What My Son Taught Me

Lessons learned from being a white man raising a black child in a color-struck world.

Family photo

What's that conversation every father dreads as your son approaches those dangerous teenage years? Sex? No. How to deal with the cops. I've never been pulled over while driving in a ''nice'' neighborhood; my son was stopped a block from our apartment in Manhattan and asked by the patrolman what he was doing in ''this neighborhood.'' I feared for my son's safety, not in the depth of the hood, but on the ritzier streets of the Big Apple.

As a white man with a foot, maybe a toe, in a black world I began listening with a third ear once my son Drew was born 38 years ago. Those insidious racial asides that somehow I never heard before now resonated.

On the night we met, at a convention in New Orleans, my future wife and I were walking down the street and a local redneck, pretty drunk, started baiting me with racial slurs. I beckoned him closer, started measuring the distance between my toe and his testicles as two very large members of the New Orleans constabulary grabbed him and tossed him into a squad car. As I shared with our son years later, turn the other cheek, up to a point. Sometimes you just gotta teach a lesson.

Forty years ago, when Joan and I married, I crossed an invisible barrier, from that white world where you occasionally have a black co-worker to a world of people of color.

My late wife was one of a handful of black women at an elite Eastern university. She had studied Latin and Greek at wonderful public high school, yet she had to face ignorance term after term. Her saber-like tongue may not have been appreciated by her classmates, but she firmly believed stupidity had to be challenged, a lesson my son Drew learned all too well.

As a black, male athlete, my son often encountered classmates who assumed that he was only in college due to a sports scholarship, and, if he was from Manhattan, that meant Harlem. In the tradition of his mother, he enjoys skewing the fool. Recently, he proudly attended his wife's induction ceremony into Phi Beta Kappa. A college official asked who he was, Drew pointed to his wife, Sommer, and said, ''I'm the husband of your valedictorian.'' The official blurted, ''Oh, I thought you'd be white.'' (His wife is black.) Drew shot back, ''Does that mean you're not going to induct her?'' He's got a sadistic streak. He enjoyed watching her stutter.

Years ago, while we were vacationing at a motel on the west coast of Florida, my 4-year-old son raced into the pool, the only black/biracial person playing in the water. I noticed white mothers pulling their little darling daughters out of the water. I felt like asking for everyone's attention and assuring them all that my son was not interested in having sex with their daughters (well at least not for a decade or so).

At his mother's knee, Drew learned about his ancestors' lives in South Carolina, about the bigotry they faced on a daily basis and the successes they achieved. From his 101-year-old grandmother, a college graduate, he learned why she would never ever return to the South. And at my family reunions, he learned about our cousins who did not flee Germany and instead died in the Holocaust.

While my son straddled both worlds, I found that, by marrying my wife and fathering my son, I'd gained admittance into another world, a world I never knew existed.

I remember walking down the street years ago with my wife. Whenever we passed a black person, they'd invariably nod and greet us. I remember asking Joan,  ''Do all black people know each other?'' ''No,'' she replied, ''we just have manners.''