By: Harold Michael Harvey
When I was a mere lad, my family treated me like a prince who would be King. Yet in our brief forays from the farm into town to buy supplies the lighter races of men whom we encountered treated us less like royalty and more like vagabonds. Needless to say images of those times, plague my psyche, perhaps to this very day. It had nothing to do with character. It all came down to skin color.
Seeing the picture of Henry Louis Gates, handcuffed and being removed from his home by the Cambridge Police brought tears to my eyes. It’s not that I felt any particular sorrow for Gates, the W. E. B. Dubois scholar at Harvard. “Skip” can fend for himself. He has friends in powerful places.
Nevertheless, the Gates affair validates the late historian, John Hendrix Clarke’s assertion in the last century that there is “no black man with power who a more powerful white man cannot bring down with one telephone call.”
Clarke’s theory did not take into account in the 21st century an African living in the White House would weigh into the fray and offer a beer to the captor and the captive. Thus Gates’ arrest for essentially mouthing off to a police officer overtook the president’s health care initiative and pushed it on the back burner. The nation as it was, a year ago, became obsessed with race.
I’ve been obsessed with race too, since a day in the 1950's when my grandmother told me I could get arrested for going behind the counter to play with the shop keeper’s grandson. At five years of age, I was perplexed.
Ten years later, I was thrust into the middle of an attempt to eliminate the legal doctrine of “separate but equal” facilities in America. I volunteered to integrate the local Junior High school in Macon, Georgia. I was treated less than equal for the four years it took to smash Jim Crow in the seat of his pants. It had nothing to do with character or smarts. It had all to do with skin color.
Therefore, I became a student of history as it relates to the psychology of race. What I have learned is that neither white men nor black men have the same perspective of a similar event. Alas, neither knows what is in the head of the other. Thus, there is a profound disconnect in discussions of race, because the tendency is to talk at one another and not with each other.
In 1977 I created two mythical characters, one white and one black. Both of them are newspaper reporters. The white reporter works for the local daily newspaper and the black reporter works for the black weekly tabloid. Both of them are good newspapermen. They live to deliver accurate and dependable news to their readers. Their lives are largely segregated. This is not because either reporter designed or desired it to be that way. But because this simply is what it is.
Their worlds are controlled by the social mores of their time, which dictates privileges to the white reporter that are not offered to the black reporter. Their methods of gathering information is different because one does not have access that the other has. It doesn’t have anything to do with education or skill level. It has all to do with skin color.
Both reporters covered a rather bizarre mass murder in a small southern town in Georgia. Each was pulled off the story by their respective publishers before the mystery was solved. They each put the experience behind them but had lingering doubts whether the public really understood what had just occurred.
Each holds pieces of the puzzle inside their heads. But because they do not talk with each other, the mystery goes unsolved for many years, until an event causes them to sit down and discover the humanity of the other.
Gates and Crowley provides the nation another “teachable moment” the president said. Will the nation sit in class and discover the humanity of their fellow Americans or find fault with the conduct of their respective villain?
© August 2, 2009