He was a black man living as a white man. “Passing for white,” as he called it. And he wanted me to tell his story.
While I was a young reporter in Kentucky, I received a call out of the blue one day at the newsroom. The man introduced himself as Earl and told me his story. For decades he had lived as a white man, he said. Now, he wanted to tell the truth. “You write a beautiful story, young lady, and I want you to tell mine,” he said.
I was leery. Not to tell his story, but because I had recently experienced a situation where I had been misled and put into danger as a result. I had been working on a local-angle article about Martin Luther King and had asked the community if they had stories they would like to share about Dr. King. Had anyone, by chance, even participated in the March on Washington?
I had someone call me and tell me they would like to speak with me for the article and gave me their address. I went to the home only to realize someone was playing a practical joke on the man living there. Just let me say, he never would have participated in the March on Washington. Quite the contrary. Before I realized this, I had stepped into his home, the door closed behind me. As he raged at me, I saw a pistol lying on a table clearly within view. I was taking no chances. Quick on my feet, I also noticed he was a ham radio enthusiast. I began to focus on that, saying I had always wanted to write an article about ham radios (not true). He quieted down and began telling me all about his hobby. I got out of there unscathed but trembling as a I drove back to the newsroom.
Racism is an ugly, ugly thing.
So, when Earl told me about his story, I was hesitant. I didn’t want to get played again. He said he had a sister who lived as an African-American up north and that I was free to reach out to her. I did. She verified his story. She seemed protective of him, but also a bit sad.
I wanted to write the article. But I was days away from getting married to my now-husband and moving to Maryland to start the next chapter of my life. I felt I wouldn’t have the time and focus it needed. And Earl wasn’t interested in talking to any of the other reporters. Also, as a young woman at the time, I was overwhelmed by the responsibility of such an article. It meant so much to Earl.
I have regretted it ever since. And I never forgot Earl. As the decades have gone by I have grown in my respect and admiration of him. I am also sad, much like his sister sounded on the phone, when I think about the choices he had to make in order to aspire to a better life in a society where the rules were unfairly set by those of a paler pigment.
Yet, as an old man Earl could not deny who he was. In asking me to write his story, to reveal himself as it were to his community, he had a burning desire to stand up and say, “I am a black man and my life matters.” Sound familiar? Those words continue to echo today as we see people protest and react to the senseless murder of individuals like George Floyd and the way too many that have come before him.
Earl was forced to make an unimaginable choice. But, as we see black men dying left and right, who of us could blame him?
Lisa Gregory writes from Taneytown.