I know it sounds racist, but I like black people. I have always had an easy rapport with black folks, especially with black women. I have never met a black woman whom I did not like. And black women like me, the whitest white guy ever.
Not that I knew any black people growing up. As a young kid I lived one block west of North Saginaw Street in Flint. Saginaw was at that time the dividing line between black and white in highly segregated Flint: east of that street was black, west was white. The closest I ever got to black people was driving through their neighborhoods. A single vivid image, from when I was maybe five, remains embedded in my memory: driving by a crowd of black children playing in a circle. There, in the middle of this segregated world, was a little white girl, dancing with the others. This, in maybe 1958.
Later we moved to a small town that was in the early stages of suburbanization. The schools were all white until my junior year of high school, when a black family miscalculated, thinking they were buying a home in the neighboring, integrated town. Instead they were on the wrong side of the district dividing line, and their children went to our schools.
They must have been terrified the first day of school, but they were very popular; sort of the novelty kids. Our town may have been racist in the general unreflected way that was America at that time, but there was room for two middle class black kids, who after all could not have been a threat even if they were so inclined.
And then I went off to college, a white kid from an all but white town, and I was assigned to three, count ’em, three, black suite mates.
There was my roommate, Rodney, who was president of the Black Student Union and a fellow revolutionary. He was serious and studious. I never saw him partying and I never saw him with a girl.
One of the guys in the other room was a jock, a little guy who nevertheless was an excellent basketball player. I often saw him partying and he was quite the lady’s man.
Then there was Reggie.
Reggie was more a street tough than the other two, who were serious students. Reggie liked to smoke pot and he liked to listen to music. I think we were curious about one another, and we spent a lot of time getting high and sharing music. I introduced him to my music, to the Airplane, early Pink Floyd, Hendrix, The Who, the Stones, and to other more obscure artists like the Millenium, Pearls Before Swine, Hearts and Flowers, to the wealth of what was a very creative time in music (we are talking 1971).
He, in return, showed me a whole world of great music of which I had been completely unaware: Sun Ra, Gil Scott Heron, the Last Poets, Marvin Gaye, Leon Thomas, Pharoah Sanders, Miles Davis, Les McCann, and more.
This was revelatory. A whole new world of music opened for me, and I have often offered thanks for what he shared.
Reggie and I both dropped out after freshman year; as far as I know the other two finished college, and I would be very surprised if Rodney is not very successful at whatever he put his mind to.
I did not stay in touch with any of them, however. But I still love all the new sounds Reggie introduced me to, and I am forever grateful; here is a sampling:
Art by Mati Klarwein