Until recently, I had never thought deeply how radical my parents were when I was a child. I’m not sure they realized it at the time.
In 1972, when I was 5, they put me on a big yellow school bus whose primary route wound through Gordon Heights, in Suffolk County, a nearly all-Black neighborhood that was developed by Louis Fife in the 1920s. I was one of a handful of white children on the route. Two years later, my younger brother joined me on the bus.
Growing up in the tiny country hamlet of Yaphank, a nearly all-white community, I had no notion of the frighteningly seismic socio-political events that were breaking out across the country at the time, including an anti-desegregation movement that swept the nation, roiling cities from Boston to Los Angeles and too many points in between, including the Village of Malverne.
“This place was a virtual war zone in the late 1960s and early ’70s, where you had people standing in picket lines ready to kill each other over issues of integration,” then Malverne Schools Superintendent James Hunderfund told the Herald in 2019. “There was a sense of separatism, and that was prevalent in other places, but it was rampant here.”
In Boston alone, 40 anti-desegregation riots and protests broke out between 1974, the year I turned 7, and 1988, when I was a junior and senior in college. Much of the sound and fury was stirred by a group called Restore Our Alienated Rights, or ROAR, led by its chair, Louise Day Hicks, who claimed she was defending white neighborhoods by pushing back against court-ordered desegregation school busing plans.
Yet my parents put me on that bus, appearing unworried, as if there were nothing out of the ordinary in this seemingly simple act of parenthood. All these years later, I’m happy and proud they did. It is why, in large part, I grew up to be an antiracist, one who works to eliminate racism in American society through words and actions.
I came to this realization when I recently read Ibram X. Kendi’s immeasurably hopeful book, “How to Be an Antiracist” (One World, 2019). In this compact 238-page text, which is one part instruction manual on how to live a life free of racial prejudice and one part personal remembrance and reflection, Kendi, 38, a journalist and university professor, dissects, point by point, the many and varied forms of bigotry while laying out his vision for a socially just society in which all people, regardless of skin color, can achieve equality and happiness.
“If we ignore the odds and fight to create an antiracist world, then we give humanity a chance to one day survive, a chance to live in communion, a chance to be forever free,” Kendi writes.
It isn’t surprising that my parents put me on that bus. My father, the son of Christian missionaries, grew up in Africa, in the Congo. One of only a handful of white children in his village — the others were his siblings — he spoke Lunda, a Bantu language, before English. He was steeped in African art and culture and mysticism. As an adult, he was a music teacher and visual artist, and African sounds and design concepts played a central role in his work throughout his life. He spoke of Africa only in the fondest terms, regaling family and friends with often humorous stories of life in the jungle.
My maternal grandfather was a dry-cleaner who set up shop in a Black neighborhood in Bellport, also in Suffolk, and I spent many afternoons behind his counter, playing hide-and-seek with my brother between the clothes racks. Grandpa, whose parents emigrated from Italy, greeted customers as though they were old friends, no matter their color.
Kendi grew up in Queens, and he reserves some of his best writing for the chapters describing his childhood. You can see and feel the streets he describes with a certain melodic beat, like a rap.
“We certainly weren’t imitating anything on the Ave — to the contrary,” he writes. “The wider culture was avidly imitating and appropriating from us; our music and fashion and language were transforming the so-called mainstream . . . Fresh baggy jeans sagging down. Fresh button-down shirts or designer sweatshirts in the winter under our bubble coats. Fresh T’s or sports jerseys in the summer above our baggy jean shorts. Dangling chains shining like our smiles. Piercings and tattoos and bold colors told the mainstream world just how little we wanted to imitate them.”
In this beautiful book, we see a Black child come of age in a nation that is perpetually seeking to define him, cordon him off, suppress him, but we also see this child grow into a man who overcomes the odds, and who confronts not only the racism that is pervasive throughout our society, but within him — yes, he admits, a Black person can be a racist.
Only by confronting racism in all its forms can we find peace. “How to Be an Antiracist” does just that.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.