What My Son Taught Me

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

Family photo
Family photo

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.”

Invited to a casserole dinner I dragged out the slow cooker and made a batch of pigs’ feet (recipe follows). The table was filled with tasty tidbits, ham, ribs, baked macaroni, greens, black-eyed peas, cornbread–and my pigs’ feet. Our host had the crowd vote to pick the best dish, and, yes, my pigs’ feet won. When Joyce asked who cooked them, the only white guy in the room sheepishly raised his hand. High-fives all around, bear hugs; I was the first ”guy” to win the prestigious ”best casserole” accolade.

Perhaps, unconsciously, we passed along that same cultural fluidity to my son, who is now a school assistant principal, married with a family of his own. One day, the chef at Charlie Trotter in Chicago invites Drew into the kitchen to give him a tour and answer his technical food preparation questions, and, a few days later he’s trash talking on a schoolyard basketball court.

Needless to say, I am very proud of him. I was a high-school teacher who spent three-plus decades teaching and working for the teacher’s union. These days, as a consultant, I meet young, white teachers, spending a few years teaching in the ”ghetto.” The ”ghetto” teaching creds look good on a résumé and, oh, those stories to recount at suburban cocktail parties. They ”friend” their students on Facebook, ”high-five,” and try to become ”buddies” with their students. When I remind them that their job is bring kids up to and beyond academic standards, they sigh, tell me they’re building self-esteem. I tell them self-esteem will come when these inner city kids beat out their kids on the LSAT!