Over 60: ‘Black Broadway’ provokes new thoughts on race
The only similarity we homo sapiens have in common is that we’re all human beings – period.
For me, it’s the differences among us that intrigue me.
About mid-February, a TV extravaganza was announced on PBS as a two-hour wonder of the year – called “Black Broadway.” I’d seen a lot of Black-related content already this month. Still, it seemed somehow unique, somehow appealing; I wanted to learn more.
It was the most entertaining two hours of exciting music and flair I’ve ever experienced on TV- snippets of what Broadway had to offer as a roster of new Black dancers, actors, singers (pop to classic) – you name it – but topping it all, most holding my interest was the LOOK of the show – the costumes, the hair-dos and make up – unique styles that in the wrong hands could have been stereotypical and garish, but no, right down to a prima donna in a voluminous gold formal gown with hair to match, all representing glamorous snippets from their Broadway roles.
Concisely as well, the audience had gone the extra mile to appear all out – proudly matching the stars in singular beauty – not a single Black actor, singer or dancer appeared stereotyped – all were selectively, singly, dazzling – and proud. I wanted to observe more!
It was spectacular, but it was much more for me. Having lived in Upper Michigan most of my life, I’d had limited knowledge of Black people except from the daily news and movies – and in two hours those stereotypical images dissolved, leaving me void of my misconceptions, confused.
That evening I ran the gamut of my life’s limited picture, going back decades to the startled sight on a train and seeing an employee working the aisles while I as a 5-year-old asking in a child’s loud, curious voice, “Mama, why is that man’s face so black?” My mother’s face reddened as she tried to shut me up, while passengers chuckled and, while the man in white jacket and black pants also attempted a polite chuckle. It was many years before I ever understood.
The next time, while living in Detroit with relatives during the fateful race riots did I experience a new, ugly insight from relatives who proudly taught their little boy a downright obscene poem about Black people to everyone’s delight.
I’d been working at a war factory while awaiting the impending draft – with a new insight: constant hostility between locally employed southern whites and anyone of color. Confused, I could not take part, yet oddly, I leaned in favor of the latter for the manner in which they were ritually silent.
It was not until I returned from the military and headed to Ann Arbor for a scholastic few years at the University of Michigan, to find that even a higher education did not prevent unpleasantries; white people ignoring Black people (who in turn refrained from even trying to blend socially with white counterparts). There, in Ann Arbor, I made my own foray into new territory by working at the university radio station alongside a Black woman from Detroit.
She fascinated me, but also puzzled me by unexpectedly responding now and then as no white teen might. We dated, I met her pre-teen son, and they’d socialize with me and close relatives from Battle Creek – a curious on-again, off-again situation until she abruptly ended it. I never saw her again until one summer day in Boston, where a most surprising experience occurred: I was buying shirts at Filene’s department store, gave them to the Black sales girl, and nearly fell back in surprise as she took the shirts with a huge smile.
Her smile broadened. “How about a hug?” she asked. We embraced, then noticed the line growing behind her. We agreed to meet later. We never did. Nor did we ever meet again.
And that’s the way my life with Black people continued to the present – ever expanding with cold items in the news to closer casual friendships when I became a professor at Michigan Tech – never much in depth, mainly, I reasoned, because of the obvious color difference and my lack of idea how to bridge the gap.
The difference climaxed for me one day, working in a campus darkroom with a Black student I knew. We were silently working back-to-back in that little room, as, in odd coincidence, a radio commentary on racial differences interrupted our individual work. When I turned to make some comment to the fellow, I was shocked. Silently, he was nodding his head.
Point: after a lifetime of similar, half-understood situations, one of the great puzzles remained as to attempt to fathom this thing – the unbreaking of barriers between Black and white. I had gradually fallen into typical superficial misconceptual knowledge until observing the recent Black TV show at which many hundreds of Black people let go, to be seen or experienced by whites as never before.
Now I’m dumbfounded. Which were the REAL conceptions? Obviously revealed in proud unique good taste on that impulsive evening? Stereotypes gone?
Finally, accidentally, impulsively, a new door opened to me. Now I hope to learn more.
Knowledge is wonderful.