Classmate I Hardly Know You
At first, I knew David Robinson mostly from classes we had attended together. His father was Jackie Robinson, the first African American ballplayer in the Major Leagues, who wrote a wonderful autobiography I Never Had It Made. On a visit to see David, Mr. Robinson was scheduled to speak to the newly formed black students association. As a preteen, I had spent hours trading baseball cards with my friends and watching baseball games on television. Nevertheless, by the time I entered Mount Hermon, I had lost most of my interest in baseball.
I realized Mr. Robinson had come to address the black students, not only as a sports celebrity, but as a black adult who had negotiated his way through a formidably racist society.
After I had entered the room where Mr. Robinson was going to speak, I was asked to leave. I had not expected that. I believed I was being discriminated against because I was white. So, I sat outside in front of the closed door.
David came out to speak with me. I asked David why I couldn’t listen to his father. “We feel you wouldn’t understand,” he said. Making a case for myself, I rattled off socially and racially relevant questions for his father. They were good questions.
Perhaps I might have been slow to understand more than intellectually (I am more empathetic, now) but I was in a learning frame of mind. Had I’d been allowed to listen, how much I might have learned from my fellow students!
I agreed to stop sitting by the door to the room where Mr. Robinson would speak because David offered me a deal I could not refuse:
“[If you end your sit in], you can come to my room to talk with Dad by yourself.”
Later, I went to David’s room in Crossley. David introduced me to his Dad. I asked him a question very familiar to him: What had it been like to be the first African American player in the Majors? I asked him about NY Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s having dispatched him, the Governor’s Special Assistant on Urban Affairs, to Buffalo after the riots in the city. What had he done? Many of the questions I had were based on the class I had taken at Mount Hermon Summer School “Negro Leadership in America.”
Half the class in “Negro Leadership in America” had been white; half the class had been black. I was the only student who went to Mount Hermon during the regular school year. No one in class spoke about any lived experience during class, but, at the end of the summer, one black student from a southern state said to me he had never met a white person as unprejudiced as me. I believe that to have been true because of the reality of the South in those times. (Although people may like to think of themselves as unprejudiced, I have since learned everyone has biases ingrained in their subconsciousness including me.)
David and I came to know each other better during the summer after our senior year. We became counselors at a summer day camp Mount Hermon had just opened in Friendship Park in Springfield, Massachusetts. The campers lived at the Riverview public housing complex. The counselors had either just graduated from our prep school or were residents of the public housing. Class of ‘70 counselors were paired with counselors who lived in Riverview apartments, while the Mount Hermon counselors stayed with families from “the projects.” I shared a room with Athan Billias in an apartment Rae-Rae and her physically handicapped child rented.
As life often happens after graduation from a secondary school, David and I did not keep in touch.
I learned about the death of David’s older brother Jackie, Jr. through the mass media. His green Triumph convertible had crashed on I-95 near Stamford, Connecticut. An article I read in the Albany, NY Times Union included an account of the funeral. David had recited an original poem written to speed his brother to heaven. I remember three words:
“Fly! Fly! Fly!”
Looking back, I sorely regret never having taken the initiative to relay my condolences to David.
Through our alumni magazine, I have learned David became a social entrepreneur in Africa. He established an ocean fishing cooperative in Tanzania before becoming the owner of an inland coffee plantation he established himself.
I really wish I had been allowed to listen to Jackie Robinson and the questions and remarks of my fellow African American students. I love gaining insights into humanity. I wonder: Why are some people’s concepts of humanity so different? Is this not one world, and is there not just one brother-and-sisterhood of humankind? Our differences should be looked at as extremely interesting rather than off-putting or threatening. Yet, there is so much alienation in life.
WHO IS THE OTHER?
The black sheep estranged who had been the family lamb.
The stranger from an ocean we have not navigated,
I am curious: At what stage of life does a child learn prejudice and how?
Mustn’t there be a developmental stage for learning about humanness—one’s own or anyone else’s?
I’ve been taking lessons at my own pace, and
I suspect the learning will take me a lifetime.