I’ve spent most of my life moving around, starting at age four, only settling down into a true home within the past two years. There are many stories to tell along the way of my past itinerancy and this is just one of them.
For a few years, my father, (now former) step/foster mother, and I lived in Berkeley, California, starting around the summer of 1975. We had recently left the inland city of Modesto to start about an eight-plus year period of exploration, a time when my hippie-identified parents left their formal careers as junior college English instructors to hold assorted jobs, occasionally interspersed with episodes of unemployment and much creative writing. In the fall of 1976, having attended a small, flaky, but well-meaning alternative school for fourth grade in the Berkeley Hills area, I entered fifth grade at Longfellow, a public grammar school close to downtown. I was not aware of the term “culture shock” at the time, but that is one phenomenon I initially experienced while a student there.
Longellow School’s student body was more diverse than I’d ever come across in my short life, though I had already attended about seven other schools by then, counting pre-schools. The student body was about 40% (or perhaps even more) African American, 40-45% Caucasian/white, with the rest being Asian (and of that demographic, mainly Chinese and Japanese Americans) and a very small amount Latinx. I wish I had the formal break-down in front of me of what the actual percentage of ethno-cultural groups were represented at Longfellow in 1976 and ’77, but I don’t. Researching that information feels distracting away from my own impressions and subsequent reflections I wish to focus on and convey here. I realize I could be off with the numbers due to my own sense of overwhelm with the presence of what felt like so many Black peers around me compared to what I had ever previously, or thereafter, experienced. These students largely seemed to come from lower to lower middle-income homes, which included my own at the time.
A brief observation of my father’s sums up a lot of my feeling state I lived within while attending Longfellow. While he and his second partner (they never formally married), my then step/foster mother, happened to be taking a walk near the school one day, he saw me standing up against the playground wall, scared. Adjusting to yet another new school while trying to downplay my high sensitivity and frequently “girl” labeled persona, I was also trying to negotiate this seemingly new to me culture of forthright verbal and physical expression, even aggressiveness, among these largely comfortably embodied, confident seeming Black kids. Repressed gay white boy that I was, I indeed felt scared, on many levels. It took me several years to grow comfortable in my own skin and stop being so afraid. These exuberant African American boys and girls reminded me of how I had a long ways to go.
Black history was a key part of the fifth grade curriculum at Longfellow. Each of us twenty-four students in white Mr. Abadie’s class was assigned to read biographies of influential Black people in U.S. history, which we then had to write about. We often watched films on Black history and historical figures and also went on field trips on at least two occasions to the Berkeley Film Archive to view movies about African Americans. We watched the miniseries ROOTS on video over a period of several weeks, joining with other classes in an assembly room to do so. There was even a field trip to see THE WIZ, a big theatrical hit in San Francisco at the time. Not long after this, another trip occurred in which our class got to see a handful of that play’s all Black cast as they were interviewed. Some limited questioning by us students was allowed. I watched, impressed and fascinated, glad for my fellow Black students having successful role models to see, take in, and even interact with. One boy in my class had a fun exchange with a female cast member, the boy giddily, half-heartedly protesting, “Whatcha doin’?!” as she took him by the arm and whispered something in his ear. He quieted down and returned to his seat in the audience, a smile on his face. I felt slightly envious of the special, brief exchange the two seemed to share. Black camaraderie seemed constant around me, an outsider.
The following year, I had Mrs. Duperron at the start of sixth grade, until I moved out of the area during the Christmas holiday break. She was African American and very no-nonsense. Tall and strong-voiced, this teacher would not hesitate to loudly tell a student or the whole class she had had enough of their/our “crap.” Black history continued to be part of the curriculum in sixth grade, though I’m not sure if it was still treated as a separate, stand-alone subject like it had been in fifth. This may have been the class that actually went on a field trip to see THE WIZ and not the previous year’s.
Mrs. Duperron expressed a fun side on occasion. In another example of Black camaraderie I observed, she pretended to throw a piece of fruit in the air to a biracial (Black and white) classmate, playfully asking, “Want one, Louie?” I forget the context of this moment, but not the then very familiar feeling of being an outsider. To her credit, one afternoon, seemingly out of the blue, she did make a conscious effort to give me some positive, caring attention. She took my hand and gave me some snack treat as we walked a short ways down the hall at the start of lunch. This felt awkward but I also appreciated the gesture, mixed in with some uncertainty and suspicion over why she was doing it. Mrs. Duperron never made such overtures again, but she did seem to soften a bit with me after that, mixed in with her hard, driven side she continued to generally express in class. She was probably at least forty years of age, trained more in the “Old School” ways of teaching and parenting. I believe she was the only African American teacher I had between Kindergarten and high school, not counting the occasional substitute teacher of color.
Active affirmation of the African American (then already largely referred to as Black) experience at Longfellow seemed to flow steadily, at least in comparison to any other context I found myself in before or since then. I am grateful to have witnessed the camaraderie between Black students and a Black teacher with these pupils. They all had such painful outsider statuses to deal with in so much of the rest of the world, something I didn’t think of when I was ten and eleven years old.
One day, feeling especially discouraged about my days at Longfellow, I started a conversation with my then step/foster mother about the tension I felt with fellow Black students. I asked her if I was largely resented by them because I was white and white ancestors had enslaved their Black forebears. She explained that, possibly, yes, but that other, current factors were far more at play, namely ongoing racial discrimination. I wish I could recall this long-ago exchange, but I hardly do today. A range of feelings arises as I reflect on this scene, particularly embarrassment, guilt, sadness, and then compassion for my white, naive oversimplification of a major, systemic social problem and projection of fault for my personal difficulties onto these peers– in short, racism.
I was a sensitive, genderqueer gay white boy who had endured parental divorce before aged five, quickly followed by a succession of moves, including overseas and back again. And I was coping with some culture shock, not at all inherently a bad thing, on top of an already deep sense of insecurity in the world. I was scared and distrustful of anyone new in my life, save for any nearby, kind adult willing to give me a bit of attention. African American peers with their more bold, straightforward ways was not an actual problem, just more new stimuli for me to integrate/make sense of along with everything else that I still hadn’t yet. I do know, however, that I felt markedly different than a lot of my peers– Black, white, et al– who were largely fully cis-gendered and heterosexual; at least the most visible, attention getting ones appeared to be. Within all my layers of fear, what I found startling was how courageous I found a lot of Black pupils, the way they seemed to take up space so unabashedly with their strong, often loud voices and gestures. They spoke about sexuality very openly with each other, the boys emphasizing a macho pursuit of girls. In sixth grade, I remember being called by a Black classmate a “square.” That summed up all my inhibition and fearfulness pretty succinctly.
A few African American classmates stole items from me, or tried to. Poverty elicits desperation which can sometimes evolve into survival-based strategies like theft, especially if one feels so deprived in a materialistic world. As a white boy, I already was more privileged, though, at the time, I was not yet very aware of all the ways this was so. That said, I would later find that theft was plentifully engaged in here and there by my white peers, many of them privileged like myself or more so. Desperation doesn’t just have to be from economic impoverishment. This racial stereotyping I was mentally doing concerning what kind of people are thieves ultimately soon proved to be wrong in my own life experience.
I never got to find out how my school and social life might have progressed in diverse, progressive-minded Berkeley. Shortly after the birth of my (half) sister in early December of 1977, we moved to Grass Valley, a city in Nevada County consisting of 6,203 people at that time– or so the entrance sign stated. Nestled about 2,500 feet above sea level in the Sierra Foothills, Grass Valley and its even smaller neighbor Nevada City were key locations during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s. Buying and then moving into a fixer-upper house to be close to an urban expatriate hippie-filled community in and around North San Juan Ridge was the compromise my parents had reached after a land purchase for them had fallen through. We would not be on the Ridge, after all, but close enough, engaging in creatively festive and spiritual get-togethers, like annual May Day and Halloween gatherings and periodic full moon poetry readings. A certain Ridge dweller, Robbie Thompson, ran a theater where Ridge and city locals alike performed in the productions, my father and step/foster mother in a few of them. I remember one Black woman with her young son attending one or two of the seasonal gatherings. One other Ridge resident was of Lebanese descent. Her older boyfriend was Black. One woman, Masa, was Japanese, married to a noted white poet, Gary Snyder. They had two sons. A certain man was Native American, either half or fully. Another fellow and his cousin were Mexican American. I know I’m leaving out a few small handfuls of others who were non-white or partly so. Otherwise, most of us were white.
Grass Valley itself was predominantly white during the seven years I lived there. Same with nearby Nevada City. This hit me as another culture shock within my first week of middle school at Lyman Gilmore in January of 1978. I asked an English teacher, Mrs. Hinman, who happened to be on yard/hall duty at the end of the day, “Are there any Black people who live here in Grass Valley?” I don’t quite remember exactly what she said, but the very tall, severe-looking gray-haired woman stated something like, “Yes, there’s a Black family living over on [somewhere near downtown].” She delivered this matter-of-factly and satisfactorily, as if assuring me that the large, varied demographic I was asking about was adequately represented simply by the sheer fact that a single family of Black folk existed nearby. I didn’t know what to say. This felt like my formal introduction to a weird-feeling cultural reality of relative homogeneity in my new home community.
My encounters with African Americans and other Black people remained extremely limited while I grew up in Grass Valley. One particular memory comes to mind here. Within the first year or so of living there, I remember walking a short ways down the street from our home to someone else’s house for some reason. I was to speak with the woman there (Debbie I think her name was) possibly about baby-sitting arrangements for my then infant sister. The rationale remains vague to me. I knocked on the door. A handsome, deeply brown-skinned African American man with a short, well-kept Afro opened the door, Debbie’s boyfriend. She wasn’t home. We spoke briefly about the purpose of my visit and he agreed to give her my message. I think his name was Keith. He was very friendly and glad to converse, which I found discomforting. It’s taken me years to figure out exactly why. An obvious reason was that I felt bad for him that he lived in such a conservative, white area with his white girlfriend. He surely felt isolated yet obvious like a sore thumb. And then I felt guilty for feeling bad for him, like that was somehow condescending. Shame on me. But, deeper down, what I felt was afraid, of myself and for my safety. He scared me, yes, and, I think, my feeling attracted to him scared me. His outer skin color reminded me how I too felt and was different, only I had wiggle room to at least try and hide my difference, albeit often pretty unsuccessfully. Here I was being reminded of how I also didn’t fit in with the locals and was under so much fear and shame-inducing pressure to conform: be straight and straight-acting, not seem like a girl or a fag. I had no visible gay peer group or elders at the time to turn to. None. But, I was in denial about somehow needing such a community, since I was committed at the time to being straight and traditionally masculine. In parallel to me, this guy Keith didn’t have any Black brothers or sisters nearby to hang with, at least not that I could see. Painful. The dissonance for me was palpable, physical, though I couldn’t name it. Also, it being likely that I found him attractive, and certainly a little scary (a left over association of feeling intimidated around Black males, and some Black females, while living in Berkeley), I felt self conscious and awkward having these unexamined feelings, like I was somehow being bad but didn’t know quite why. That wasn’t the first or last time I experienced this oblique shame and fear around attractive men during my childhood and adolescence. I wasn’t surprised when he’d moved away by the next year. I quietly wondered what happened to Keith, but I didn’t know who to ask. He wasn’t a friend of my folks’ or of anyone they knew well. One day, he was simply gone. Some years later, I would be gone too from Grass Valley, likely for some parallel reason to his, in addition to my parents leaving town for better job opportunities. They settled down as junior college English teachers in the Los Angeles area, not exactly within neighborhoods of diversity in regards to people of color, but closer by such communities. The tension-filled, cheek to jowl pluralism of America continues.
Black history and lives seemed cursorily covered in middle school at Lyman Gilmore, particularly compared to how these subjects had been gone over at Longfellow School in Berkeley. I might as well have moved out of state as opposed to less than three hours’ drive away, the School and local culture felt so different than the Bay Area’s. Steadily, I participated in the racism of the place, seemingly forgetting about my fellow Black humans I’d gone to school with the year before. Horrible racial jokes were told among my peers and, on occasion, by adults around me, such as a bus driver for the local high school. I repeated them now and then, finally stopping this altogether by fifteen or sixteen years of age. It’s like I had been awakened, albeit somewhat overwhelmed for assorted reasons, and then lulled back into a sleepy ignorance, only to finally wake up again. I find that it’s always about constantly waking up, some more, and then some more, and on and on. But, then, life is that way if one is committed to always learning.
While I was being racist with my occasional off-color joke telling, I endured homophobic jokes and even told them too sometimes, as a way to try and fit in, denying and shaming a whole part of my own nature. Middle school and then, to a lesser extent, high school was a time of enduring bullying, pretty typical for a femme gay kid in that era and in such a conservative community where the high school football team was so highly celebrated. At least I was never physically beaten up, for which I am grateful. Others have had it much worse, including so many of those who are of racial/ethnic minorities. But, by denying the humanity of others different from myself and the dominant white culture I lived within, I was further denying more of my own humanity, piled onto my internalized homophobia. Depressing. The racism I started to shed, as best I could, later in high school, the homophobia not until college. Some of us are late bloomers, but we evolve and eventually get where we need to go.
In August of 2018, I visited Grass Valley and Nevada City for the first time in twenty-five years. I was heartened to see a large, art-filled cafe in my former hometown, the likes of it akin to places in downtown Cambridge or Somerville, Massachusetts. One of the managers was African American, having moved from the Bay Area to clean up his previously trouble-filled life. He was part of a wave of Bay Area residents, come to Grass Valley and Nevada City to add more progressivism and diversity whilst seeking quieter, simpler lives. The area still was mostly white, but somewhat less so than when I’d left there in 1984. Interestingly and also, the large public high school I attended for ninth and tenth grades, Nevada Union High, seemed to have become a safer place for gay students. At least that’s what I was led to believe by a (white) classmate of mine who I caught up with on Facebook in recent years. His gay son, a dancer, came out while still a student there. I was glad to see some cultural evolution had happened in a place that a part of me thought never could or would change. I appreciate any degree of it wherever and whenever I see it.
I am grateful for my time at Longfellow School in Berkeley. It is now a large middle school, as I just found out online. I’m guessing that Black history is still taught there, which is a blessing that I happened to be regularly exposed to this vital topic in addition to some amount of Chinese American history, albeit far less so. My favorite subject in fifth grade was human anatomy. Unbeknownst to me, I would indeed pursue a career concerning the internal life of humans, just not so much the physiological but, rather, that of the human psyche and all of its resplendent and not quite resplendent parts. But, anatomy of the human body and psyche includes and pertains to all of the wondrous people on Earth. I would have missed out on the deep importance of and respect for diversity of humanity had I never gone to rough and tumble feeling Longfellow School and, instead, straight on for fifth grade to homogeneous Lyman Gilmore in conservative Grass Valley. I had traveled across much of Europe, Central America, and Mexico while six years of age, so some seeds of appreciating the vast range of human cultures had been planted inside me. However, only quite recently have I gleaned that more seeds of wonderful connection to humanity and culture also got planted while attending Longfellow and living in Berkeley. I’ll never forget the periodic walks with my parents down Telegraph Avenue with all of its street vendors, so many of them people of color. But, that is part of another story.
3 thoughts on “A Queer Gen X White Guy’s Childhood Reflections on Interfacing With African Americans’ Experiences”
Thank you for writing and sharing this deeply reflective piece. I felt “with” you through the experiences you describe. You evoked the profound complexities of overlapping and different sorts of otherness, and the poignancy and pain and confusion that arises at the interstices and conjunctions of these. There is so much I’d like to say about your essay and what it evoked in me both emotionally and intellectually, and how it sparked so many of my own memories and experiences as a child being taught to “other” certain people and also feelings of being “other” simultaneously for sometimes conjunctive and sometimes different reasons. Your essay would provide generous fodder for a group conversation. Please keep writing about your experiences!
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I appreciate your astute comments and am thrilled over how my blog post affected and mentally stimulated you the way it did. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts.
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I neglected to add to my previous comment what a gift it feels to know you–you are a profoundly sensitive, intuitive, and empathic being.
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