Race and friendship in 1960s Springfield
August 26, 1977
A small excursion into the state of race relations in the capital city, disguised as a memoir. Some time ago I had the idea to write about this episode of my life, and I was surprised to learn, going through my files, that I already had, in 1977.
Two sentences were out of place in the original; I here put them where they belong.
When I was a boy, my family lived on Springfield's East Side. Not on the poor East Side, mind you, but in a new suburban nest south of Cook just off 25th built by Barker-Lubin for the comfort of the returning World War II vets. The houses were small—bungalows really—but they were new and they were cheap. The people who lived in them, my parents' friends, the parents of my friends, all were white. It was something I didn't notice at the time.
Everything I learned and didn't learn about race I learned from my father. He was and is a musician. He's been a professional since before he was old enough to drive a car. He grew up in a small Illinois river town in which black people were as alien as Laplanders and were detested all the more for the whites' ignorance of them. But in the society of musicians in which my father traveled, black men were neither alien nor detested; indeed, because of their ability, they enjoyed a status among fellow musicians, white and black, that was denied them by the outside world. Being black (or white) meant nothing; it was how a cat played that mattered. That's what my father taught me. He was not oblivious to race. He just didn't think it mattered.
While I was growing up, then, the issue of race rarely took any recognizable shape. I was taught early not to say ''nigger,'' that it was a bad word, an ugly word. It was a nicety few of the people in my neighborhood—parent or child—bothered to observe, but I attributed its use to bad manners, nothing more. I was once encouraged to invite a black friend home from junior high school one day to play basketball; it was not until later that I realized that he was the only black person that street had seen in maybe eight years and that I, as the agent of his appearance, was responsible for some transgression. Within my house, however, the event passed unnoticed.
I had gone to grade school at Matheny, six blocks away. Most of the kids I went to school with were white. There were black kids in our neighborhood, but they went to school at Withrow, across the tracks. The B&O railroad tracks formed the dividing line between the black neighborhood and the white, which in our neighborhood also meant the line between the poor and the (barely) middle class. It was a line we kids crossed at will but our parents never did. Because I couldn't see it, it was years later before I realized it was there. Withrow was closer to our house than Matheny was, but we went to Matheny. The school boundary had been drawn along the tracks.
Later on, in junior high school, there were many black kids. One of them—he lived on the other side of the tracks and had gone to Withrow, which is why I'd never met him—became my best friend. His name was Keith and his father was the staff artist for the Copley Press. When it was time for high school, my family moved across town and I had to go to Springfield High School. One of my old junior high teachers—an imperious, red-headed English teacher—also transferred to SHS, although in her case the move was voluntary. (Keith had by this time moved to California with his folks.) One day during my junior year, this teacher, remembering our junior high days, complimented me for having then had the courage to have a black boy—I think she used the word "colored"—as a friend.
The remark confused and angered me. Keith was better looking than I was, a tastier dresser, handier with the ladies, a better basketball player. I did better only in class—in my view, not much of an achievement. It had taken no courage to call Keith my friend; indeed, I was always a little puzzled that he, with his plainly superior gifts, had condescended to be mine. I had been blithely unaware until that moment that courage was called for. The fact of his color had not mattered to me and I assumed, stupidly, that it mattered to no one else either. Had 1 been more aware, had I known as I came to know later that many people of my home town found much to censure in such associations, I might have sought out other, safer friends. What my teacher mistook for courage was naiveté.
But the episode taught me a lot more about other people than it taught me about myself. I learned about race on the East Side. I had to move to the West Side to learn about racism. ●