People tell me I'm white, and I tend to believe them, just like Steven Colbert, although looking in the mirror doesn't quite help when you are blind.
Last evening, I received a phone call that I knew was coming, but I had hoped would have waited a little longer. My dear friend of almost 40 years, Rene Blackman-McGaugh let me know that her dad, Herb Blackman, retired executive engineer at Ford Motor Company and military hero, had just passed.
His death struck a rather deep resonant chord within me, and brought me back to my life growing up in Northwest Detroit in the 1970s. Back in the day, Rene was my pepper and I was her salt, long before "Salt 'N Peppa" became a "thang". We became friends instantly after we met, unaware that our city was still in the midst of the time of "White Flight" in Detroit, and the town still had a recently war-torn look and feel. We still had vivid pictures in our minds of being 7-year olds watching tanks rolling down Livernois Ave. ("The Avenue of Fashion" during the 1967 riots as the smoke of burning buildings filled the air.) Last month, a poignant episode of "Detroit 1-8-7" called "Shelter" brought it all back, as my best friend's dad was in hospice.
In what had been a remarkable Jewish-Black enclave of Detroit, our families became friends in a neighborhood which was quickly becoming less and less integrated. I watched my Jewish friends move away and my friendship with Rene strengthen and grow, in part, through my father and Mr. Blackman's philosophy of blending our cultures and celebrating our differences. Rene gave me Jet Magazine to read, and I gave her the Jewish News.
Our fathers worked on the Science Fair judging committee together. They were both semi-retired military men, both were engineers, my father at Chrysler and Mr. Blackman at Ford, and passionate in matters of politics and city pride. They worked on Richard Austin's campaign to be the first African-American to hold an elected office in Michigan, (Secretary of State), as well as Sander Levin for congressman and Carl Levin for Senator. It was like having two dads who knew us and helped us grow. My dad saw Rene's penchant for math and encouraged her to go into engineering, and Mr Blackman encouraged me not to, seeing my passion for writing and the arts. The two dads made a pact that I would tutor Rene in language arts and she would help me make it through math and the sciences. They encouraged the blended family concept, and Rene's big sister Nicola took me from the "Elaine Benes School of Dancing" to become the "white girl who could dance" on "The Scene" (Detroit's local version of "Soul Train").
I attribute my love for Jazz to Mr. Blackman. He taught me to appreciate artists that spanned from Dave Brubeck to Earl Klugh, from Ella Fitzgerald to Natalie Cole, from Coltrane to Chuck Mangione.
Mr. Blackman never saw race either, just great Jazz from great musicians. He saw the world as a synergistic melting pot, greater than the sum of its parts.
In a time of racial divide, my dad and Herb Blackman saw a world not unlike Martin Luther King's vision of the future and aspired to his words.
And now, it seems like the world is tilting, and racial divide appears to be spreading again, spearheaded by leading figures vitriolic rhetoric and spew, who energize fearful citizens to become angry harbingers of polarization, and all for the sake of political and financial gain. These attitudes swell and work against any movement toward what Dr. Cornell West calls Social Justice (What Love looks like when it is on the Outside).
My father and mother's lives were cut short in 1985 and 1986, and I feel that I never had a proper chance to say goodbye, and during this last passing of Mr. Blackman, once again, I missed my chance before he left us. I am certain that the two men are together again, shaking hands and shaking heads at what they are seeing today, and praying for a time that we can all come back together.
Thanks, Dad and thanks, Herb. You taught me then what we all should know now.