Friday, July 20, 2007

A Few Black People in My Life

In 1961 I worked for Pageant magazine, on west 47th Street in New York City. I was an associate editor; Pageant was sort of an imitation Reader's Digest. A little more lively, though.
I wrote articles Pageant on why blondes have more fun and on the actress Falconetti, who portrayed Joan in Carl Th. Dreyer's film, “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”
I would go out to lunch sometimes with two young secretaries who worked there: Ann and Gloria.
When Ann didn't come to work, Gloria and I did NOT go out to lunch together. Gloria was black. At the time, a white man and a black woman did not go out to lunch together in New York City. It would attract attention; it might provoke angry comment; it might be dangerous.
Gloria was a beautiful young woman; sometimes her brother would call and leave a message: Please have her call Jimmy. Jimmy, I learned later, was James Baldwin, the novelist.
There were no blacks in my neighborhood, in West New York, when I grew up. No blacks attended my elementary school, Public School 6. There were almost no blacks attending my high school, Memorial, also in West New York, which I attended from 1948 to 1952. There was one, just one. I saw him playing softball on the field near the school. He must have been the first and only black in the school. As he batted, swinging wildly, a small crowd of white high school students watched-and hooted at him. I was surprised and ashamed.
There were at least two blacks in my college class at Columbia. One was an intelligent young man who had an attitude. He seemed to be expecting hostility. Always on his guard. Alvin was his name.
The other young man was a football player-gregarious, cheerful, self-confident.
I once saw Alvin look with amazement at the other black man, surrounded by white admirers as all of us walked down the stairs in a college building.
Alvin was Alvin Poussaint, who went on to Harvard and became a psychiatrist of note.
Carol, a black woman, worked with me on a newspaper not long ago. She and I became friends--yes, we even went out to lunch together. Then I became her boss, temporarily. And she gave me trouble. She didn't like taking orders. When another boss took over, Carol continued being difficult and was fired. My parting advice to her, as she looked for a new job, was: Always butter up your boss.
Carol and I went out to lunch frequently. Once, as we walked in a parking lot, a tough-looking black man began following us. Carol knew what was happening and became nervous. I guess the fellow was checking me out, and I ignored him -- and continued chatting amiably with Carol. The fellow went away.
How different from 1961!
At the Bergen Record, there was a black woman columnist. She started writing opinion columns that were outrageously anti-white--and stirred up a hornet's nest. I suggested that she tone it down. “Don't lose the column,” I said. “You will probably never get a chance to write another column in your life.”
She left to go to the Daily News, and I learned later on that she had lost her job there just before dying of breast cancer.
I belong to a men's club in Ridgewood. There are 400 members and no blacks. I have recommended to the club's officers that they try to recruit a black; I quoted something that Tiger Woods said about golf: It should look more like America. (With more black people.) But the club's officers told me, superciliously, that that is not their job.
There was a black member once, I have learned, but he resigned after a club officer jocularly referred to him as “our token black.”
It's a fine club, and it's non-sectarian, even though it's sponsored by a Presbyterian church. Members go to plays and museums and sporting events. There's a book club, a bridge club, a computer club, a genealogy group, a music club. I run a lunch club (ROMEO, for Retired Older Men Eating Out) and the Investor's Club.
I would like to sponsor a black member. Must be male. He can live anywhere. I'll even pay the first year's dues, $50. Is anyone interested?
Today there's a very popular TV program called “Heroes.” In it, a beautiful blonde is married to a black man. The black man isn't a Sidney Poitier or Denzel Washington type. He's not very good-looking; in fact, he's a criminal. But he isn't portrayed as a villain. I haven't heard of any protests about their marriage.
I wonder: Will younger people believe that, in 1961, a white man and a black woman were afraid of having lunch together in New York City? I can hardly believe it myself.

Get a sneak peek of the all-new AOL at

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home