Transcript

105:

Take A Negro Home
Transcript

Originally aired 06.12.1998

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

Here's an editorial from a newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi, The Clarion-Ledger, from October 6, 1957. "If you want an insight into how Negroes in Chicago are trying to establish social equality," it begins, "there are three paragraphs from an authentic report of a meeting of the Negro Improvement Society in that city." And then it quotes from the report.

"To those who failed to attend our recent quarterly meeting, I can say you missed a real treat. At the last minute, we were able to get Mayor Daley as speaker. He presented a very interesting talk. The highlight of it was a discussion of the forthcoming campaign 'Take a Negro Boy Home Tonight,' which all agreed was a fine step forward in human relations. It is to be inaugurated soon in the city's high schools.

Mayor Daley told us that he had been advised by an outstanding sociologist that the vicious hates and fears rooted in racial prejudice and fascist bigotry could best be combated by closer and more intimate relationships between Negro boys and white girls. Therefore this new campaign will encourage white high school girls to volunteer to take Negro boys to their homes for dinner and date them afterwards. These girls will get higher marks and other privileges for promoting interracial harmony. This will show the white parents that it's all right to have these associations.

Now we must all do our part. Make sure that Negro boys invited to the white folks' houses take a bath first and put on a white shirt. Then he will prove that he's a good companion for the white girls and socially acceptable. Please cooperate to make Mayor Daley's campaign a success."

And then after that, the editorial continues. "So that's the way they're trying to establish racial equality in Chicago, equality with miscegenation, mixed marriages, wholesale adultery, bastardy, and mongrelization. It is happening in Chicago. It will be tried in Mississippi if the NAACP ever gets a foot in the door."

Well, you know, the most interesting thing about this campaign, "Take a Negro Boy Home Tonight," is that it is complete fiction. No such campaign ever existed in Chicago. And if it did, you know, it's unimaginable to any real Chicagoan that the late Mayor Richard J. Daley would have endorsed it. These kinds of articles appeared in Southern newspapers at least as far back as the 1920s. Lies made up by segregationist forces to scare white people about this threat, racial integration.

And the lies worked for a while. And then integration came anyway. Which brings us to today's radio program. Today we bring you two stories of people who tried, in one way or another, to bring a Negro boy home for the night. Act One is a story about intermarriage. Act Two is a story about trying to take a kid out of the ghetto and put him into the Ivy League, and why that's so difficult. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. Interracial Marriage.

Julia

"October 30, 1966. Hello, home. Well, I went to have the tire patched--"

Ira Glass

This is a typical letter home from college. There's chitchat about a tire that needed to be fixed and senior class pictures, how much they should cost, and should she pay for better ones so her grandmother could have a better one? And then slowly, the woman writing this letter gets to the whole point of the letter.

Julia

"I went to a good play last night, Misalliance by George Bernard Shaw. A friend of mine was in it, but he wasn't any good. I went with Richard Robinson." Oh! "A track runner, singer, dancer, all-around good looker, religious, and liked by everyone. He's one of the nicest people I know. And he's Negro.

I had to tell you. I've never kept any secrets from you and this wasn't going to be one. I hope you're not angry. Even you would like him. No one minded. Bill Crowell was there and real nice to both of us. I don't know why there has to be a racial problem anyway. I had so much better time with him than I do with Bob or David [? Kiechle ?] or Bill Crowell or Roger Heckerman and he treated me like a queen. Sad, isn't it? Please don't think I'm being a rebel. I love you both very much and am proud to be close enough to my parents to tell them everything, whether or not I know they will disagree with me. I'm sure it makes us all better people. I love you, OK? Love, Julia.

Ira Glass

Well, the narrator of our first story is not actually this woman. It's her son named Rich Robinson, one of the three children she had with the Negro boy after she brought him home for the night and married him. She and her husband got together in that period in the '60s after the passage of the Voting Rights Act and before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And they lived the dream of interracial marriage for 12 years. And then, around the time that our nation started edging away from the goals and ideals of the Civil Rights Movement, they split up.

The woman, Julia, has remarried to a white guy named Jan. The man, Richard Sr., remarried to a black woman named Debbie. And each of them returned to their separate, segregated worlds, leaving the kids to figure out what to make of the whole experiment. To what degree did race push them apart, destroy their marriage? And for that matter, to what degree had race brought them together in the first place?

Well, a few months ago, their son, Rich Robinson, went to figure all this out. And they were subjects that he had never discussed, incredibly had never discussed, with either of his parents. Here's his story.

Rich Robinson

When I started working on this story, I didn't realize there was a question about my life-- my life today-- at the heart of it. Then one Sunday morning, I got into this discussion with my roommates. And the topic switched from my parents to mixed marriages in the '60s to me. I was saying that I date both white and black women. They were saying I was crazy.

Male Roommate

OK, Sam?

Rich Robinson

She was half.

Female Roommate

She was half Venezuelan. That's not--

Male Roommate

She was white. She was white all through--

Female Roommate

She was white.

Male Roommate

--and through, my friend.

Rich Robinson

They start listing all the women that they know I've dated, about seven of them. Sam was half Colombian, Julianna, who's Brazilian, Amanda--

Male Roommate

Amanda. Can you get any whiter? She's more white than the white people that I know. I don't know. Who else? Pam? Amy? Can't get any whiter than that. Julianna. OK, I'll give you a 10% darkness over there. Why are you so worried about this thing? Are you worried that you're going to end up marrying a white girl?

Rich Robinson

First of all, I'm never going to marry a white girl.

Female Roommate

Why?

Male Roommate

Why is that?

Rich Robinson

It's just a bad idea.

Male Roommate

Why?

Rich Robinson

Because they'll never understand.

I hadn't put a lot of thought behind my answer to their question. I just knew in my mind that I had an answer, though I had never said this out loud to anyone. I always just assumed I would never marry a white girl, that those relationships don't work out, probably because I watched my parents' interracial marriage end. I assumed that race had something to do with it, that my blond-haired, blue-eyed, Indiana farm girl mother and my black, Brooklyn-born father were doomed from the start, destined to end up in separate worlds.

Now that they're divorced, my parents' integration is completely undone, except for my sisters and me. Though, if you ask my white grandmother, my mother's mother, my sisters and I aren't proof of anything.

Grandma

I said you don't sound like a black person than you aren't black, because I'm white and you're my grandson.

Rich Robinson

So black people should sound a certain way?

Grandma

They do. I don't know why they should or not.

Rich Robinson

Do all white people sound alike?

Grandma

Well, they don't-- there's a few them that may sound a little black or a little like they're from the South, I should say. But I don't know. No no, no. Of course they don't all sound black. But you sure don't.

Rich Robinson

Well, what does black sound like?

Grandma

Well, I want to know why you didn't have many black friends in high school. I never saw you with a black person in high school. Are you about to tell me that you had some black friends in high school?

Rich Robinson

Would that make me black?

Grandma

Well, I just wonder. I'm just getting back at you. You're almost like you're accusing me.

Rich Robinson

So how do you see your grandkids racially, then?

Grandma

White. I really do.

Rich Robinson

Why is that?

Grandma

Because I'm white. I don't-- I can't help it. I just can't see you being black. I just can't. Really.

Rich Robinson

Is it embarrassing to think you have black grandchildren?

Grandma

Not to me, it isn't. I don't think I got any black grandchildren. Not at all.

Rich Robinson

So my grandmother has an issue with me being black, my parents have issues with each other, and I have issues with white girls. But that's today, when everything is already messed up. Let's go back to a simpler time, before it all began.

Both my parents went to Indiana University in the '60s. That's where they met. Mom had been valedictorian. She was in college on scholarship. She was going to be a foreign language major, and when she graduated, she was going to be a translator for the UN. Part of the plan was to go to Europe for a semester. When she came back, her roommate had been assigned to someone else, and she had gotten a new roommate, a black girl named Clara.

Julia

And that was my first experience of really mixing with the black kids, because Clara and I would go to lunch together, or meals together. And I would sit at a table with black kids. And so that was really kind of how it happened.

And then I started going to functions with Clara. Clara would go to the black fraternity and sorority parties and I would go. I don't know if I would have done that before I went to Europe. I think going to Europe had something to do with it just because it broadened my way of thinking, perhaps. If I hadn't gone to Europe and been assigned a black roommate, I don't think it would have happened.

Well, I used to go watch him practice track a lot, which was over here. You want to go over there? Because that was--

Rich Robinson

My mom and I drove around the Indiana University campus. She showed me where she and my dad met, where they lived, and where they went to parties and dances at my dad's black fraternity, Omega Psi Phi.

Julia

You know the other thing that was just kind of hard for me to get used to was that their parties never started until 10:00 at night. At least 10:00, maybe later. And we had dorm curfews then. And I was still a pretty good girl. I didn't stay out all night. So I had to stay out all night with him because I couldn't get back into the dorm. And that was an annoyance to me. I always thought, why can't they start the parties like normal white people do?

[LAUGHTER]

Julia

And this is the other thing. Everybody else would be gone on their dates already. And I would be the only person left in the dorm waiting for this black party to start! Me and the black girls left in the dorm. All the white girls are gone already.

Rich Robinson

My mom was so white to me at that moment. Growing up, I just thought of her as my mother. But as she told me this, she seemed like the whitest white person in the world. I asked my mom how she met my father. She said they met in a cafeteria. She said Clara and her were getting lunch.

Julia

I remember exactly how this happened. We were standing in line at the cafeteria, and Richard was so many people in front of us around the corner, like we could see him maybe 30 feet away. And I said, "Clare, I want you to introduce me to him. He is gorgeous." And he has something about his legs. Because he used to wear these faded, almost threadbare corduroys that fit him like a glove. And his muscles were so defined from track that his leg muscles would just bulge through these-- [GIGGLES]. And I wanted to meet him because of his legs. This is terrible. It was totally lust.

Rich Robinson

What attracted you to Mom?

Richard Robinson

I think it was the times that we were going through, in terms of Martin Luther King era, in regard to looking toward being open to any race and thinking things were going to change. And then everybody was going to be accepted as anyone else.

Rich Robinson

That's about as far as my father goes when he talks about dating my mom. He doesn't talk about her. He talks about the openness of the '60s and the attitude of the era, as if the '60s had been dating my mom instead of him. My mom also recalls being caught up in the times.

Julia

I remember very clearly believing that it was going to be a different world, and that-- you know, John F. Kennedy and then Martin Luther King-- that the world was going to change and that we wouldn't live in a racially divided country anymore. And so I had no doubt at that time that my kids would live in a totally different environment than I had grown up in, that there wouldn't be any racial prejudice when you guys were growing up.

Rich Robinson

Neither of my parents was an activist. They weren't trying to change the world. But clearly half the fun of finding each other was the thrill of mixing with someone of the other race. After a year of dating, my mom got pregnant and they decided to get married. The ceremony was small. Both my parents' families disapproved of the marriage. In fact, my father's sister Bernice remembers my white grandmother call my black grandmother on the phone before the wedding to propose that they form an interracial coalition to stop the marriage. Neither grandmother admits to remembering this, but neither came to the wedding either.

Julia

Oh, this was written the night of our wedding.

"Tonight is the night, as I guess Janey has told you. We talked to Pastor Stefan Tuesday evening and decided to arrange things for this weekend since the next two weeks are going to be full of study for final exams and moving, we hope. I'm going to wear that pale blue cocktail dress, size 11, it fits me again, and a white mantilla and black patent shoes.

Daddy, I'm sending you my tax statement. Would you rather I fill out the forms? I'm taking Personal Finance next semester which will teach me all about insurance and taxes and things like that. Have you told Grandma and Grandpa yet or Janine and Buddy? Is it all right if I write to the aunts and uncles? Whatever you want me to do is OK, but I'd rather tell everyone now. That's all for now, I guess. I'm so sorry that this is so hard for you to understand and accept. I know it will be an uphill road from now on, but we could do it. Much love, Jul."

And after I was married to him, it didn't take me very long to realize that it was going to be a fairly successful marriage because his value system was very close to mine. He's very family oriented. He came from a middle-class upbringing which valued education. And so I didn't think it was very difficult to be married to him, even though I hadn't planned to, because the things that I wanted out of a marriage, he wanted too. And just little simple things, like going to the grocery store and being able to pick out food that I knew he was going to eat. I didn't have to cook chitlins, which-- I guess it was easier than I expected. That's a stupid example.

But I didn't have to change anything about the way I already was. Church. He went to church with me every Sunday. He fit right in. When he was in his fraternity, him and his group of fraternity friends, he was very outgoing, funny, loud-- like you are. People laughed when he made jokes. And he could sing really good. And a lot of the fraternity functions, they would have what they called a line. And he was in this little quartet with Arthur-somebody from New York. And John Brooks was in the quartet and somebody else. And they did all these little Temptation numbers where they would dance together.

And so most of the time when I was with him, he was fun to be around. But what was lacking, I guess, the jump between that and getting married was that we never had any conversation. I didn't know him at all. Other than the fact that we had sex together all the time, it wasn't like you'd sit down and have long conversations getting to know each other. Because he doesn't talk. You can't get to know somebody who doesn't talk.

Rich Robinson

Bernice and Grandma said they were both surprised when he said he was getting married. And one of the reasons was, "Cause he don't talk!"

Julia

That's right! It would be the same--

Rich Robinson

This is the thing about my father, he doesn't talk. Everyone in the family knows this. It's an established fact, an elemental property of my dad. My grandmother says he learned this from her.

Grandma Robinson

That's the best way. Don't you think? When you talk so much, you get in trouble.

Rich Robinson

With who?

Grandma Robinson

Those think it best you don't talk so much.

Rich Robinson

Oh, yeah?

Grandma Robinson

Yeah.

Rich Robinson

The long-term plan after graduation was to move to Brooklyn, back to my dad's hometown. My mother wrote home about it.

Julia

"Robby is so excited about going back. All his friends are there and I don't think he ever wants to live anywhere else. I want to have a house in the country, but--" God, I can't believe I thought I was getting a house in the country near New York!

[LAUGHTER]

Julia

Jesus!

Rich Robinson

That's awesome.

Julia

"Say hi--" I'm telling you, Rich! You don't understand. I was so small-towny.

Rich Robinson

Had you been to New York?

Julia

No. Obviously not.

Rich Robinson

It turns out my dad romanticized some things too. Brooklyn had changed a lot since he grew up. Now there were bums in the park, abandoned stores, and riot gates. At the school where my dad worked, the kids were breaking windows and starting fires and attacking teachers. My dad hated that there was nowhere he felt safe letting us kids run around. And my mom hated sharing a kitchen with the cockroaches.

Their apartment was right next to the El, so it was loud and everything-- furniture, clothes, kids-- was always covered in a fine layer of soot. And they were real poor. My father's substitute teaching job barely paid the rent. In Indiana, my parents had fun together. It wasn't like that in New York. Everything was all about working and struggling to survive. Finally, someone threw a brick through their window, breaking glass all over the living room where my sister and I had been playing only a few minutes earlier.

Within a week, my parents packed up a U-Haul and drove straight back to Indiana. They lived in Brooklyn only six months.

If there's a tragedy in this story, it begins here. As hard as things were in Brooklyn, I think my parents' marriage could have made it there, with my dad living in a world he was used to, surrounded by friends and family, and my mother happily exploring a different world. But Indianapolis ate away at my father. At first, it was just like he wanted. The streets were wide, clean, and empty, with trees on both sides and grass that was always greener. A canal meanders through the city.

Indianapolis was the opposite of Brooklyn. It made parenting easy and fun. We flew kites in the summer and built snow forts in the winter. I found an old reel-to-reel tape of my father, my sister, and me in those early days.

Richard Robinson

What did we make yesterday?

Young Rich Robinson

Snowman.

Richard Robinson

Which one? A Mama or a Daddy snowman?

Young Rich Robinson

Today, we made a snowman [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. Today, I'll go make a Daddy snowman.

Richard Robinson

That's great. We'll make a Daddy snowman today.

[BABY NOISES]

Rich Robinson

We spent Christmas that first year at my grandparents' 80-acre farm with my mother's family. Dad saw how beautiful it was there, how perfect for us kids to run around and explore. We went back for Easter and then Thanksgiving and Christmas again and every year for the next eight years. We practically had forgot about my dad's family in Brooklyn. That's how my dad's sister, Bernice, remembers it.

Bernice

And we didn't see Richard again for about 10 years. The only thing we knew is-- we called every now and then. And we knew that he had moved into a trailer and he had bought a house and then he sold that house and he was somewhere else. We just kind of casually kept in contact with him. And that was it. We'd get a Christmas card. And maybe once a year, we'd get a phone call. That was it. He was completely detached from the family.

Rich Robinson

In this new world, no one was black except my father. He never saw his family, he didn't make any friends, he didn't keep in touch with his old college friends. I asked my dad who he hung out with in Indiana when my parents were married.

Richard Robinson

I don't know whether you'd say hang out. There was occasions that you'd go to in terms of gatherings, but I didn't hang out with anyone.

Rich Robinson

Huh. Who hung out with your friends?

Richard Robinson

I had things to do. I was pretty much on my own or pretty much an entity within myself. It was just mainly children, my children. It wasn't many friends at all.

Julia

I used to think then, I used to think it was very sad. I remember feeling this way. The few times that we went back to New York, he would flip into a whole alter person, second person-- like a schizophrenic personality, a totally different person. We'd go to New York. He'd be hanging out with Poke, laughing. His brother, laughing. His sister, laughing. Drinking a lot, partying, just like I remembered him in college before we got married.

It was like all of a sudden, we're back in this fraternity party mode again, real easy about everything, never uptight, never with this, you know the stand that he does with his hands across his chest where he looks like he's holding everything in, being tough? He never stands like that in New York. And so he was just back to his normal self. And then we'd come back to Indiana and he'd go back into this person again, like he was this black man living in this white world kind of thing, that he wasn't himself.

Your dad never took me to a black function. Everything we did was in my world. So I don't think that was fair. I didn't marry into that.

When I was dating him, the thing I liked about him was that I was living in another culture environment. You have to understand, I'm a foreign language major. I like cultures. It's important to me. So he kind of deprived me, or our marriage I think, of that cultural experience because he didn't contribute to it.

Rich Robinson

My father became someone else in Indiana, a completely different person. And this new face he put on is the face that I recognize and that I picture when I think about him. I can't imagine my father dancing and drinking or laughing with a posse of black friends. My father is someone who never took a sick day from work, who was always home and always responsible. He is a withdrawn and lonely father of three in a white city.

Richard Robinson

No, it didn't pan out that well for myself. No, I didn't have much of anything. I just kind of walked away from all I knew and everything that was a part of me. If there was a personality change, it might have been as a result of that.

Rich Robinson

So how did you survive?

Richard Robinson

Well, I didn't think about. I just worked and raised the children. At the time, that was what was important.

Rich Robinson

I stood face to face in a doorway with my father talking about this for an hour. Neither of us moved. Neither of us sat down. And as we unearthed this, I felt sorry for him and I understood why he had become who he was. It wasn't exactly that race destroyed their marriage, but it added to his isolation and subtracted from his person. And that, in the end, destroyed what they had together.

Before I started doing this story, I never talked to my parents about how their marriage failed or what their divorce was supposed to mean for me, expressly about who I choose to marry or not marry. Getting my dad to sit down for one last round of questions about this wasn't easy.

Rich Robinson

You have to talk to me. Do you know what my story is, Dad?

Richard Robinson

Well, I'll talk, but I don't want to talk forever and ever.

Rich Robinson

Well, let me ask you if you know what my-- do you know what I'm doing a story on? I'm doing a story on my parents. You and Mom. I'm trying to use-- I mean, I'm not saying I'm using you as an example in my life, but I'm trying to get a message from you on what I should do, because you never, I don't know. You never say anything. So I'm just trying to figure it out.

And here's what I see. You got married to a white woman, in whatever, '67. You guys got divorced, and all of a sudden, you're over here in a completely-- now, you're in an all-black world, right?

Richard Robinson

Well, I work with white teachers.

Rich Robinson

Well, all your friends, your family. You're happy now. And she's over there in an all-white world. I mean, is that a lesson?

Richard Robinson

I do think it's very important not to go into something-- marriage, as you're saying, as you asked me about mixed situation-- if you're very, very young.

Rich Robinson

Well, what about if you're old?

Richard Robinson

If you're older and you've got your structure, you've got your friends, in terms of--

Rich Robinson

So you don't think it's a mistake at all.

Richard Robinson

I think you can do all right. And where you live is still kind of important, in terms of the state. If a person were in New York or perhaps even California-- and there's probably other places that I don't know about, then it doesn't really matter what.

Rich Robinson

This is not the answer I expected from him. He thinks intermarriage can work so long as you're not isolated from your own race the way he was in Indiana. It's not the answer I wanted.

Rich Robinson

You know what my-- I have this Asian friend. Girlfriend. Well, friend-girl. You know what she said to me about mixed marriages? She said, you can never marry a white girl because she'll never understand.

Richard Robinson

Well, I don't know what there is in back of that thought, in terms of what she's saying, other than if she's saying that they'll never understand where you're coming from in terms of your history, or something like that, if you haven't felt it, tasted it, lived it, I don't know. So some things will probably go beyond explanation. You just know. If you have to start explaining this, it don't work. Impossible.

Rich Robinson

His answer is sort of ambiguous, but the way I take this, and the way I want to take this, is that he agrees with me, that a white woman will never understand.

Rich Robinson

Did Mom ever understand?

Richard Robinson

I don't know if I could say she understood or not understood. But I think that she is a product of her upbringing. And I am a product of my upbringing. And that doesn't mean it's bad, but it is somewhat different.

Rich Robinson

Again, his answer is blurry, but that's just the way he talks. I'm pretty sure what he's saying is that she didn't understand. My mom disagrees completely. When I call her up to talk about this, I tell her that the lesson I take from their divorce is that interracial marriage doesn't work.

Julia

Would I agree with that? No. Not at all. No, I really don't think that it had anything to do with race. I think it had to do with other things. I always thought that our marriage was like anybody else's marriage. You talk about the same things. You talk about money or your kids or what you're going to do on the weekend or whatever. The color of skin was the only thing that was different. But the falling apart had nothing to do with that, I don't think. At least not from my point of view. It may have from your dad's. But it didn't for me at all.

Rich Robinson

Well, since college, I kind of changed my opinion. I don't think I'm ever going to-- I don't think I'm going to marry white. And one of my friends was telling me, and she kind of gave me the good reason in my head, she said, "You can never marry a white woman because she'll never understand."

Julia

Well, that's probably true. I'm not going to be upset if you marry a black girl, for sure. I don't care one way or the other, as long as you're happy. These are issues like religion. Everybody has their own personal feeling about it, and you don't have to agree.

Rich Robinson

I ask my mom what I asked my dad, if she thinks a white woman can understand a black man, specifically me.

Julia

If you are open I think they can. When people get married to each other, they're supposed to be intimate with all of their thoughts. And if you are, then you can understand another person. I don't think the race gets in the way of that.

Rich Robinson

Well, why do you think it makes a difference to me then?

Julia

Maybe you're more conscious of it because you're neither.

Rich Robinson

It's not true.

Julia

I don't know. Do you feel uncomfortable in both worlds in a way?

Rich Robinson

Yeah. And I don't really want to lose either part.

Julia

Well, that's one of those human dilemmas. You just have to work on it for the rest of your life.

Rich Robinson

Here's what I figured out doing this story. I still can't imagine marrying a white woman, but not because I believe race destroyed my parents' marriage. I don't really believe that anymore. but because I realize I'm used to crossing between two worlds, and I want someone who can do that with me. And for better or worse, right or wrong, I just can't imagine having a blond-haired, blue-eyed girlfriend standing next to me at the Black Poets Society.

As for my parents, my mom says she barely knows any black people anymore. And with each passing decade, she says, her world has gotten whiter. Meanwhile, my father's going to dances again put on by the Kappas, the same fraternity that threw most of the parties while he was in college. But this time, when Marvin Gaye comes on, the woman he's dancing with is black instead of white. And I can picture him later in the night off in some corner of the room singing "My Girl" in a line with his brothers.

Ira Glass

Rich Robinson in New York City. The number of interracial marriages in the United States was 1.1 million couples in the 1990 census. That's three times more than in 1970, but still less than 2% of all marriages.

[MUSIC - "DON'T BE AFRAID OF LOVE" BY OTIS REDDING]

Coming up, another person attempts to do what drove fear in the hearts of segregationists not that long ago. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. Economic Integration.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of stories on that theme. Today's program, Bring a Negro Boy Home Tonight. And if that seems like a strange title, then you're just going to have to start listening to these shows from the beginning. The show is stories of people defying some of the oldest codes of behavior in our country by mixing races. Act One of our show was about intermarriage. Act Two is about economic integration, about trying to make the leap from one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country to where our nation's richest people live.

Cedric Jennings went to Ballou High School in a poor, black neighborhood in Southeast Washington. It was the kind of school where honor students do not like it to be known that they're honor students. There aren't many of them, and when they spot their names posted on the big honor roll bulletin board by the main office, they would rush, some of them, to ask to be taken off. When administrators wanted to hold an assembly to give out academic awards, they would keep the purpose of the assembly secret even from the teachers because the teachers would then leak the information to the honor students who would then simply not show up.

Cedric Jennings

Well, although I was really proud of my accomplishments, I didn't want to actually see my peers respond to me in a negative way so I just avoided the assembly.

Ira Glass

Honor students at his high school were teased. They were called whitey. They were ostracized. They were threatened with physical violence. As an honor student, Cedric was constantly taunted. He ate lunch alone in an empty classroom. He went to church, never socialized with other kids, fearing it would make him lose focus.

Cedric Jennings

When a person says that they want to be successful, they have to realize that there will be opposition. And despite what opposition says, when someone says you can't, I had this defiant side of myself. When I said, oh, I can't? No, I think I can.

Ira Glass

Cedric bet everything in his life as a teenager on the hope that he would get a scholarship to a top college. Reporter Ron Suskind started following him around when Cedric was just 16. He stayed with him for two and a half years, published stories about him in The Wall Street Journal which won a Pulitzer Prize. Cedric's first serious encounter with the elite universities that he wanted to enter came after his junior year in that summer, a summer program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a program designed to attract minority students to MIT. The program was called MITES, M-I-T-E-S, the Minority Introduction To Engineering and Science, 50-some kids who supposedly came from neighborhoods like Cedric's.

Making it into the program was Cedric's dream. It was the first foothold in this new world he was trying to enter into. But when classes began, Cedric found that he could barely keep up. And even worse, he was just as isolated at MIT as he'd been back at Ballou. Calculus, physics, chemistry were are filled with kids from middle-class backgrounds, good suburban schools, private schools. Some of them had seen this material before back home.

Cedric Jennings

It was really a disappointment. And it sort of made me feel inadequate during the process, when I'm taking all the notes and they're just nodding their heads like, oh, yeah. OK.

Ira Glass

Oh, yeah. That one. Seen that one.

Cedric Jennings

Yeah, I've heard that before.

Ira Glass

And we should say that at your high school back in Washington, in the public school, you were in the most advanced classes they offered.

Cedric Jennings

Right. And even in the most advanced classes they offered, I had done above and beyond. So I thought that that would be enough to prepare me. And I guess it wasn't.

Ira Glass

There's this moment in this part of the story which is just completely heartbreaking to read where you get back your first test and you get a 4 out of 26 in your physics class.

Cedric Jennings

So bad.

Ira Glass

And a 68 out of 104 in calculus. And you're a student who's used to getting all A's, ends up being the star of every class.

Cedric Jennings

Well, it was a learning experience. It was disappointing, first of all. Physics was just ridiculous. I thought I was just going to go crazy. And I thought I was just going to go crazy. In physics, 4 out of 26. That is just ridiculous. There was nothing that anyone could say to make me feel better about that.

Ira Glass

Ron, let me ask you to talk a little bit about why the MIT program was set up in this way. At one point, you met with Bill Ramsey, the 68-year-old African American who heads this program to get minorities into MIT. And he talked to you about why so many suburban kids were in the program and so few city kids.

Ron Suskind

Ramsey was a great guy who had been an MIT grad in 1951, when there were almost no blacks at MIT. And he was hopeful for better. He wanted what I think is the bigger and, in some ways, more important thing to occur in this MIT program when he took it over seven or eight years before Cedric got there. He wanted kids like Cedric, 50 kids like Cedric instead of one or two.

And what he realized early on is that it would run into all manner of dilemmas that go right to the core of some of the problems with the notion of Affirmative Action. MIT sponsors the program. MIT wants as many of these kids as possible to eventually end up in their freshman class to make that freshman class look like a rainbow, as they say.

And as people might mention, you can make the Ivy League, or any great college, look like a rainbow nowadays without ever having to go to the ghetto. You don't have to go there. There are plenty of middle and upper-middle-class black and Latino kids to fill those programs, kids who will eventually succeed at a top university. It's the other kids, kids like Cedric, for whom the distance is so vast to travel that for them, the failure rate is untenable for a place like MIT.

Ira Glass

Just reading your account of it, it seems like part of his concern too was that kids would come in without any preparation, or without enough preparation, to go as fast as MIT would want them to go. And then MIT had no infrastructure to bring them up to speed. And so it was just setting them up for failure.

Ron Suskind

Absolutely. And they often have very big dreams, and they often come pushed forward by a whole community for whom they're the one who's going to make it. And that's a pretty heavy burden to carry to a place like MIT and then have all of that come crashing down on their head. Look, as Ramsey said, he said, look, the suicide rates up here are high enough as they are.

Ira Glass

So Cedric, at the end of your time with MIT, you're informed that you weren't ready for MIT just yet. And you headed back to DC and put in a lot more work and a lot more effort. And after you graduated from high school, you end up at an Ivy League school, Brown University. And let me ask you to describe, first of all, who your roommate was and what he was like. What was his background?

Cedric Jennings

My roommate's name was Robert and he was from Marblehead, Massachusetts. And he was a white guy. He was cool. I think both his parents were doctors.

Ira Glass

He went to private school.

Cedric Jennings

He went to a private school. What else? He had a sister that went to Harvard. But I think for the most part, we did get along. And I think that because we came from different backgrounds, that's where a little bit of the conflict came in. I think he came from a home where I think his mom pretty much waited on him hand and foot. And I came from a home where I was pretty much independent. I had to do things for myself, cook for myself, was for myself, those sorts of things, clean up behind myself.

And one of the problems that we had was that he was at times, we were both messy at times, especially with me, especially when there was a lot of work. But for the most part, there were times when he would get really, really, really messy and outrageous and just be funky, so to speak.

Ira Glass

This reminded me of when I've been in Chicago high schools, how you'll see the white kids, the way they'll keep their clothes is they'll just dress like whatever and they'll look kind of bummy. Whereas the black kids, again, it's like everything always has to be neat and perfect. And even your clothes have to be just so perfect all the time. It's like they're from two different countries.

Cedric Jennings

This is true, but it's one thing if your clothes just look bad and then if your body just stinks. That's just a whole nother thing. And I think that sometimes he just was funky, man. And that's just not something that I wanted to put up with. And I wasn't willing to put up with that. There just was not much communication between us.

Ron Suskind

Ira, they just had utterly distinct ways of doing everything. Cedric's general heightened hygiene of having grown up in often squalid places, where Cedric was cleaning all the time. Cedric was always careful about how he looked and that he himself and his person was very clean. It was the opposite from Rob who never worried. This was just one of 1,000 things like that that immediately gripped the two of them in the room until the point where they almost came to blows.

Ira Glass

And Cedric, there were times that you were really isolated there.

Cedric Jennings

Yeah, at Brown? Yeah. I think especially in the social arena. I grew up in church and everything. And just putting myself out there and getting involved, it went against some of what I was taught from church.

Ira Glass

Can I ask, when's the first time you actually drank?

Cedric Jennings

I've never drank.

Ira Glass

You still have never had a beer at college?

Cedric Jennings

No. Now, no.

Ron Suskind

But the thing, Ira, if you go into Cedric's church and you go into Cedric's environment, the only reason Cedric has got where he got is because he didn't taste of any of the plates at the buffet table of adolescent life in Southeast. Most of those plates are poisoned.

Ira Glass

Ron, let me ask you to read from page 197 in your book. At one point, you talk about just this clash of cultures.

Ron Suskind

OK. "Clearly, some East Andrews residents are spending serious time and energy having fun. Despite Brown's self consciousness about each student's individuality, the four preferred pastimes are the same here as they are at almost every other college-- drink beer, smoke pot, dance to deafening music until you drop, and on the rare occasion, get naked with some other warm body.

Possibly the best explanation why Cedric Jennings is in Brown's class of 1999 is that he managed to steer clear of the buffet table of adolescent experimentation, believing rightly, it turns out, that in his neighborhood, most of those dishes were poisoned. This was an extraordinary feat, considering how peer pressure at Ballou was backed up by violence. And the almost irresistible urge for teenagers to salve deep despair with sex, drugs, and music.

Cedric knows all this, just as he knows his resistance was made possible back when by his mother's fierce code. But eventually, something else took root. Cedric, needing to justify his monkish routine in high school night after night, developed a genuine belief that sacrifice, hard work, and extremely clean living would lead to rewards, including a scholarship to a top college. But now that he's made it, the guideposts are gone. And all around him, smart kids are getting high, getting drunk, and screwing. Even the real smart ones, kids who can eat Cedric's lunch in almost any subject.

Sitting alone on his bed one Saturday night, there's a knock on the door, and a few kids from down the hall crowd in, rosy with anticipation of a night of some drinking, an off-campus party one of them has heard about, and then, who knows, maybe some late-night pizza. 'Hey Cedric, come on,' one of them says.

'Naw,' Cedric says, declining nicely, trying to show he appreciates their asking. 'I just don't do that kind of stuff.' And everyone nods meaningfully, though Cedric can tell they don't really understand. In a moment, they're gone. Just as well, he thinks, half-meaning it. I can't change now."

Ira Glass

Cedric, in your view, do you feel like the biggest difference between yourself and the people who you were meeting at Brown, do you think it was racial, or do you think it had more to do with class?

Cedric Jennings

I think it had more to do with class. I mean, obviously race. I was among a few minorities. But obviously class.

Ira Glass

Explain that more.

Cedric Jennings

Even within a minority community, most of my peers in the minority community had gone to private schools. They were pretty much from middle-class, upper-class homes. Mothers and fathers, who were both college educated in a lot of cases, were both living at home with them. It was just totally the opposite of where I had come from. And in a lot of ways, I just felt isolated all over again, like being at MIT.

Ira Glass

Did you find in any way it was easier to be close to black kids from middle-class homes than it was to be close to white kids from middle-class homes?

Cedric Jennings

Yeah.

Ira Glass

There actually was a difference?

Cedric Jennings

Yeah. We had more in common. We had more in common. We were working toward the same thing, pretty much.

Ira Glass

It's interesting thinking about this in terms of just the history of integration. Putting together this show, I was talking to one of my producers, and we were talking about how towards the end of Dr. King's life, one of the things that he looked at and started to think about was the question of OK, now under the law, blacks can go anywhere. But moving towards economic integration, moving people out of poor neighborhoods and up into the middle class seems so much more difficult. And reading the account of you at Brown trying to make that class jump just reiterates how hard it is.

Cedric Jennings

It's extremely hard. It's hard to see with my mother and everything. At first, I must admit I was a little ashamed of her coming to Brown because I knew that she was not like any of the other parents in terms of what we had. I mean, when I look back on it, I actually was ashamed because I knew that the other parents, they had a lot of advantages and they had things in life. And a lot of them had it easy. They got it easy.

And my mother, we come from welfare. She's on welfare. She had dropped out of high school and gotten pregnant at an early age. And she got a GED. She wasn't college educated. So sometimes I was ashamed of the fact that my mother wasn't on the same level as the other parents.

Ira Glass

Did you ever talk to her about that?

Cedric Jennings

No. Because I've been ashamed to admit that to her. For a long time, I had been in denial about that. But I'm not ashamed of her anymore. I've grown out of that. I'm proud of her, as a matter of fact. I'm proud of her.

Ira Glass

Well, yeah. I mean, look how far, look how much somebody had to push to make that happen.

Cedric Jennings

That counts more than a college degree.

Ira Glass

When you look at your situation now, you're finishing your junior year right now--

Cedric Jennings

Oh, it's finished.

Ira Glass

It's finished. OK. Sorry.

Cedric Jennings

I'm a senior, man. I'm a senior.

Ira Glass

Do you still feel like you're between worlds?

Cedric Jennings

Oh, yeah. All the time. All the time. In one setting, the community where I come from, it's about not become white. And then at Brown, it's like not becoming-- yeah, it's the same thing, sort of. Not becoming white, remaining black in both worlds. Except it's sort of--

Ira Glass

But at Brown, it's like being black but in their world.

Cedric Jennings

Being black but in their world. Yeah.

Ira Glass

Do you feel like you're in this kind of no man's land?

Cedric Jennings

Sometimes. Sometimes.

Ira Glass

Like when?

Cedric Jennings

This is difficult. It's hard. I've never really given it a lot of thought. I don't know. I get a lot of grief when I come home, especially from people in my church, people in my community, about going off to this white man's land. And it's just, you shouldn't do it, they're going to eat you alive. I mean, I still get that sometimes. And it does isolate me at times. And yeah, sometimes I do, I feel alone. I guess that's what you asked me. Do I feel alone, isolated in terms of my decision of going to Brown, venturing out? Yeah, I do. I do feel alone.

Ira Glass

Do you feel less alone, though it sounds like you're feeling more alone when you go back home to Southeast Washington? Do you feel less alone now when you're up at Brown? And in that world?

Cedric Jennings

I do. Because I've grown more comfortable with Brown.

Ira Glass

In terms of feeling at ease in the new world that you have moved into, if we would consider somebody like your roommate Rob, who kind of grew up in that world, as being completely at ease, he's 100% at ease, where would you say your percentage is now?

Cedric Jennings

80%.

Ira Glass

What's the 20% that still isn't there?

Cedric Jennings

I still have a lot of growing up to do. I've come from Ballou High School, which is considered one of the worst high schools in DC. I've gone off to one of the best universities in the country. And I'm still not happy.

Ira Glass

When you say you're not happy, you mean you're not happy in a day-to-day way, or you're not happy with how far you've come?

Cedric Jennings

A combination of both.

Ira Glass

I mean, I guess I could imagine the day-to-day part of it because it just seem like it's so much work--

Cedric Jennings

It is.

Ira Glass

--to keep things going.

Cedric Jennings

This is really difficult for me to talk about. So you've got to bear with me here. Plus I haven't given this much thought. Success is a trip. Because we push people, especially blacks, to be successful, minorities to be successful. And then once they get there, and once we get there, for some reason, we pull each other back.

Ira Glass

You're thinking specifically about things that are happening now that you're back home for the summer?

Cedric Jennings

Yeah. My biggest problems are at home. My biggest worries are at home. All these people who just bombard me with what they-- for some people, me going to Brown is like I've given up, or turned my back to the fact that I'm black, which is totally not the case.

Ira Glass

And this is people who you respect saying this to you. People in your church.

Cedric Jennings

People that I respected. People that I thought were really behind me. That's the toughest part. And that's what's hard. That's what I'm trying to deal with. Success is almost as worse as failure.

Ira Glass

Ron Suskind's great, great book about Cedric Jennings is called A Hope in the Unseen. You know, before our interview ended, I told Cedric about the story in the first half of today's show, about a black who said that he would date but never marry a white woman.

Cedric Jennings

That's interesting because I think the same way. Somebody asked me, first they asked me, would you marry a white woman? And I said no. And they said, well, would you date a white woman? And I said, yeah, I would date a white woman.

Ira Glass

The way the other guy on the show explains it, there's a part of him which doesn't believe that a white woman could completely understand him.

Cedric Jennings

True, I guess. But I don't know. When two people bond in love, I think that they definitely understand things about each other, like more than what he's giving them credit for.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself, with Alix Spiegel and Julie Snyder. Senior editor Paul Tough. Contributing editors Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Laura Doggett and birthday girl Soyini Davenport.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

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WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia who makes us love him by strutting around all day in his--

Julia

--faded, almost threadbare corduroys that fit him like a glove.

Ira Glass

Yes, indeed. I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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