I have lived a mostly segregated life. It’s not that I wanted that for myself. At least I didn’t consciously make choices that would separate me from people of color, but it has worked out that way.
I have always been interested in the lives of other people. From a single trailer seen in passing from my car window as we drove through a desolate part of Wyoming to looking at the tenements from the elevated LL passing the New Lots Avenue station in Brooklyn, I have wondered what life was like for the people living in those places. That curiosity led me to books, but it didn’t lead me to friendships.
I think I would have had to make conscious decisions to seek out relationships with African-Americans or other people of color in order to reach across the barriers. When I thought about making that effort I wondered if it would come across as disingenuous, like George Costanza in the “Seinfeld” episode where he decides to find a black friend.
I think back to my experiences in elementary school in Canarsie. Classes were grouped ostensibly by academic ability. There was only one or, at most, two black students in my class in any given year, and they were boys. Curtis (not his real name) who was in my fourth, fifth and sixth grade class was very smart but was frequently getting into trouble for talking too much and he was regularly accused of instigating other kids to misbehave. In frustration, one day our fourth grade teacher asked for a volunteer to sit next to Curtis. I raised my hand eagerly, and I was selected. I don’t remember what I was thinking at the time. Did I think I could befriend him? Did I think I could rescue him (as if he needed rescuing)? I honestly don’t recall how it turned out – whatever happened, it wasn’t dramatic enough to make a lasting impression. I can only imagine his humiliation. This was not a strategy used with any other misbehaving student and it certainly didn’t help to bridge the divide.
In 1972 the New York City Board of Education adopted a plan to bus black students into the two predominantly white junior high schools in Canarsie. My mother supported busing and I did, too. How else would we achieve integration? The plan, though, was received with tremendous hostility by white parents in Canarsie. It resulted in a boycott. Parents kept their children home from Bildersee (my junior high school) and John Wilson (the other junior high school in Canarsie) in protest.
This went on for a couple of weeks. I was literally alone in my 9th grade classes, just my teacher and me. I remember enjoying the one-on-one time with Mrs. Cohen, my English teacher. I also remember walking in the main entrance through a path laid out by the police and their sawhorses. Adults stood behind the barriers, yelling epithets at the few of us who went to school. (The picture above is actually of John Wilson JHS, but this scene was repeated at Bildersee. I don’t recall the policeman blowing his nose quite so ostentatiously.)
My dad was the administrative dean of Canarsie High School in those years so he was in charge of discipline. He was aware of the troublemakers in the neighborhood and had connections with the police. On one particular day Dad got wind of a planned confrontation between a group of Italian and African-American kids, so he found my brothers in their classes and sent them home. When there were threats of violence during the boycott, I stayed home from Bildersee, too.
The upshot of the boycott was that the busing plan was implemented and my relationship with one of my closest friends, Pia, was irreparably damaged.
Like many who lived in Canarsie, Pia’s family had recently moved from East New York to benefit from the better schools and escape the violence that plagued that neighborhood. The plan to bus black students signaled the beginning of the end to them, they believed white flight would certainly follow. I was more hopeful. While nothing was ever said directly, Pia never invited me to hangout at her house again and she was distinctly cool to me at school.
By the time I got to high school in 1973 racial tensions were at a fever pitch. The way the education system was structured there were very limited opportunities to interact across racial lines. Phys Ed, Health and some elective classes brought us together, though that was all pretty superficial in the scheme of high school life. The thing we could really bond over was rooting for our basketball and football teams. Fortunately Canarsie High School was very competitive. My senior year thousands of us went to the PSAL (Public School Athletic League, New York’s city-wide) basketball championship game between Canarsie and Lincoln High School at St. John’s Alumni Hall. That victory provided a moment of transcendence. While there were other moments, mostly connected to sports, it seemed to me that most of us lived our lives amongst our own.
It is ironic that my children, who grew up in an upper middle class suburb of Albany, New York, had genuine friendships with people of color and more opportunity for interaction than I did growing up in Brooklyn.