I get the idea of college from an incurable Dead Head with an incurable growth of cancer on his chest, a need to escape this place full of dust and sweet perfume, the slave trade warehouse work life in which people like us are trapped, our lives tied down to a time clock and a weekly pay check we can’t make stretch to cover rent, meals and the few beers at the local pub on Friday nights, we all resenting the welfare checks we see other people collect when we cannot not, this struggle to make sense of a world that feeds some and lets others starve, with someone like this Dead Head figuring out that if he can get his ass through college he might get out of this rat trap and maybe find a better rat trap where he won’t have to envy the welfare crowd, and won’t feel like a racist when he sees them doing better than we are, working half as hard, and so I start thinking maybe I might go to college, too.
But I soon find out that kids on campus don’t like white people like me, even though they’re white people, too. We remind them too much of their parents who grew up and fled places like Paterson for places with fancy names like Wayne, so they aren’t reminded of where they come from, father who labored most of their lives for companies like Continental Can, rubbing shoulders with black men wearing the same blue collars they do.
The college kids don’t hate blacks; it’s hip to be block, and they act more black than the black kids on campus do, shamed by parents who don’t like blacks, calling people like me racist because we came to college ten years after they did, too late to get steered down the twisted path some professors want to mold us to.
I’m not racists. Though my family is, living on the border of the ghetto in a house my grandfather broke his back to buy, filling every window with a WWII era carbine for that time when they believe the riots will spill over into our neighborhood out of the black side of town.
But I’m not ashamed of my family the way these kids are of theirs, because I have worked the way my uncles worked, and understand just how scared they are of losing everything they worked so hard to get, when they mistakenly believe black people get too much handed to them and still want more.
I know it’s not like that; but you can’t argue anybody out of being scared.
Maybe that’s what’s wrong with the college kids, who really have had the good life handed to them, lives built on the backs of their hardworking fathers they are so ashamed of, never having lived except in some safe place where they don’t actually get to meet any black people until they come to schools like this, or understand just how hard life can be, blue collar or black, with blue collar and black fighting over the crumbs some rich man leaves, calling it a pay check or a welfare check that neither blue collar or black can feed his family with.
Even the black kids on campus don’t get it, somehow magically elevated out of a ghetto only their father’s truly understand, desperate to cling to the noble traditions of their race, but rapidly becoming whiter than the white kids are, because in a white world like this, it may be the only way to survive.