Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Letter to Brian

I’m not black, I’m white.

Those words jar me. I don’t think in terms of color when the issue of humanity comes up, only when the issue of race does. This vision is thrust upon me, like an unwanted, smelly relative.

Race issues do only one thing for me; remind me that I’m white. Otherwise I walk through life not even thinking about the color of my skin, or anyone else’s for that matter. I suppose it’s easy for me, being Caucasian. But I also never thought of black folks as anything other than people. The Race issue, it’s like a bomb; no one notices it until it gets armed, or goes off. As a kid growing up in Toronto, I never thought much about these things. I loved everyone, black, white or green.

But the culture forced it on me.

One of my best friends growing up was a kid named Brian. He was the only black boy in a neighborhood full of Canadians and Italians, and he got his share of razzing. They used to call him “nigger-jigger” and all sorts of other nasty things. I may have said it a couple of times too, but when I saw the look on Brian’s face when I said it, I regretted the act immediately. He wasn’t a gangster, he wasn’t a punk, or a thief, or a drug dealer, or a trouble maker. He was just sweet old Brian, who always came calling on me to play, and inviting me to his house to eat mayonnaise and toast. He was a human being, and I hurt him. It hurts me now to write this.

To his mother’s credit, Brian never lashed out, never called us “white trash” or “honkies” or anything else. He never said a word. She taught him to face things with dignity, and to not lower himself in response to such cruel taunting. To be fair, as a kid I had no idea what that “N” word meant. I mean it; I was that innocent. I only knew that the kids thought it was funny, it was something to chant, something to bug Brian about. At the time we were fairly isolated from a lot of things, because there was no internet, no cell phones, no 24-hour news cycles, no swearing on television. No anything. We learned from the streets. And there was a lot of ignorance.

Kids used to treat Brian roughly, like he was some kind of second class citizen. I used to stick up for him, protect him. Sometimes I wasn’t around to do that though. The Italian kids would never share candy with him. They’d beat him up, leave him out of games, and taunt him. This was in the early 80’s. Only a few years removed from Martin Luther King’s assassination. Oh, how far we didn’t come.

One day, Brian and I were walking down the street. It was a beautiful summer day, the sky was azure blue, and the air was thick and hot. I had a bag of candy and was sharing it with him (Jelly Beans, Gummi Worms, sugar, etc…) when, down the street, a large German Sheppard had spotted us, and we started running towards Collins house (This made the dog chase us, of course) This kid Collin had the only house on the street with a large wooden fence around the front yard, and we got there panting and yelling for him to let us in. He did, but when I ran through the gate Collin suddenly slammed the door shut, locking it, and leaving Brian out there. There was screaming and yelling, and I fought Collin to open that gate, because I could hear Brian out there screaming that the dog was attacking him, biting his leg. By the time I forced Collin aside and opened the door, the dog’s owner had captured his beast and re-leashed him, but Brian was lying on the sidewalk, bleeding and crying. I looked at Collin, amazed, and almost as if I had asked the question out loud instead of in my head, he answered me.

“My father doesn’t allow blacks in the yard.” He said.

To be fair, he was young, and he was taking his cues from his father, who grew up in a much more racist culture, but it still doesn’t excuse it. Black or white, Brian was a human being, a human being, not a color, not a thing. He needed rabies shots after that. Can you imagine?

But Brian, sweet and soft spoken Brian, always came back out to play. He even forgave Collin, quietly. I’m sure he rankled with anger and emotion, but he never showed it.

He earned my eternal respect that day.

That was a long time ago, and a lot has happened since then, but I still think about Brian, and how I once called him that nasty word, and how he got locked out of a yard and bitten by a dog because his skin happened to be a different color. I think about him all the time when the race thing comes up, and that’s what it is, a thing. I will lend no credence to racism because it shouldn’t exist. I suppose this is my apology to him, for everything he went through and for his dignity in the face of it all. I always felt I should have done more to protect him, but I was only 11 years old. There was only so much I could do. Those kinds of things were just beyond me then.

But I know one thing now; Racism is the product of ignorance, and ignorance is the product of its culture, and I believe racism and ignorance are learned behaviors. But what can be learned can be un-learned, can’t it?

Brian, if you ever read this, I am so sorry.

(This post is in response to "Fun is Not Fun When You Spell It: Exploring Race Issues with Our Youth" by g.g. spirit ~ )

~The Writers Den on Twitter~

~The Writers Den on Twitter~
Tap This!