Monday, February 27, 2012

white boy in harlem

here's a quick bit from a reflection paper due today in my class on multicultural foundations for helping and healing professions, triggered by a classmate's story from last week's meeting:

I grew up a couple hours north of New York City and for me and my friends there was nothing to going to The City for a day to wander and see shows and experience something outside the norm. But even we shied away from Harlem. The stories about what happened to white kids in Harlem, while we scoffed at them, still kept us from seeing what the place was like. When I was a junior our school sponsored a bus trip for a couple Broadway shows. The bus I rode on broke down in—you guessed it—Harlem. The driver radioed for another bus and we huddled inside while a crowd, looking curious, gathered around the bus. Even Chris, one of the few black students at our school, said he wasn’t going out in Harlem. Finally, Klaus, our typing teacher, bless him, said, “Why are you hiding? Get the hell out of the bus” and pushed us out to talk and mingle with people. We were surrounded by men and women who asked if we were all right, where we were from, where we were going, clucked appreciatively when we said our bus had broken down, and offered to snap photos of us together, give our driver directions to avoid the busier streets, told us stories about where we were (our bus had broken down just a block from the Apollo Theatre and that was the first time I’d heard it spoken of as a place that still existed—I suppose until this time I’d thought of it as a place that had closed down long before), and just generally helped us pass the time until our replacement bus arrived. We piled on, waved goodbye, they waved goodbye, and it instilled in me a love and fascination with Harlem. I began to see a complexity to ideas about it, where for many the place evokes danger and the ghetto but for many others it suggests hope and community. I understand Bill Clinton’s decision to have his New York office in Harlem—Clinton, justly or unjustly celebrated by Toni Morrison as our first black President, recognizes the optimism and future suggested by the best of Harlem. I suspect he feels at home there, enveloped by a community whose language he speaks and whose concerns he shares. At the same time, I recognize his and my privilege in being able, as white men, to feel safer in Harlem than many black men or women feel in, say, rural Bemidji or parts of Duluth. Perhaps because of the persistent media stereotypes about black men, most black men have a stake in proving them false, and Clinton and I can count on that, while the same may not be true for rural Minnesotans (although it also may; I know when I traveled in the Deep South I came across a lot of people, white and black, especially in Birmingham, who went to pains to disprove what had been said about them).

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