It was the summer of 1985 and I was residing in Mount Holly, the Burlington County Seat of New Jersey. By all accounts and even today, Mount Holly is a small, country town with a cosmopolitan feel to it. There’s a downtown area with various small-scale nightspots, prone to gentrification but according to friends I’ve spoken to, is on its way back. The population is a mixed one; today I’m sure with its share of immigrants but back then it was primarily white, black and Latino.
On that Saturday, I was sitting on the porch of a home on the corner of Levis Drive and North Martin Avenue in the Mount Holly Gardens development; a projects by all practical accounts. On that stoop, we were a mixed bunch of black and white with me being the interloping outsider who hadn’t lived in the neighborhood for too long.
The others had all grown up together and were telling stories about their childhood and in general, just reminiscing. One dude, a white guy, all of a sudden asked about a mutual acquaintance even I knew named Tyrone. The others told the man that Ty was still around and lived around the corner. They rapped a bit about past antics and then the white dude dropped a bombshell.
“Hey, remember when we used to call him Sambo and he’d get all mad?”
Now me, I wasn’t raised in a mixed-raced setting like these folks were. The extent of my involvement with white kids my own age started in high school. I didn’t have at my disposal the tools with which to view what he’d just said in the proper light. And the tools seem to work because none of the other black folks sitting gave any inclination of anger whatsoever. What was said was simply par for the course.
Now at about this time, a convertible rumbled down Levis Drive and at the wheel was Tyrone. One of the group, a black guy, looked up, spotted him coming and told the dude. Well what did he do but run to the end of the porch and at the top of his voice, let out a piercing yell; “Yohhh! Saambohh!” It was funny how the last syllable, “Bo” just kind of hung out there in the airspace of a hot summer afternoon.
Now part of me, the North Philly part that hadn’t been acclimated to such tolerant behavior, knew it was about to be on. But to my surprise, not only did everybody on the porch crack up profusely at the yell but even I had to laugh when Tyrone did a rubber-neck as he rode by, trying to see who it was that pulled his old nickname out of the hat of history. One guy had said, “See, he even remembers his name!” I think that’s what did it for me; I was no more good.
After a bit, Tyrone came walking around the corner to us. He looked perplexed to say the least but when he got to the porch and saw who it was, it was all good. There were many hugs and a lot of back-slapping; much love on the porch. So why tell this now?
I penned something last night full of images of a truly troubled stretch in our past. At the time, I thought it necessary to do so in order to foster that teaching moment that I alluded to in my piece. I really do believe that in times where people seem to want to go back, exhibiting behavior from that time period, it’s best we show them exactly what “going back” entails and what exactly it is that we’d be going back to.
But even as quickly as I’d finished, I remembered this instance and others that expressed a different side to the story; one that spoke to how different peoples can come together, find their own levels and work things out; in spite of what the government is doing or not doing.
I remembered stories related to me by my dad of how it can all go sour because the kids that were friends as boys suddenly become men and then life takes on a whole new meaning, with different priorities, expectations and guidelines.
I thought last night, and even now, that it would be so cool if we could bottle that which enabled those children from the past to get along, even as adults. We’d not only get rich but also provide the world with a ready-made, easy to use remedy for racial intolerance; cut out all the anguish of the middle man and his failed policies. I think we could surely use that.