SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2005        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Johnny Utah

Wake up!  We’re almost home.

My point of view… I had a friend that had the lower level of his parents’ home in NY to himself.  It was set up more or less like an apartment, and even had its own entryway to the side yard of the house.  Even cooler than the fact that he had privacy and some autonomy, was the fact that his parents were almost never home.  There was always alcohol, and usually poker.  This was to become one of the main evening hangouts for a medium sized group of friends on the weekends.  With the exception of the one who actually lived there, the rest of us were either lacrosse players or wrestlers.  In my high school the big sports were wrestling (because we were state champs like 40 years running or something crazy like that) and lacrosse (because we were very good, and it just seemed to attract the popular guys). 

I was a lacrosse player, and one of my good friends was a wrestler.  For this writing, we will call him Jake.  He was also the only black guy that came to the house on weekends for poker and beer.  There was no reason for it to be that way, all team members were invited and we were all close for having been a team so long.  There were many black guys on the wrestling team and a few on the lacrosse team.  He was just the only one that came.  He was well adjusted, and had the reputation for being extremely cool.  Cool not just in a “Fonzi” sense, but cool headed as in nothing negative– not even losses - ever seemed to really get him worked up.  I had known him for many years.  He lived in the projects near the rail, and rarely was he seen away from that area except when he was at school or the many times he showed up at these weekend gatherings.  No one questioned it it’s just the way he was. 

In the last days of our senior year of high school, we were planning to have a few more people than normal to the weekend gathering and celebrate the close of our sentences in mandatory education.  I had arrived early to the party as was my custom because I usually left early to walk home several miles away.  It was strange to me that Jake had still not shown up when the time began to approach midnight.  It came time for me to go, and I said goodbye to my friends, and began my walk.

Part of my walk takes me by a convenience store on New York Ave which is one of the two really major roads in that area.  The area in front of the convenience store is busy with cars, and smells of exhaust fumes and humid, salt air drifting in from the harbor which is across the street behind the shops on that side.  When the traffic lights were right, and there was a lull in passing cars, you could hear the lines striking the masts of the big boats in the harbor.  It sounds kind of like soft bells going off at random.  In the daytime, there would also be seagulls calling, but not at night.  

The night was cool, as nights tend to be in the northeast, even in summer.  This was only around May or early June, so the days were not yet hot even by New England standards. 

The convenience store parking lot was always active, and back in those days there wasn’t even a gas pump outside.  The street lights were oddly dim in that area. The lights from the store illuminated the parking spaces almost solely, giving everything a dark side and a light side; the high contrast was just like the viewpoints I would come to see in Jake’s and my interpretations of racial relations. 

Jake’s point of view…  I am at the convenience store on NY Ave for a long time now.  I usually stop here and pick up a frozen drink on my way to hang with the guys.  Well, I have my frozen drink, and still I have not moved one inch towards the party. 

I don’t know why I even bothered tonight.  I should just leave.  Pondering my life here on the curb in front of the store is not clearing my head at all.  I should just go home.  All of this was a nice illusion, but the dream is over and reality is now.  That’s it, I’m going home.
As I get up to start walking, I see Utah coming by… oh man I hope he doesn’t see me.  I don’t wanna talk right now.  Man, it must be late if he’s already walking home.  I’ve been out here longer than I thought.   He’s coming over.  He wants to know why I’m not at the party.  How the hell can he NOT know?  I’ll explain it to him.

My view… As I walked by the convenience store on NY Ave, I saw Jake sitting out front by himself.  I went and greeted him.  “Hey man!  Why aren’t you at the party?” I said.

“I can’t” he said.

“What do you mean?  They’re all there now, you aren’t doing anything.”

“No, I can’t go man, you don’t understand” he said, and immediately it was uncomfortably apparent that he was becoming emotional.  It was out of character and I was concerned at once.

“Why not?” I asked, waiting for him to say he was in trouble or that something had happened to him that I couldn’t see. 

“I’m black” he said as if that would explain it all to me. 

“I noticed that” I said with a smile.  “You’ve been that way a long time”.

He said “No man!  No, I’m black, I live in the projects and high school is OVER!  That’s it, the rest of the guys are going to be going to college and going away.  I’m not, I’m black and they don’t want me there anymore, I can’t go.” He was frustrated and tears had gone down his face but he was not crying.

Jake’s view…  Holy shit I am really charged up over this, more than I knew.  How can white people STILL think that all of this will just blow away?  How can they believe that a few years of marches and court cases will change the attitudes of everyone involved enough to glaze over the problem?  Utah acts like the fact that I’m black has no bearing on anything!  Maybe for him it doesn’t, but even if that’s true, he would be a rare example, far from being the norm.  Our team is not an accurate picture of the social reality of this time.  Utah probably has no contact with black people outside of sports, and thinks that because we all get along as a team, that we are all equal and friends.  He’s wrong, and he’ll see it.

My view…  I was stunned.  I had been sheltered.  I was aware of prejudices, but had always considered them something that only happened in the Deep South.  I was ignorant and naïve as to how real racism was, or how it affected people, even in my sophisticated city.   This exchange was a slap in the face because I suddenly realised all at once the reality and depth of Jake’s conviction.  No one had ever said a derogatory or hateful word to him from within the ranks of our team, and I had always considered him a good and real friend.  And yet he had harboured these feelings, and he spoke them as if he knew in his heart that they were fact.  He spoke those words to me and now this ugly societal truth was hanging out there and I had to deal with it.  I remember trying to mumble something about it not being so, but I knew that it was my own illusions that had burst, not his.

I just hadn’t seen it coming.  I had been duped by the media and the times.  The pop styles of the 80’s were everywhere.  The neon clothing and wild hair of the convenience store patrons, the ugly cars, the synthetic music coming from within the cars, the Doritos bags, the lack of any healthy choices of food, and the prevalence of wine coolers.  We lived immersed in it, considered it all normal and cutting edge.  We breathed it, and it permeated our perceptions and actions.  It was not so very long after the civil rights movements of the 60’s and 70’s and yet, it had the feel of being a totally new and separate time, somehow advanced beyond those problems.  At least it seemed so, when you were white.

Jake’s view… Utah tells me that we’re friends no matter what.  With him, I actually believe it, but that doesn’t take away the pain of the rest of them.  I won’t see those guys again.  They won’t call or invite me out.  They’ll all go to college and push ahead in the white world, distancing them further and further from me and my kind.  They won’t even remember me.

My view… I told him that no matter what anyone else did, said or thought, I was his friend.  I know he believed me because we stayed in contact afterwards, although he later told me that none of the other guys had made any attempt to contact him.  I didn’t go straight to college either, and actually stayed in touch with him intermittently as I toured the U.S. on my motorcycle for the first few years after high school.  One day he just wasn’t there anymore, and although I knew some of his family members, I didn’t know their numbers or where they lived.  I have never learned what became of him, but we will always be friends; time and distance are irrelevant.  

This experience was meaningful to me because it showed me that the talk we heard in school of equality, and the advances made in the civil rights movements of the 1960’s and 70’s were not completed actions of the past.  Those in power made it sound like the 80’s were this clean fresh start, and equality issues were addressed in the past.  From my point of view, this seemed totally reasonable.  I was living on a narrow strip of middle class homes that divided one of the wealthiest areas in the nation from a typical New York welfare projects area.  I went to school with students who lived in all three environments.  We all took classes together and played sports together, it seemed from my central perspective that the civil rights movement had worked in the way that we were not separated in school, on the buses, in the bathrooms, on sports teams, at the water fountains, during the SAT’s, or in any other way beside the fact that we all still lived in our own neighborhoods.  This last bit seemed only logical since New Yorkers tend to stay in their own neighborhoods anyway, no matter who they are.

This encounter with my friend Jake showed me that we shared the experiences of high school together, but we did not experience them the same way.  Our brief but important exchange of words was my rude but necessary awakening to the realities still left behind by the civil rights movement.  Since then, I have tried to be very wary of buying into illusions.  It can be difficult, but it is our duty as human beings to try.  Disillusionment is not a dirty word, and it is not something to pity.  When someone becomes disillusioned, don’t feel bad for them and give them sorry looks.  They have been awakened to something more honest, and though it may hurt at first, it will serve them better in the future.   My own disillusionment was necessary to my growth as a person.  Such disillusionment should be sought after, not viewed as misfortune.

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