Because of That One Black Kid

by Jeremy O'Bryan

Sen. Barack Obama made yesterday an historic speech on race in America. Reading the speech, I got the feeling that no one else gets it — that Sen. Obama is the only presidential candidate that fully grasps not only the race issue, but the plight of Americans of every color.

I grew up on Chicago’s South Side — a racially divided sprawl of stick-and-brick homes that swell out from the city’s dowtown. It was not uncommon to hear “the N word” tossed around, usually preceded by “the F word.” The high school I attended was about 55 percent Black, but was nestled in a completely white neighborhood. I walked to school, as did most of my white friends. All the Black kids took the city bus.

My high school had several entrances, outside which students congregated to await the signals that marked our movements to and from our classes. There were “white doors” for white kids and “Black doors” for Black kids. It wasn’t official or anything, it was just that way.

I was always stressed out about running late for school, because my house, while seven blocks to the north, was closest to the side of the school where the Black kids waited. Furthermore, my locker was on that side of the school too, making it almost embarrassing to justify walking the length of the school on the outside, then the length of the school again on the inside, just to avoid the tense moments standing among a group of people whom I didn’t understand. Funny though, no one would have bothered to ask why I was late to class, having spent several minutes navigating the halls in just such a way as to avoid the “Black doors.” Students, teachers, and administrators alike just knew. And we’re talking about 1983.

The neighborhoods of the city then were as segregated as they could benot unlke the difference between white and black paint on adjacent walls. This patchwork was laid across the whole city, with a few exceptions, by fear, dread, ignorance, and misunderstanding. It was perceived as dangerous for a white person to be on the street in a Black neighborhood. It was dangerous for a Black person to be on the street in a white neighborhood. (I was there, so I know.)

Once, I worked with a Black kid at a job I had parking cars for the Grand Opening of a high-end gardening shop on the North Side. The kid was my age, probably 16 or 17 at the time. Being outside our respective neighborhoods, we were able to connect a little bit. We joked together with our co-workers, dreamed about all the cars we were hired to park being like the cars we’d drive one day. We left work and I gave him a ride home so that he wouldn’t have to take the bus.

I drove toward where he lived, zig-zagging late at night through the streets of the vibrant city. He bought a couple of beers with a fake ID, then pulled out a small manila envelope with some weed in it. We made our way to his house, getting high and joking, listening alternately to album rock and a soul and funk station he liked. We parked at the curb and he went inside to get his sister off the couch to come see his new “white friend.” The three of us sat in my dad’s car talking and laughing, the color of our skin barely evident in the glow of the FM radio, until the sky began to lighten, marking the sun’s rise. We traded phone numbers and went our separate ways.

I regret that our paths never again crossed. I know that to his day we would be great friends. His family and my family would visit. We’d travel if we had to, just to hang out together. That’s what this brief single-serving friendship felt like. But the climate in our city seemed to make it quite uncomfortable for Black people and white people to spend leisure time together, to laugh together or whatever.

Sen. Obama’s recent speech has touched a deep chord in my life. I’ll support him in his bid to be my president. Probably because of that one Black kid, whose name I can’t even recall, who accepted me in spite of the color of my skin, and who made it OK to think differently. 

We never spoke again. But for the next couple of years I spent in high school, I could, from time-to-time, be found milling around outside the “Black doors,” waiting nervously for the bell to ring, nodding to kids I recognized from class, sometimes even speaking to them, and wishing it didn’t have to be that way.