Thursday, August 1, 2013

Bridging the racial divide: Breaking barriers by building relationships

Today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an op-ed piece by local resident Irene Wynn about the racial divide that existed in 1942. She was responding to a letter by a white man who wrote that he didn't see one back then; she mentioned that African-Americans in those days weren't permitted, among other things, to swim in public pools, skate at roller rinks and go to dance halls because of their color. (Keep in mind that Pittsburgh never had Jim Crow laws.)

Reading that piece made me realize just how much of a pioneer I was, especially in the 1970s. And how and why I was.

In 1974, when I was 13, I was "recruited" to play basketball at the Catholic parochial school near me; it turned out that I would be its first black player ever. That said, I wore that status lightly; while I realized that I was making a statement I never felt the burden of being the "first." Having by this time removed any racial resentment that might have caused any problems with my schoolmates, virtually all of them white, I got along with them beautifully and was invited to all of the dances and parties (though, being a tad socially backward, I rarely went).

I didn't realize until the next year, as a high school freshman at a prestigious Catholic prep school, that the barrier had fallen.

I wasn't playing basketball at the scholastic level, so I asked my father about playing Catholic Youth Organization ball for the same parish. Dad waved it off, saying, "They don't allow blacks." A week or two later, the CYO coach called to ask if I were interested in playing. (I didn't.)

At that school I began trying out for plays. Having developed a singing voice the summer between freshman and sophomore years, as a sophomore I made callbacks for the fall play and the director promised me a part in the following spring production. (I ended up with two.) There was one other black kid, a junior, who also was part of the cast; we may have been the first two African-Americans to grace that stage. I developed some popularity at that school as well.

I learned a valuable truth from those experiences that has stayed with me to this day: The best way to "integrate" is not to force your way in but to get to know people on the inside who can vouch for you -- that way folks don't feel put upon and forced to accommodate for the sake of being "politically correct." I took the opportunities that were afforded me at that time, and everyone grew as a result.