The date was July 28, 1970. It was a warm summer evening in Bellevue Square, an inner-city housing project in Hartford Ct. On this particular night my older brother and I had devised a new form of entertainment for ourselves to ease our boredom. We emptied the trash can and filled it with as much hot water as one seven-year old and twelve-year kid could carry. We had a hunch (or had we seen?) that there was a nest of rats living in a hole under a set of concrete steps leading to the street in front of our apartment. As my brother poured the water down the hole, I stood at a distance anticipating the soon to be evicted rodents. Sure enough, as the water poured in, the rats came pouring out as I did my best to bean em’ with the rocks I had gathered for the event, while my brother cheered me on as if we were playing a carnival game and time was about to expire. In retrospect our fun may seem cruel, but in that moment we were having fun ridding our street of what everyone considered a nuisance. But even while we stood there, in the excitement of the moment, something else was already encroaching on our fun.  There was an odd smell in the air, something unfamiliar, but I knew it wasn’t good. I could also hear crowd noise around the corner and a few blocks up the street. Then my mother called us into the house; “Why? Whats happening? Whats going on?” But I could tell by the urgency in her voice that now wasn’t the time to argue: something was wrong. When we were safe inside, I was told that the smell was Tear Gas and that there was a riot going on. In the distance I could hear gun fire in the streets. This was the first night of six days of race riots, and I went to bed to the sound of sirens ringing in the distance.

The next day I went out to go on my usual run to Jimmy’s Five & Dime for some candy. As I stood across the street from Jimmy’s, you can’t imagine my shock (think Charlton Heston at the end of the Planet of The Apes): Jimmy’s Five & Dime, a mainstay in the community, burned down to the ground with the ashes still smoldering. Confused and disoriented, I wondered who would do such a thing and why? “Is Jimmy okay? He wasn’t very nice but, what will he do now, since he’s old?” And then, to myself and out loud, “Where will I go to get my candy?” Six weeks later, I would be transported to a new world; bused to a new school in Suffield Ct., a White suburb of Hartford, where the kids lived in nice homes, went on ski trips for vacation, and played ice hockey instead of “Bean the Rat”. For better and for worse, and with much anxiety, my world changed over night, as did the town of Suffield.

For me, Suffield was a microcosm and symbol of the continued progress being made in race relations and integration in the rest of the country: Suffield U.S.A. As could be expected, some of us handled the transition better than others, and some received us better than others. I had positive interactions with whites on a personal level before. My brother had started attending school there several years earlier, and we had whites who had come to visit us in the projects, including a white college student named “Rusty” who was a part of one of those “Big Brother” programs created to help young inner city kids like myself, and I became his “Little Brother”, which seemed strange to me at first since to my thinking, I already had a big brother. Rusty was kind of a hippie, I guess. He wore suede leather pants and a jacket (like Daniel Boone) with matching sandals. His older sister was an elementary school teacher of mine, very conservative and strict, so that made him even more of a curiosity. Rusty seemed peculiar, but was kind, and I thought he was really cool, and he treated me with more respect than I was accustomed to from adults. We had fun together, and very quickly he became an important part of my story; my history, so I looked forward to my new adventure in the great white beyond.

Hangin’ out with a white “Big Brother” is easier than being accepted as a peer of the same age but different color. My first day of third grade was pretty scary, and I got into a fight with a classmate who called me the “N” word because I spoke up when he tried to cut in front of the other classmates in the lunch line (where does a third grader learn to call another kid that?). Though I had heard the word before, I didn’t like it, and had never been called one until then. I didn’t know what it meant but I knew it wasn’t good, so I punched him in the mouth.  I remember the fight, and the teacher pulling us off of each other. But over time, a truce was called. I remember the competition that was always beneath the surface of our play, but there was also a mutual respect, and growing friendship. I also remember the times  he stood up for me if anyone gave me a hard time. I also remember the time he invited me up to the head of the line to stand with him, and join him for lunch. I remember how we always made sure we were on the same team during recess, and how easy it was to laugh around him. I also remember us crying. Crying like babies as we embraced each other after learning that we might not see each other again because his father was transferring to another state for work. So we stood there like idiots, shedding tears, and holding on for dear life, and not caring who saw it. Our mutual respect was hard-won, and our friendship valued. My relationship with him and other whites in Suffield have shaped my life in significant ways, and I like to think that they were positively affected by what I added to theirs.

February is Black history month, and I recount these memories because I’m realizing more deeply that Black history is a shared story with all of America  because it is American history.  Not just in some abstract sense, but in a very real and embodied sense. It is a life lived, and a story shared with others, that is very rich and valuable. So, regardless of race or color, if you are American, Black history is also your history. For better or worse. Just as I did not live my life in a vacuüm, neither can you. Not anymore. For better and for worse, we have affected each other’s lives, and will continue to do so even more in the future. On a very micro level, what takes place in our families, relationships, and communities, is also reflected in our nation. How we interact with each other will not only touch our lives today, but will also reverberate through history in the lives and memories of our children, and their children will tell the tales of our experiences with those who were different from us. For better or for worse we are imprinting them with the blue print for tomorrow’s history, today. Indeed, Black history is my history, but it’s also yours. For better or for worse. 

Peace,

Ron

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