“The naïve tirades hurled by a child at some game show were no match for the concrete-and-brick racism that formed the foundation of the people next door.”
As a child, I was mesmerized by the 1960s civil rights movement. I did a class report and diorama about Martin Luther King, Jr. On a class trip, to the chagrin of my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Goodstein, I led my schoolmates in a rousing rendition of “We Shall Overcome.” I railed at our 25’ Zenith color TV set when black contestants lost on game shows. “Prejudiced,” I would scream at Art Fleming and Monty Hall. I was a licorice-licking liberal in knee pants.
But all this righteous indignation paled when it came to my Buddy. Not only did I have a black best friend at school, I had a black cousin. Six years older than me, Drew, who was affectionately called Buddy, validated me in a way I possibly could not even hope to understand as an elementary school kid. Civil rights was not just my calling bias out wherever I saw it, it was in my DNA.
To an overweight, bespectacled bookworm, Buddy looked as if he were bathed in warm, caramel light. A soaring oak, tall and lean with a glistening epic afro and broad smile. His laugh was big and boisterous, and when I looked at him, I recognized the Stromberg familial connection that made us one in the same. In my rose-colored, “black is beautiful” world, Buddy and I had to be kindred spirits.
One day, when I was 10 or 11, Buddy came to visit. After we all hung out for a while, my mom asked me to go to the local German deli to pick up whatever we wanted for lunch. As we stepped out the door, my excitement was palpable. I basked in the full stature of my teenaged cousin over those three short blocks to the store. I remember him laughing at everything I said, which gave me a false sense of my own importance. The people who peered from, behind their shades or viewed us from their front porches must be green with envy, I thought. There was no color on that walk — just two cousins hungry for sandwiches.
Upon our arrival, an unfamiliar chill suddenly interrupted that warm early summer day. The owners, usually friendly, worked briskly, unengaging and unwelcoming. There was none of the regular chitchat. They seemed intent on making our sandwiches, glaring as I asked Buddy if he wanted more and more stuff. If Buddy sensed anything awry, I did not know. We paid quickly and left.
As we walked back, I began to see the residents of my neighborhood differently. I suddenly noticed dark eyes not brimming with envy but with something unfamiliar and uninviting. The naïve tirades hurled by a child at some game show were no match for the concrete-and-brick racism that formed the foundation of the people next door. Had these people of the Diaspora forgotten the words of Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?” The three short blocks bore down hard on my soles and soul.
If a ten-year-old boy could sense the unapologetic antipathy toward his cousin, what must Buddy feel? Had he become inured to it? He was a child of a Jewish mother and a black father. The pictures from his Bar Mitzvah were in my own home. Did he learn, even in those formative years, how to navigate the often-turbulent waters that exist between cultures, religions, even neighborhoods? I felt shell-shocked; I could not fathom what he felt or thought.
A year after that day with Buddy, my parents separated, and we moved to Los Angeles. I didn’t see Buddy again. Over the years, my mother talked about his achievements as a US Navy fighter pilot, his best-selling book and his family. The chiseled memory of the person I worshiped as a child only grew in significance.
Had my own story become anecdotal and genetically linked rather than radically relevant?
But though his memory and achievements remained intact, the recollection of my own impassioned belief in equal justice began to diminish as adolescence rolled right through me. In college, I sought out a Jewish identity and liberal arts libations, and left my thirst for the rights of others die on the vine. I discovered the world but within the ivory-tower confines of cerebral denial. Soon, the color-free world I had envisioned as a child was quickly replaced with the white, two-story colonial with black shutters. The daily grown-up pursuit of dollars and suburban scents shackled me to a system I thought long ago should break into a million pieces.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” AIDS walks and fundraising, meal programs for the homeless, synagogue committees, 5Ks for cancer and online charities. I’ve done them all. But what have I done to help people of color “overcome? Had my own story become anecdotal and genetically linked rather than radically relevant?
I can talk at length about my black cousin, my black friends, my black godson. But is that liberal armor to justify my mostly white life? I can watch MSNBC until the wee hours of the morning, shaking my well-coiffed head in agitated agreement. But outside the calm confines of my suburban life, am I willing to bridge any divide?
When Eric Garner was killed, I was appalled and sickened. But I did nothing. When Dylan Roof murdered those nine church members in Charleston, I cried. But I did nothing. Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and thousands more. I did nothing. No, that is not entirely true. I yelled “Prejudiced” at my TV like I did when I was eight. But those murders were no game. And you can find no consolation prize for doing nothing.
How did I fail the promise of a less racist world? How did I fail Buddy? Ralph Waldo Emerson stated, “People only see what they are prepared to see.” But what happens when you mostly see things from behind the hedgerows of cultural complacency? Emerson was an anti-slavery advocate; nevertheless, he expressed opinions that were intrinsically racist. From the comforts of Walden Pond, it is easy to contemplate life when life is masked in the manipulated shadows of right and wrong.
What happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Memphis and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia are not arbitrary aberrations of a system gone rogue but the systematic degradation and destruction of lives of color. Buddy and I are second cousins. Our grandparents were siblings. But to the people in that deli and on the stoops of early 1970s Brooklyn, we shared no lineage. The ancestral blood that ran through our veins was different. That perceived difference means that the spilling of one’s blood versus another creates justification for Sheriff Bull Connor’s attack dogs or a knee that bends your life to someone else’s will.
Maybe there’s still time for me. Time to take to the streets… not to power walk, but to change the power dynamic putting black lives at risk. Time to stop talking back at those talking heads that dominate the airwaves, and start taking down the systems that stain the American fabric. Time to accept my silent, middle-class adherence to the status quo and then pursue a deeper, more consequential understanding what it’s really like to be treated as other. Time to move from contemplative rage to committed action.
Because as Dr. King said, “The ultimate measure of a person is not where one stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where one stands in times of challenge and controversy.”