Robert Wallace: When we talk about race

October 1, 2013 

This happened when I was a very young man, at least 35 years ago now. It was a crisp autumn day; one could feel winter coming on. In Michigan, winter always feels just around the corner.

My friend was driving; his VW Beetle caromed down the road, the engine winding through the gears in its familiar loud clickety-clack rhythm. In Kalamazoo, Douglas Street contained a mixture of two-story, working-class bungalows and student housing.

I do not remember where we were going, my friend and I, but I remember feeling a little sleepy. Perhaps I had stayed up late the night before, studying. We could have been going to get something to eat. I turned on the radio, and the Doobie Brothers banged out their funky sound out of WLS in Chicago.

A black man was walking on the sidewalk. And suddenly – without warning, without provocation, without so much as a leading sentence or cough, a preface – my friend said the N word.

It shocked me.

He had never used that word before, at least in my presence. I looked at him. I looked at the man. I looked at the both of them again. I watched as we drove by the man. Had he heard? The windows were down but the epithet wasn’t said loudly. There comes a time, when one is moving into adulthood, when a young person has to decide the kinds of friends they want to have. There, too, are moments in all our lives when hatred and ignorance have to be challenged. For it is the little moments, the little stands, that can prevent ignorance from becoming institutionalized.

“I can’t believe you said that,” I said.

He laughed. I have to admit I wanted to slap him.

“Why did you say that?”

He said nothing.

“What did that person do to you? You don’t even know him.”

Stories shape everything we are, everything we have become. We all of us have led dramatic lives; sometimes it is simply a matter of taking the time to find them. I remember a lot of my life: the good, the bad, some of it so intensely sad that I lose track. I’ve put some of them in these pages.

Who knows where any of it starts? Hatred. There are beliefs. There are religions. There are theories. Parents. The mysteries of environment, genetics, the foibles and miracles of the brain. Some of life can’t be told, but most of it can. Stories help humans make sense of the world and, I believe, are as vital as food and love. In fact, I would go so far as to say that stories humanize us. Legend has it that no less a story teller than Mr. Rogers carried a quote in his pocket that he learned from a social worker: “Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.”

I don’t know where bigotry comes from. Ignorance seems almost too pat an answer. It simplifies it in a way that almost seems to excuse it. Although certainly knowledge is part of the solution, but how do you explain differences in thinking with different members of the same family? I don’t know how to explain hate simply because someone looks, talks, or acts differently from another. Hate on such a systematic level is incomprehensible.

I live in Durham, my chosen city, for the very fact that I don’t look like everyone around me. I live in Durham because of its diversity. The plant world is diverse, the animal world is diverse, so, too, the human world. Diversity sustains life; it makes it more interesting.

As we puttered down the street, the VW Beetle chugging like any moment it would stumble and stall out, I told my childhood friend, “I don’t feel the way you do.” As I looked at him and as he continued to laugh, I knew my friendship with him was ending. In many ways, I wished I would have said more, but at the age of 22, at that time, at that place, I did what I could. “I do not feel the way you do,” I said again.

The words on the page must be filled by many voices and told by all. If I could write the diary of Durham, of the world, I would say this: Dear World, Be generous with your life. I hear the voices of all of you. My heart leaps at the sound of your voice. I do not turn away from it. I turn and look at your face. I search for radiance, intelligence, trust. We are different. We are the same.

Robert Wallace, author of "Home of the Brave: Somewhere in the Sand,” published by Press 53, can be reached at

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