or potentially murderous has led to tragedy with largely unarmed men in their teens being shot in a country that still has too many citizens who believe in shoot first, ask questions later, for perceived threats. Despite these setbacks generating self-doubts about our progress, we need to remind ourselves that there has been progress and there will be progress as we learn to accept our diversity as a nation and see our nation as one that fosters the liberty and equality of opportunity that motivated so many of those who framed our founding documents as a nation.