Sensitivity Stretched in the Ghetto

I CAN see now that I spent a lot of wobbly time inadvertantly allowing a distance to open up between myself and black people in the United States. The enormity of the evidence of racial injustice in cities had a tendency to become a solid object for me, a huge, terrible thing that I hammered at with journalism without much awareness that I was losing touch with something profound.

Professionally, as a white man, I have written dozens of articles about people, black and white, working to heal the staggering problems of the inner cities.

Since my youth when I grew up with black kids in the 1950s and went to an integrated school in California, I felt in my heart that it was profoundly wrong to live as if white was good and black was wrong. No one taught me that, not my parents, teachers, or books. It was just there in me.

During the height of the civil rights movement, I reported from the middle of riots and burning cities. It was the horrible thrill of being at the front lines of a war. But the truth, is I could go home at night. My skin was white. I had a job, an education. I knew the political and social issues; I could write about the issues and track the changes. I built up a quiet outrage at the injustice of what I saw. But I went home at night.

And slowly, gradually, like doctrine erasing imagination, the humanity of black people was partially covered over by my attention to the problem of race as if it were a huge thing like a broken Hoover Dam or a riverless Grand Canyon. Fix it, was my attitude. Get the river flowing. Get this thing working again.

Then, on an inner-city street in Baltimore late one windy afternoon recently, I got down to bare dirt, which is to say I hit bottom and woke up.

In Baltimore's inner city there are many blocks of small row houses and small stores covered with iron bars. I know of no other word but "ghetto" to describe the conditions that prevail here; tiny, battered row houses where drugs, alcohol, unemployment, and teenage pregnancies are the norm. It is a different kind of war here now, and I'm not writing this to discuss blame or culpability.

What made me stop that day was a small parade through the streets with black children wearing what looked like homemade uniforms, girls twirling batons in red and gold, short, satiny dresses, or blue and yellow combinations. Most wore white boots with tassels and white cowboy hats; some carried flags and twirled them like pinwheels while they tried to stay in formation. And between the marching units, boys with dozens of gleaming drums pounded out explosive, percussive rhythms that seemed to quicken ever ything and lift the inner-city pall with such a grand, free sound that I suddenly became uneasy. The drums echoed up and down the streets.

There were no white faces here anywhere except mine and the photographer with me. Along the streets, hundreds of old and young watched the moving dancers; clusters of young girls and women with babies on their hips moved along the broken sidewalks with each marching unit, waving and shouting to friends and relatives.

The air lifted, literally lifted and became warmer. The wind picked up. Leaves swirled, and the light changed to deeper tones and greater shadowed contrasts. Amid the squalor, the joy was like a thousand voices, a festival celebrating a condition well beyond defiance where nothing can stop what people offer from their hearts.

I walked slowly, bumped through the crowd, aware of too much at once: the faces, the strange, sudden change in the air, the sharp drums, the packed-in sensation that here in these streets and squalid row houses were thousands of individual human beings living in the weeds and flies of a world no one would decree for anybody as the prevailing condition of life.

I turned away from the drums. Behind me, on a doorstep, a barefoot woman stood in an open door on the door step. She wore a pale green house dress, an old sweater with holes at the sleeves. At her feet on the steps two boys sat with thumbs in their mouths, faces blank. On the woman's hip was a half-naked baby. Behind the woman, through the open door, was a brown, suffocating room with a single lightbulb overhead. The room was a clutter of debris, cereal boxes, clothes, shoes, broken toys, ripped magazine s, and chunks of torn furniture. In the melee a small color TV babbled nonsense from a table next to dead plant.

The woman stared. She had a child's face, weary and a little stubborn. What I struggled with - eyes misting and throat lumping - was the severity of the human waste here, regardless of any sociological or political theory on welfare dependence or any other argument.

I admit to being overwhelmed with sorrow as I stood there, turning back to the drums just as a cluster of black kids broke into a kind of hip-hop dance, frenetic, amazingly agile and rough. The street seemed to explode with shouting and laughter.

How many years had I been writing about inner cities? How many years had it taken to get here and feel this about a silent woman and three little children, and find myself blowing my nose as a cover for the tears starting to burn my eyes? Please, I thought, don't anybody look at me on this drum-filled street of sorrow while I grapple with time, place, and the worth of a woman in a doorway.

Next to me a huge black man suddenly appeared, a grin the size of a pelican. He thrust out a big hand at me. "Hey," he said, "these kids - ain't they sumthin'?"

I fumbled in embarrassment, trying to get my right hand somewhere near his so we could shake hands. He continued to beam pelicans at me, not a trace of recognition that he was looking at a watery-eyed white man close to being out of control. We shook hands. I was unable to speak. He moved away, following the parade.

I backed away, gaining control by shaming myself with demands that I be mature and get hold of myself. I walked up the sidewalk, breathing deeply, promising nothing to the future, but knowing I was a little clearer about things overlooked.

I had visited bare dirt, and there was need to open up and not hide. Don't hide, I mumbled, blowing my nose.

Behind me, I can still hear the drums.

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