The White Folks Came and Spoiled the Fun


Miami -- Our class reunion was going just fine until we got invaded by white folks.

The 1974 graduating class of John C. Fremont High had reassembled in a hotel meeting room in downtown Los Angeles and proceeded to, in the lexicon of our youth, tear the roof off the sucker. For those of you who didn't graduate from a school that was better than 99 percent black, that means we were having a helluva time.

And we were. Divorcee mothers became cheerleaders again, stomping and chanting in remembered exhortation -- their syncopated adrenalin raising echoes of athletic contests from long ago. Mortgage-holding fathers became football heroes again, standing to receive the gratitude of their peers for those times when they sucked up the pain and rose to carry the cardinal and gray to glory.

Best of all, we became friends again, bonding on a dance floor that bumped to the beat of ancient funk, and then retiring to our tables to laugh and talk about the things two decades had wrought: how the pretty girl had kept her figure, and did you hear what happened to Curtis, and has anyone kept in touch with the twins, Ronald and Donald . . . and isn't it amazing that the class dweeb (that would've been me) fooled around and married the fox from the drill team (that would've been Marilyn).

We were reunited and yes, it felt so good.

Then the white folks came and an early frost descended on the room.

They came in small numbers first, like scouts. One or two of them, refugees from another school's reunion across the hall, showed up on the dance floor complaining that their party was dead and ours was so "alive." Next thing we knew, they were coming in waves, crowding onto the dance floor to shake their rumps to our funk. One rhythm-impaired individual, in a pitiably transparent effort to fit in, began doing this spastic thing -- dancing like Michael Jackson as interpreted by Jerry Lewis.

My classmates and I were stunned, trading glances of open-mouthed stupefaction. I was only one of several to observe that had things been reversed, had a dozen of us crashed "their" party, they'd have grabbed wallets and pocketbooks and retreated to a safe corner while someone went and located security. One of my classmates declared her intention to toss them out on their butts; it took both me and Marilyn to talk her out of making an ugly scene.

But at the same time, we sure understood where she was coming from. This wasn't some knee-jerk response to the sight of white folks at a black party. One of my friends showed up married to a white guy. Nobody cared. Our class sponsor was a white former gym teacher. We embraced her with love. Personally, I'll party with anybody that wants to party with me.

That's not what this was about.

This was about arrogance, the arrogance of being white. Like the goofy neighbor on a TV sitcom, they strode through our door, into our house, as if they owned it, as if they couldn't even imagine that they might not be welcome there. And it was more than a breach of manners. It was an uncomfortable echo of all the things it means to be black.

Because being black means coming to grips with the fact that white people are always going to swagger imperiously through your life. That they will raid your storehouse of cultural treasures, taking your music, art, clothes, dance, speech, jokes, high signs, hair styles and catch phrases for themselves, and then tell you straight-faced that you are an outsider to the American mainstream. I think about that every time I see that beverage commercial where the goofy white guy says, "You go, girl" . . . think about it whenever white basketball fans salute each other with a high five, or a stadium full of football fans celebrates a spectacular play by chanting, "Whoot! There it is!"

Outside of those dangerous streets where blacks themselves fear to tread, there are few places in the black American experience that white people won't go with impunity. By contrast, when you're black you spend a good deal of time calculating where you can and cannot go and how you should behave when you get there: On the golf course, in the executive suite, at the car dealer or at the bank, you're seldom quite at ease, always on display, aware to the very knife's edge of paranoia that you are being watched and evaluated. In his "Letter From A Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King called it living at "tiptoe stance."

I thought of that as Marilyn and I made our way out into the early morning. Behind us, we left our classmates and some white folks still working it out on the dance floor -- one group puzzled and vaguely resentful but going with the flow, the other blissfully unaware of anything but the dance.

I couldn't get it out of my head, this realization that for them it was inconceivable that they might go some place and not be welcome there.

Man, what a feeling that must be.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald

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