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.''
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!
We are hundreds of years removed from the Dark Passage, we are 50 states, yet we are a people divided, by race and geography, by religion and by politics. Many are comfortable in their enclave, fearing the wider world. Some can navigate across the states and among the races and classes, they are the true Americans, and, hopefully the role models for us all. We are not a melting pot, but the ''tanning'' of America may make us into a better nation.
Pigs' Feet Recipe
2-3 pigs' feet cut in half lengthwise (rinse thoroughly if salted)
Diced small onion
3-4 dried hot peppers
1/2 cup or so vinegar
1. Stand the pigs' feet in a slow cooker. Add all other ingredients. Cover, on high 4 hours, low for 8 hours.
2. Drain into a bowl through a strainer. Let cool. Pick out the hundred or so little bones and discard.
3. Cool in refrigerator. Skim off the coagulated fat.
4. Reheat and enjoy … with a dash of vinegar and liberal spurts of Frank's Hot Sauce.
Peter Goodman has taught in a Brooklyn high school, served on his union's executive board and taught education at the New School University. He now works as consultant in the design and support of new high schools and writes a blog, Ed in the Apple: The Intersection of Education and Politics.