Ichabod's Kin
A place for politics, pop culture, and social issues

I REMEMBER BALTIMORE

          I’m a long way and many years from an incident in that fair city, if so it may be called.

          In the 1960s, I had declined nomination as president of a Pennsylvania branch of the NAACP because I felt African Americans should hold its top post. While a person of “color,” I was keenly aware of the historic origins of the NAACP.

          Apparently, Rachel Dolezal, recently-resigned from the Spokane, WA branch, fancies herself black, “trans-racial” or whatever depending on the day and the opportunities at hand. My experience had its own unintended consequences and on occasion I was accosted, with curiosity but never in a threatening way, by black members who honestly wanted to know whether I were black or white. My answer: not black—Mexican father, and Caucasian mother of the fairest skin.

In those days, typical official forms had no room for nuance; you were white or black or Other. As they used to say in my native South, “one drop” of black blood made you, well, black, regardless of appearance. There was no “Mexican-American” box to check, and at best one might squeeze those words into the small remaining space.

          This was of no matter to my black colleagues. NAACP policy is that anyone can be a member and a leader, as we all know now by recent news reports. I did accept the role of vice-prez and Housing chair and successfully stopped summary evictions of blacks and Hispanics from public housing, often enforced just before Christmas.

          I doubt that Dolezal fooled anyone except maybe white folks—although no few black analysts and celebs have piled on since her out-ing in the press, due to her appropriation of a race that was not hers. All agree that she was an effective leader, which would have been enough; that and a timely admission-plus-apology would have shortened the news story considerably.

          In the NAACP, it’s what you do. The evictions mentioned were curtailed after my highly-publicized Report to the local Human Relations Commission that opened the eyes of the city, regardless of my “race.” I could have been tangerine or polka-dot.

          Then there was Baltimore: after King, Jr.’s assassination, and cities nationwide in turmoil and riots, four of us, three young black men and I, late at night and in my car, headed for Atlanta to represent our branch at the funeral. Another drove while I cat-napped till a wrong turn took us off the interstate and right into Baltimore, which was under curfew. I re-took the wheel but all up-ramps were blocked, and the broad avenues seemed to be one-way, leading us everywhere but back to the highway.

          Soon we were surrounded by the city’s Finest and I was hauled from the car and slammed into it face forward while ordered to repeat endlessly who we were and what we were up to.

          I spoke softly and respectfully as license and registration were checked. Not a word was said to my black colleagues, who were left in the car throughout. Clearly, the cops didn’t know what to make of my name or race, and I decided to leave that confusion to them. When police radio indicated potential threat elsewhere, I was pushed back behind the wheel while directions too rapid and muddled to understand were barked at me, with proviso that if caught again, things would be worse.

          We continued hopelessly lost, knowing that, having provided no excuse to deal harshly with us the first time, a future lack of excuse was in place by not being given escort out of the city.

          We aped past foot-police but armed and accompanied by dogs at every corner, till the interstate appeared but, again, the up-ramp was blocked. We held our seats and raced wrong-way up the ramp—only to be met by a National Guard convoy coming right at us. I had to move over to avoid collision, right-side tires biting into dirt and gravel, and past sleepy-faced Guardsmen deployed in mid of night—seemingly all in an instant.

          Back on the highway, but going south on north-bound lanes and fearful of encountering state troopers, we bounced and flew over a shallower section of median and into the southbound lanes. After long silence, my comrades asked where I learned how to “speak soft” to the fuzz, followed by their howling laughter.

          That was not the only close-call of our trip, but not till recent years have I reflected on what happened. Though not African American, as a southerner I knew well that regarding race relations in that day and time, “it was what it was,” and we were glad just to be safe and alive.

          Though to my colleagues I was thereafter “soul-brother,” I thought nothing of it, never used it in regard to myself, and soon all of us were back to serving “the cause.” Ms. Dolezal felt there was need for pretense. But just to do the right thing is enough.


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2 Responses to “I REMEMBER BALTIMORE”

  1. That seems a good way to look at the Dolezal saga– she was doing the right thing in a wrong way.

  2. Found your piece to be very amusing. You even had me going for a minute or so…..really, we’re in an age where we almost ARE who we say we are. I have a dear friend whose Mom was brown and her daddy was white and she had to “decide” to be black as she looks totally white. You, as a Latino (half, that is to say) can be either. Pola, my half Latina daughter has always refused the Latin side and has chosen to be Swedish. My grand-daughter Ava,
    has a Latin temperament and loves to think of herself as one. She also dances a great Tango.


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