Family Magic

September 29, 2009

“Danny Wetmore?” Vontrelle leaned over me, her eyes wide open, intent; she had stopped laughing, smiling, and was about two feet away from my face as I lay on the grass. “Yes?” “Are you white? or are you black?” She was confused and earnest. “What do you think?” I answered, feeling strangely and suddenly blessed by the question and equally earnest and alert. “Well, you look white, but Daddy, he says that black is family and you seem like family. So, I don’t know.”

Roy, her daddy, had been my best friend in sixth grade. He was one of the only black  kids who went to my elementary school. He lived just across the railroad tracks that passed along the back of our backyard, by our vegetable garden. I knew he was black and that I was white, but that didn’t matter, or come between us; I just liked him, liked playing with him and talking, and racing him up and down his street. Our friendship was a bit of a scandal, I guess, but I didn’t know about that at the time. Our white neighbors didn’t approve of Roy visiting my house or yard, but Mom held her ground and encouraged us. Her big fear of moving south to Virginia from Connecticut was that her children might become racist.

Actually it did matter, that he was black and my friend, because I got to go where other white kids were afraid to go. I hung out with him in his backyard on the weekends and would watch Roy, Sr. boil up great vats of blue crabs. My father was a ship captain, a Coast Guard officer, but he never went crabbing. And I got to walk to school through Roy’s neighborhood. My white friends had to walk the long way, to the end of our street and then along the highway as it arced around what we rudely called “colored town.” But I could run out my back door, cross the tracks, pick up Roy and walk directly to school, along a road that was more interesting than the ones in my neighborhood, with different kinds of houses, some small and a little tattered, some made of brick, with cars out on the broken asphalt up on cinder blocks in mid-repair by the owner, some yards without grass, some yards with chickens wandering around, and then, when the road ended, the footpath. Narrow and worn, it followed a brook that wound its way finally to the steep graveyard behind the black Baptist church. We would ford the stream and then pick our way up through the damp and shaded tombstones, and find ourselves facing the school, just across the street, way ahead of my white friends.

It was a great year, 1969, but it ended in July when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and the Wetmore family bundled into our station wagon for a six year stint in New York City where my father had been transferred. I lost touch with Roy and my thick southern accent but was glad to be challenged by the robust and sometimes rough racial diversity in NYC’s public schools. I was no longer the magical white boy who could walk unscathed through colored town; I became just another mark for the Puerto Rican kids bent on other people’s lunch money.

I did travel to Virginia, after high school, but my white friends told me to steer clear of Roy, that he wouldn’t want to see me. “He’s changed,” they said. “He’s angry.” Sadly, stupidly, I took their advice, not wanting anything but a happy reunion, leaving to my imagination the myriad things that might have made Roy angry, or resentful, towards whites. Easy to imagine, difficult to face.

And that was it, until four years later when I found myself again in Portsmouth, and did find Roy and the reunion was strained, not joyous. While I had been in college he had been working as a rigger at a shipyard, raising his beautiful daughter Vontrelle, and recovering from a serious injury. His life seemed hard, constrained, painful. Could I relate? Me, the perpetual seeker, pilgrim, the magical boy who had managed to extend his precious idealism and adolescence through four years of college.

That was the summer of 1979, thirty years ago, and I hardly ever think of Roy now, but I did last November, on election day. All I could think about was Roy and our friendship and what Obama’s election might mean to him, if anything. And now, I wonder, what must he think, and what does Vontrelle think, she must be in her thirties, about the racist backlash that is spreading among vulnerable and confused white folks who have seen their racial world order turned on end?

It was a shining moment that day in Roy’s old front yard when I played with four-year old Vontrelle and confused her about my color. And we were just feet away from the road where Roy and I used to race each other after school. We were both magical then and neither black nor white.

These days our society is facing a less blessed confusion, the anxiety and disarray of a vocal minority of white folks who are frightened. Can they pull it together?  Can we all pull it together? Find some transcendence in this moment, engage in  some magical thinking, look each other in the eye, and enlarge our understanding of the simple word, family? “You seem like family,” Vontrelle said. Is it possible for us all to treat each other more like family? One race? One nation? One world.


white on blue

May 27, 2009

white flowers

Waterbury, VT May 2009