I was born in 1942 to a white family in Memphis, Tenessee. By its very nature that made me a child of privilege, though I was not aware of that for a long time. But mine was an unusual family in the deep South. My mother spent her first seven years living in the black community and her friends were all black. Her mother died when my mother was seven and she was raised by her mother’s family. After my parents divorced, I converted to Judaism. Only then did my mother tell me that her grandmother’s maiden name was Rosenberg. And that, until her marriage, all her friends were Jewish.
My father was a brillant scientist. His father was a former sharecropper and schoolteacher who moved to Memphis to go to college. In the 1930’s he was a union organizer. A devout Southern Baptist, he was ostracized from his church for ardently advocating admitting black children to the Sunday School.
When I started elementary school I heard the N-word for the first time. When I got home I asked what it meant. At a family gathering, which I will never forget, my parents discussed human biology and how the color of someone's skin was an insignificant part of being human. My grandfather talked about how words can degrade and hurt others and that we must always recognize the dignity of every person and never use words that demean anyone. When I asked why people would do such things, my grandmother said, “Honey, they just don’t know any better.”
When I was nine, my family moved to San Francisco where my father had a taken a position. But, as segregation was still alive in housing, I still lived in an all white world. At 15, after my Sophomore year in high school, my father arranged for me to get a job as a laboratory assistant in Clinical Physiology at the University of Tennessee Medical Center. One of my best friends during this time was an older black high school student who worked at a nearby lab. My friend was a mathematical prodigy and, unlike me, was a fully functioning member of his research team. We regularly rode home together on the bus. On the first bus ride when I went to sit down beside him he firmly told me to take the seat behind him and from then on all our conversations on the bus kept this arrangement.
One day I left the lab late and was riding the bus home alone. The bus was crowded and I was standing. There was an empty seat next to an older black man, perhaps he had seen my friend and me together, I don’t know. In any case, he caught my eye and motioned me to come and sit down beside him. I remembered my friend’s putting me in another seat, and never sitting with me. I was surrounded by older white strangers who I imagined were glaring at me, and I was afraid. I shook my head, no, and I hoped he would understand. But what has stuck with me to this day is his kindly face and my cowardice in not taking that seat.
It changed me. I began to recognize the undue privilege I was given because I was born white. I realized that not having prejudicial feelings toward others was not enough. I had a responsibility to those who have been disadvantaged because of what others think of them. I had to act to try and change the way that things “were,” I had to act on my beliefs, even when I was afraid..
For the last almost 60 years I have tried to make a difference, although the changes often seemed small. Whenever I fail to act as I feel that I should, the old man’s face jumps into my mind and the emotional pain is palpable. My efforts have not changed the world, but maybe they have contributed to change, at least to some small degree. But if I have accomplished anything, it is because of the man who offered me a seat and placed his face in my brain and in my conscience and thereby changed my way of living in the world.