I grew up in a small town (cue the John Cougar Mellencamp tune). It was nearly all white, and all Catholic. There were two Jewish families, and of course, me, who had a Jewish last name, but a Catholic mother and parents who decided to be progressive and let us “choose” our religion when we were old enough to do so (none of us ever did). There were hardly any black families in our little town. In fact, I only remember maybe four. Donna was a good friend when I was young and came to all my birthday parties. Vesta and her sister Cindy were beyond friendly and smart. I never really thought about them being different. It just wasn’t in my head to think about. My family was very liberal. My dad taught us to be color blind. I always really liked that about him as I got older.
Probably the first time I ever had real feelings about someone black was when my cousin, going to her aerobics class in the Salvation Army building in the next town over, was attacked by a black man. She was unrecognizably beaten. It was traumatic and had long lasting effects. Still, I didn’t think all black people were bad, I just thought that man was bad.
When I had fallen in love with Peter, my husband to be, I lived on Newbury Street, and had a brand new Post Offices Etc. open next to me, just in time for Christmas. I excitedly brought a gift over to mail to my sister in NYC. The building was long and cavernous. I stood at the counter telling the proprietor that I lived right next door and how incredible it was that I would never have to go to the crowded and inconvenient Prudential Center post office again. A black man walked into the store, which I didn’t really note, until I went to go on my merry way, and he blocked the door, and pointed something in his pocket (a gun, a knife, a finger?) at me and repeated the words he would say over and over for the next five minutes, “Give me all your money, or I’ll blow your head off.” This so took me by surprise, I nearly peed myself. One minute I was sending my sister an awesome sweater, and the next I was in danger of getting my head blown off. I was shaking, seeing red, nearly paralyzed. In fact, all I could think of was that I’d finally fallen in love and found the man I was going to marry, and I was going to be a front cover story in the Boston Globe for dying in a Post Offices Etc. because I didn’t have enough cash in my shiny red Le Sportsac bag (I only had $9.00 and change, which strewn all over the floor when I dumped the bad over to try and save my life with the contents). The man and his “pocket gun” which he pointed into my back, after collecting my paultry $9.00, forced the owner and I into the back of the store and threw us in a dark bathroom together, where he told us not to move or he would “blow our heads off.” This man had a very limited vocabulary. I humped the owner and kept repeating, “Oh my God, oh my God,” until the poor man, who probably wished I didn’t live next door, said that he thought the robber only had a knife and that he was going to go see if he had left. I begged him not to go, since I thought he would be standing guard to make sure we didn’t move, which of course, made no sense. Was he going to stay there for the rest of our lives in an effort to keep us in the bathroom? Shortly after that, we heard a woman’s voice asking if anyone was there. This finally gave the owner license to leave my terrified embrace to call the police, leaving me frozen in the bathroom, still repeating over and over, “Oh my God, oh my God.” The police came and took a description of the man, said there’d been a series of these robberies up and down Newbury and Boylston and that it had most likely just been a finger in the guy’s pocket and not a gun, and that it was probably someone just trying to get drug money. That was that.
I remember not being particularly scared of black people after that, as much as I was scared of crowded places, where I realized if someone has a gun and quietly sticks it in your side and tells you to give them all your money, there’s not much you can do about it.
My nanny, Bevy was Jamaican. She was with us for five years. Nicest person you’d ever want to meet. I never had feelings about her being black. She just was. I loved her. We all did. She was part of our family.
I don’t know. I have been thinking about what it is to be black in this country for a long time. The Trayvon Martin trial isn’t the first time I’ve paused over the sad state of affairs that is our racially divided country. Yes, we have a black president, and that has done a world of good, but there is still too much prejudice, too much hate, too much division.
Today I am grateful for the people who took to the streets in L.A. in protest of the Zimmerman verdict. We should all be out there. We aren’t separate, we’re one. Why is that so hard to see?