SYMPATHY: A TALK ABOUT RACE

This essay was delivered as the Cum Laude Address at The Chestnut Hill School in Philadelphia on April 8, 1999. It includes two short essays, “Sticking up for Larry Doby” and “Incident in Boston” which originally aired on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”

When Robert Fles wrote to me about the Cum Laude talk he said, “if we were to suggest a topic, it would most likely be along the lines of the role of art and writing in society, but we’re most interested in what you’re interested in.

” I want to do both. I want to demonstrate the role of art and writing in society by talking about one of the things that interests me, consumes me, the most. I want to talk about race.

This talk is called SYMPATHY because I try to write out of a basic sympathy for the human condition. I want to write passionately and compassionately about us. Whether I am writing about poor white folks in northern Vermont, as I did in JUDEVINE, or about black folks in America, I want to approach my subject with sympathy. Through writing I want to help us achieve deeper understanding.

I want to begin by reading two little essays I’ve written. Both of these essays have aired as commentaries on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” I’ve come to think of these short radio commentaries as a new literary form, sort of a prose sonnet: tight, compact, carefully controlled and developed in less than three minutes, a new kind of strict form. This first one, called STICKING UP FOR LARRY DOBY, is a memoir of sorts. It aired the day before the All Star Game in July of 1997, the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in major league baseball.

STICKING UP FOR LARRY DOBY
As everybody knows by now, 50 years ago this year Jackie Robinson became the first black man to enter white baseball. This total focus in the white media on Robinson to the exclusion of all the other black baseball pioneers has something to do with The Great American obsession with The Best, The Greatest, The First. It’s as if, since Jackie Robinson was first, nobody else even exists, and I am afraid everyone is now going to spend this year remembering Jackie Robinson and in the process they are going to forget, or never even hear about, all those other black baseball pioneers who entered white baseball shortly after Jackie Robinson and who also suffered plenty. Something as momentous as the integration of baseball doesn’t happen because of one person; it happens because of many people, just as the civil rights movement didn’t happen just because Rosa Parks refused to move the back of the bus.

Therefore, I want to remember someone who was second and hope that he will stand for all those others who were in their own suffering ways also second. I want to remember Larry Doby, who joined The Cleveland Indians only 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson had joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, Larry Doby the second black man in white baseball and the first black man in the American league.

I can’t remember 1947, but the summer of 1948, when I was eight years old, is as clear to me today as the view right now outside my window, because during that baseball summer I acquired my first childhood idol, and the object of my adoration was the man who played center field for the 1948 World Champion Cleveland Indians, a 23 year old black man whose name was Larry Doby.

I don’t know why my first childhood hero was a black man. Maybe it was because I knew that Larry Doby was an underdog . . . like me, a painfully shy, skinny, good-at-nothing, ignored-by-everyone little kid from the streets of a working class neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio. My father, who never made it past the seventh grade and who knew that he too was an underdog, said to me, again and again, “Stick up for the little guy, Bud.”

I knew nothing at the age of eight of the brutal details of racism in America, but I knew how I too often felt and I too often felt invisible. I knew how it felt no matter what I did never to be seen for who I really was. And therefore, when my friends talked about “that nigger Larry Doby” or their fathers said “If that black bastard strikes out one more time I’m gonna kill him!” I seethed with an almost uncontrollable rage, because Larry Doby stood for me, and I wanted to stick up for him, but I was too little and too shy.

One Sunday in February 1997 The New York Times ran an article about Larry Doby. He was 73 years old then. There was a picture. He gazes quietly at the camera, his right hand folded gently against his face, his forefinger extending up toward his round, bald head, a gentle, almost-smile in his eyes and on his mouth.

I looked into his face and I remembered that skinny, little white boy and his first real hero, a black man, and because I’m not little or shy anymore, I wanted to do what I couldn’t do back then; I wanted to stick up for Larry Doby, because in the summer of 1948, Larry Doby began to help me understand what it means to be invisible. He also taught me something about courage, perseverance and grace. Because of Larry Doby, I began to love and identify ever more strongly with the underdog, the little guy, and as my love increased so did my indignation and my rage and grief.

– – – – –
This second commentary more of a very short story and is called INCIDENT IN BOSTON.

INCIDENT IN BOSTON
Not long ago I was walking along the street in Boston when down a side street came an old man in a wheel-chair rolling right down the middle of the street and into three lanes of on-rushing traffic on Huntington Avenue.

Suddenly cars were swerving everywhere, horns blaring, tires squealing and drivers trying to weave around the old man and his wheel-chair so they could get going. I knew I should go after him, but, for some reason, I didn’t. I stood there and watched.

Then an old car with a bad muffler pulled out of the snarl of cars and to the curb and a young man hopped out and boldly walked into the traffic and up to the old man. The young man was wearing a knit cap and a sports sweatshirt of some kind and hugely baggy jeans and high topped sneakers. He took hold of the old man and his chair and gently wheeled him back toward the curb, then tilted the chair up and onto the sidewalk. He bent over the old man and said something to him. The old man nodded his head. The young man patted the old man’s shoulder and moved away toward his car.

Then the young man turned and looked straight at me and shouted, “Why didn’t you help him! What’s the matter with you! Why didn’t you help him!” I wanted to apologize, tell him I meant to, but it was too late; the young man was already in his car and driving away.

As I continued down Huntington Avenue that day feeling embarrassed and ashamed, I thought about that young man, that young black man, driving along talking to himself about how self-centered, indifferent and cold white people are.

And I also thought about how many white people would step away in fear, cross the street, if they saw that young black man coming down the sidewalk toward them, how they would step away from this Good Samaritan, this young black man who put himself at risk, who acted with compassion and was, in that moment, something I was not, a credit to his race–the human race.

– – – – –
I am working on a new book with the working title of DIFFERENT AS BLACK AND WHITE. The book will be a series of interviews with black friends about race relations in America. I want to turn now to this work in progress and read some excerpts from an interview WTM Johnson who lived not far from here in Glen Mills. Bill Johnson spent his life as a research chemist in private industry and later at the University of Pennsylvania and as a teacher at Lincoln University. In 1949, Bill Johnson was the first black chemist ever hired by the Dupont Chemical Company. Bill died of cancer a couple of months ago at the age of .

Bill Johnson’s life was a challenge to, a rebellion against the status quo. He stands solidly in the tradition of great American individualists who are willing to confront anyone, challenge anything for the sake of what they believe to be the truth. This attitude toward the world is, in Bill Johnson, absolutely consistent whether the subject is science, education, civil rights or politics.

Here are some excerpts from my interview with Bill.

“The poor people in this country for a long time to come are going to be Black people, because of the unchangeability of our skin color. I can’t understand why white people can’t see this. They continue to say, well, my parents came over here, they were immigrants, they couldn’t speak the language and all this stuff and they got along all right, why can’t you do it? Lady, can you change the color of my skin? Can you change my hair?

“And it’s also a matter of what color of the skin. One of the reasons that I’ve been as lucky as I’ve been is the color of my skin. If I were as dark as my grandfather, my problems and difficulties would multiply, which is a tragedy. Look at the clothing catalogues. The Black people in there they look damn near white. Black people know that. They notice that.

“I was going to tell you about some of my Army experiences in the Second World War. After I finished basic training in Georgia, I got my orders to go to Atlanta. I went to the big train station there and I noticed a whole group of German prisoners sitting in there under guard, so I just got in the line to convert my orders into a ticket. Pretty soon two MPs (Military Police) came over to me and asked to see my orders. I showed them my orders; and they said you’ll have to get over in this colored waiting room, so they marched me from there to the colored waiting room and here are these prisoners of war, the enemies we are fighting against, just sitting in this train station! Most white people have no idea how much racism Black people have suffered and how much anger there is in me.

“I can also remember something else. We were in Camp Swift, Texas. I think this may have been just after the war ended. We were a battalion, a Black battalion and two white battalions making up a regiment. And I can recall that one day they notified us that we were going to have a regimental track meet and that we were invited to participate. We heard about it that morning and the track meet was that day, so anyway we went out there–I was just a spectator–and we got there and we saw all these white guys runnin’ around out there in track suits and track shoes and our guys, some of them had to run in their army boots, just stripped down to their underwear, no equipment, nothing.

“They had two prizes, a company and a battalion prize. We won ‘em both. Our boys beat the shit out of ‘em. And do you know what does it? What drives you? Anger at the damn racism. That’s what drives you. Anger at racism. It was just two awards, a company award–we won that–and a battalion award–we won that. Our guys had fierce feeling. Those other guys were competing. We were protesting. Protesting against the goddamned racism that had blighted every life, had twisted our sense of loyalty to our country.

“I’ve had white people tell me, well, you’re educated and successful, you’re not bitter. I said, what do you mean I’m not bitter? I said, you have no idea how bitter I am. They want me to take all this abuse and not be bitter? Goddamnit, I am bitter. I’m angry. They have no idea of the depth of anger in me.

“I’m talkin’ about racism. We Black people live in a different world. Some of my friends, my white friends, the sensitive ones, know that and they don’t try to pretend it isn’t that way. But a lot of white people think that when a Black person has a decent job and all that, like me, that I’m one of them. Huhuh. No. I’m not one of them. Not at all. I come from a different planet. I’ve seen things and felt things and suffered things . . . they have no idea.

“This one white guy once, I guess he thought he was being nice, he says something like, I was glad that this happened for your race. Well, Goddamn, I thought I was a member the human race. There’s always that gap there, always that difference.

“At the University of Pennsylvania I’ve had people say, and I’ve heard this broadly, especially among young white people, well, I didn’t institute slavery, I didn’t deny employment to Blacks, I didn’t do these things, so why should you charge me with it? My answer is: you’re absolutely right, you didn’t do these things, and that’s a position that you have a right to take. But /fortunately for humanity there have always been a few people who assumed the responsibility for taking action, for putting themselves at risk to remedy injustices. /The only progress we have ever made toward a decent society, a decent world, has come from people who, although not compelled to do so, took the responsibility to make a fight for justice, to say yes, I have a responsibility to fix it, maybe I didn’t directly cause this problem, but I have a responsibility to try to remedy it. That’s my responsibility as a human being. We have an ethical responsibility to fight for justice.

“We didn’t contribute directly to building all the just aspects of the society either; we didn’t contribute directly to the creation of freedom of speech that we now enjoy, but we do have a responsibility to build on it, we have a responsibility to use our freedom and to fight not only for Black people but for women, homosexuals, justice for every other minority. The only sound basis for a good society is no discrimination at all, overt, covert, of any kind, against anybody. We’ve got to try to take care of every human being.”

– – – – –
Let me end where I began. For me important writing grows out of a sympathy, a passion and compassion for our human condition. Through writing I want to help us all achieve deeper understanding which I believe will lead to greater sympathy. This is the most important function for writing in society.

By way of ending, I want read a poem by one of the greatest poets America has ever produced, not one of the greatest African-American poets, one of the greatest poets: Paul Lawrence Dunbar, who was born in 1872 and died in 1906–a short life: 34 years. The poem is called:

SYMPATHY
I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals–
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting–
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings–
I know why the caged bird sings!

© 1998, 1999, 2000, by David Budbill, all rights reserved,
permission to reprint must be gotten in writing from
David Budbill: david@davidbudbill.com
or from the publication in which the essay first appeared.