Am I racist? I try very hard not to be. But then, it’s not up to me whether I am a racist or not. It’s not up to me if I’m being a misogynist or prejudiced in any way. It’s up to whomever my words or actions offended and struck as bigoted. That is where all conversations must end. I can bring the best of intentions to the table. That doesn’t mean my intentions succeed. My heart can be in the right place while every other part of me isn’t. Racism and prejudice matter to me because my tribe catches more than its share of bigotry and prejudice. I’m Jewish – by culture. While I have been the subject of racism, I also have been a practitioner. I grew up in a cultural bubble. That bubble created prejudices. I took those prejudices out into the world. And then, one night, my prejudices (including my racism) made their existence inside me undeniable as I sat in a theater watching a play. My racism confronted me.
I can’t say whether the play changed me, but it unexpectedly opened my eyes to my own racist thinking. It opened my eyes to the fact that how I thought was racist to begin with. It came from a place of ignorance and disassociation. I had it in my head that me and my life had minimal connections to Black people and their lives. That is where racism begins.
After graduating from college in 1981 (with a degree in drama from Vassar), I moved back home for a bit to try and collect myself. Home was Pikesville, a largely Jewish suburb northwest of Baltimore. My dad was a general surgeon. My mom was a housewife. Everyone in my neighborhood, in my friend group, in my family’s social circle was Jewish. The only Black people I had any experience of in my early years were the housekeepers we hired and one teacher at my middle school. The teacher – Calvin Statham, Jr. – taught choir and he was (and is – he’s still alive) – an enduring influence in my life. Not because music but because humanity. In addition to teaching, Mr. Statham led a very successful gospel choir and he delighted in introducing the music he loved to a group of mostly Jewish young people. And we adored it!
I knew the power of gospel music before this story began. What I didn’t realize: how healing it was going to be.
The Amen Corner
So, I’m 22. Living at home in Baltimore. My parents subscribed to (among other things) Baltimore’s Centre Stage Theater, the state theater of Maryland, and Baltimore’s largest professional producing theater. They put up some truly great, daring work. “Name” actors often played the leads in these pieces. One night, in 1982, my parents couldn’t use their Centre Stage tickets and weren’t able to reschedule. They handed them to me.
The play was James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner“. It’s about a woman named Margaret. She’s the pastor of a “corner” church in Harlem. Her life gets tossed upside down when her estranged, jazz musician husband Luke returns, in essence, to die. The story everyone had bought – including Margaret and Luke’s son David – was that Luke had walked out on his family. It wasn’t the case. Luke had been struggling with his addictions and Margaret had walked out on him – choosing her religious faith over her humanity. It’s a play about moral hypocrisy and love.
All I knew however as I stared at the ticket my parents had just handed me was this: it was a play about Black people – about religious Black people. And a church. What could that world and my world possibly have in common? On the surface, it appeared like two plus hours of unmitigated boredom.
Ass In Seat
I tried to beg off. My folks guilted me into going. Not because I was being racist or – worse (I was a drama major FFS!) – incurious about my own professed passion – but because of the wasted ticket. So, I went – very reluctantly.
I’m not at all proud about what put my ass in that theater seat. I’m just grateful it did.
To be honest, I don’t remember much about the actual theatrical experience. That’s because I was so utterly caught up in the world on stage. I don’t remember the name of the actress who played Margaret. But, for some reason, the name of the actor playing Luke stuck in my head: Bill Cobbs.
Everyone in the cast was perfect. Everything about the play was perfect. At the play’s conclusion, while the rest of the audience slowly got up and exited, I remained stuck in my seat. I was emotionally drained. But, even more – the way we’d put it today is “woke”. I got woke. I didn’t know it at the time, but wokeness landed inside my head and began to do its thing.
Every single human is capable of being racist. Anyone who says they aren’t is being dishonest with themselves. But here’s the trick: every single one of us can overcome those impulses. We can ID them, isolate them and stop empowering them.
It Happens Again!
The “Amen Corner” experience happened a second time to me! For real! New Year’s Eve 1984 (December 1983). My friend and housemate Randall Thropp comes up with two tickets to the closing night performance of “Gospel At Colonus” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The show is a gospel music rendition of the Greek tragedy “Oedipus At Colonus”.
Yeesh, I thought. Greek tragedy + gospel music = boredom. But, Randall talked me into going and, boy, am I glad I did.
If I remember correctly, I was in my theater seat for exactly one minute at the start of the play. Then the music started and no one sat down. Bonus trivia: among the production’s stars was Robert Earl Jones, bass-voiced father of bass-voiced actor James Earl Jones.
“Gospel At Colonus” still plays at the corners of my mind. Just like “Amen Corner” does.
I am so grateful. Seeing those shows – getting to see and feel the world from a Black perspective – froze my racism in its place.
I stopped being oblivious of my racism. I accepted that I was capable of being racist.
The goal is to stop being racist. Can I (or any of us) ever get there? I don’t know. The process is the point. The work. And, yeah – it takes work to overcome! Same with depression: you can’t cure what you won’t admit exists. And just as curing depression demands flooding the zone with sunlight, so, too, does racism succumb to light. Talking about it is the cure. Denying it makes it metastasize.
Here’s the story’s coda:
Jump forward thirteen years to 1995. I’m in the midst of a film and TV writing-producing career. While the bulk of my produced work has been in the horror realm, I’ve also done a fair amount of sci-fi. For two seasons, I was a co-executive producer on “The Outer Limits”, Showtime’s reboot of the 1960’s classic.
I’ve been super lucky to have worked on maybe more anthology series than any other writer-producer TV history. I ran “Tales From The Crypt” and wrote on “Freddy’s Nightmares” (the “Nightmare On Elm Street TV Series”). Just like with those shows, writing and producing “The Outer Limits” gave a creative person an awful lot of free rein.
I wrote an episode about a middle class Black family. A father, a son and a grandfather (the father’s father). The grandfather was a noted jazz musician who, in failing health and fortunes, had moved in with his son and his son’s family. The father – disapproving of his own dad – wanted his son (a young jazz musician) to avoid the mistakes in life his own father had made.
Enter the sci-fi element.
The Cool Hook
Turns out there’s a nearby retirement community filled with vibrant older people. The father insists on moving the grandfather out of the house and into the facility – over his own son’s resistance. The father knows a secret about the facility.
All the old folks in the home seem to fail at some point. They lose their faculties. More specifically, if they had a special talent or skill set? Suddenly it’s gone, replaced by a growing dullness and lack of engagement. And then the old person dies.
The facility’s warm and friendly surface hides the truth: they mine skill sets and then transplant them into other people – paying huge bucks to get those skill sets.
I’m biased of course, but it really is a good episode.
Re-Enter Bill Cobbs
When it came time to cast the episode, our casting director put down a name: Bill Cobbs.
I stared at it as a wave of recognition slowly formed in my head. I was about to hire Bill Cobbs to play a jazz musician – same as he played in “The Amen Corner”. And this time, I wasn’t just going to watch Bill Cobbs perform, I was going to put words into his mouth!
“Fathers And Sons” – the episode’s title – isn’t about racism. It’s about family. About love. But, hiring Bill brought every last bit of my “Amen Corner” experience back center stage as it were.
So – the question is, at the end of the day, did I overcome my prejudices? Did I master them? There’s a right answer and a wrong answer. The right one is: it ain’t up to me.