Yesterday we attended the protest rally and march in Troy. It was an incredible scene: thousands of protesters, peaceful marching, incessant chanting, almost everyone wearing a mask. I was proud to attend.
I recently wrote about my earliest memories of race and racism. Here’s what I remember after that, from my years growing up in Buffalo:
- In sixth grade I joined the St. Mark Lions 90-pound football team. I was not a good player. Some of the players we picked up from the public school. These kids were black. One of them, Tony Burton, a fullback, became my friend. He lived a few blocks away. One day, he was over at my house and we were playing basketball in my driveway. Later, my father asked me why I was hanging around with that kid. I said he was my friend. My father seemed disgusted; I wasn’t sure why.
- One winter night my brother (three years older than me) and I were on the corner of Amherst and Parkside, a few doors down from our house. We were kids throwing snowballs at cars. One car we struck circled the block, pulled up behind us. The passenger got out, chased me down, beat and kicked me. He was a black man.
- I delivered papers for the Buffalo Evening News. Every Friday I would go door-to-door collecting the ninety-five cents that a week of delivery cost, hoping my customers would give me a dollar and let me keep the nickel change as a tip. Most did. At one apartment when I rang the bell, the old woman would ask in a frightened, squeaky voice: “Who is it?” “Paperboy collecting,” I answered. She would look through her peephole, then slowly open the door, keeping the chain on. She said, “I was afraid it might be Nee-groes.” No, it’s your lily-white paperboy. I’m not here to rape and murder you.
- In the 1960s there were race riots at Bennett High School, the public school I would have attended had I come from a poorer, less Catholic family. I remember thinking the rioting might reach my house, at least a mile away.
- I attended St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, a private, all-boys high school run by the Christian Brothers. We were an overwhelmingly white school, with a scattering of black kids, all of them on athletic scholarships. One of them, Avery Wilson, we called ‘Slavery’ Wilson. To his face. We all thought it was funny. Even Avery laughed, but I don’t know if he thought it was funny.
- I did have a black friend in high school, Bo Peterson, who attended public school and lived in the neighborhood. He hung around with the group I was in. Super nice guy, soft-spoken. I asked him once what he thought when people called him the N-word. He got uncomfortable. I was an idiot.
- Today, June 8, 2020, I have no black friends. I don’t know any black people. I live in a town that’s 92 percent white. I’m ashamed to write this. I have some acquaintances who are black who I have met through my volunteer work at RISSE, but RISSE is closed now due to the COVID-10 pandemic.
- In my novel STASH, there is only one character who is black: he’s a secondary character, a former NFL player turned drug-dealer and villain. At the time I was writing the novel, I hadn’t considered what hole I might be digging for myself. After the novel was published, I was doing a book talk in my town and afterward a reader (who was black) came up to me and told me how much he liked the book. So it still hadn’t registered on me what mistake I might have made. Only after some online reviews mentioned “racist undertones” in the novel did I wake up. And what did I do? I panicked. I didn’t want to be that author. I had made writing decisions that seemed to fit the story without considering what other impacts those decisions might have. That was a mistake on my part. Will I only write about middle-aged suburban white people now? Absolutely not. I want to expand, not contract, as a writer, but I’ll be more aware of the decisions I make and their potential ramifications. I read black authors; I want them to read me.