• seventyandme@gmail.com

Black Lives Matter To Me, Too



I think I felt my connection to blacks most strongly the day my dear friend Joel and I walked through the dance studio in the middle of a renovation. Joel is the co-founder of the Joel Hall Dancers, a Chicago-based jazz company that's been wowing audiences for decades; at the time, I was the president of the board of directors and the acting executive director.


We stood together, excited about the soon-to-be-opened studio located on a main street surrounded by retail stores that would generate foot traffic and visibility.


"You know," Joel said. "I think I'm half Jewish."

I am Jewish.

"Funny," I said, thinking about everything from my ex-students to my volunteer work to my taste in music and, of course, dance. "I think I'm half black."

Joel is black.

"You're my sista."

The bond had been sealed.

"And you're my bro."


That was maybe fifteen or twenty years ago. Joel and I remain best friends.




Johnnie Mae and Charity were the first two black women in my life. Both women worked for my maternal grandparents--Charity as a seamstress; Johnnie Mae as a housekeeper. Charity, tall and slender with a slew of freckles on her welcoming face, was upbeat, full of life. She lived with her husband and daughter in a brick house with a front porch big enough for a comfortable wood swing. I can almost hear her high-pitched voice as she greeted my siblings and me with a warmth that made us feel special, loved.

Johnnie Mae, on the other hand, was a bit more reserved but a cuddly bear just the same. In preparation for our visit to our grandparents, she'd bake a tray or two of warm, oozy chocolate chip cookies. We could smell them the minute we walked in the front door of my grandparents' home on a peaceful street in a middle-class neighborhood in Detroit. The four of us would give my grandparents the perfunctory kiss on the cheek and hightail it to the kitchen. I don't remember if we grabbed a cookie (maybe two or three) first or wrapped our arms around Johnnie Mae's rotund stomach always with a white apron tied around her waist. If I were a betting woman, I'd put my money on the cookie grab.


Yes, Johnnie Mae and Charity were domestics--one of the few jobs available for black women in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. And you might assume that I saw them as less than the white women I knew. You'd be wrong. Sure, I knew they were black--"Negro" at the time. But as a young girl who had never heard my parents or their friends say a bad thing about Negroes, I took our connection in stride. They were just people I loved. Our relationships lasted over the years until first Charity, then Johnnie Mae passed away.


When I was twelve--maybe eleven--I traveled alone by train to Memphis, Tennessee, to visit my cousins whom I'd met once at my aunt and uncle's wedding. They were fraternal twins, and I was fascinated. But that first visit to a southern state turned out to be a seminal life event that opened my eyes for the first time to the horrors of segregation. I'd never seen drinking fountains for whites only or swimming pools or sections on a bus. Incredulous, I asked my cousins why. "It's just the way it is," they said. "Well," I said, "I think it's horrible. I don't like it here."


My family lived in Highland Park, Michigan, a city within Detroit. While our neighborhood was not religiously segregated (though we were the only Jews), there were no blacks. From my childhood through college at the University of Michigan, I had few, if any, contacts with blacks--only Charity and Johnnie Mae and, eventually, various black couples who came to live in the studio apartment on the lower floor of our home, by then in a suburb of Detroit, and helped my parents out with four kids, the youngest just six years my junior.


I'd always wanted to be a teacher. Armed with a degree in English and a teaching certificate, I moved to Boston and taught eighth grade English in an upscale suburb. I can still remember the chunky kid, taller than the other boys, who couldn't sit still for more than a minute or two, and who did everything he could to test my patience. Sadly, he succeeded in making me miserable. I dreaded the third period of English.


In 1968, busing was the method de jour for achieving educational "equality." Once a week, a busload of eighth-graders from Roxbury, then a black neighborhood within Boston, pulled up in front of Marblehead Junior High School. For me, their arrival was the highlight of my young teaching career. I had read Jonathan Kozol's Death At An Early Age and couldn't wait to right some of the wrongs and make life more equitable for these kids. A lofty goal--but I was twenty-two years old.


The thirst for learning oozed from these black students. And I was anxious to quell it as best I could. The joy these kids brought determined my future as a teacher, and I never taught in a segregated school again. In fact, I devoured the works of black writers and developed a class in black literature that I taught for two years. I think the syllabus is still stuffed somewhere in my office.


My husband and I are about to sign our wills and other important documents. When the lawyer asked me to which organizations I'd like to leave money, I didn't hesitate to include: Black Lives Matter, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, and the Joel Hall Dancers.



JONATHAN KOZOL received the National Book Award for Death at an Early Age, the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for Rachel and Her Children, and countless other honors for Savage Inequalities, Amazing Grace, The Shame of the Nation, and Fire in the Ashes. The final and culminating work of his career is now nearing completion.

Jonathan remains one of the nation’s most eloquent and outspoken advocates for equality and racial justice and has been a fearless critic of the testing mania and the corporate attempt to privatize our public schools. He continues to visit children in their classrooms and to give encouragement to overburdened but devoted principals and teachers. He’s been doing that for over 50 years. He isn’t stopping now.

JONATHAN KOZOL received the National Book Award for Death at an Early Age, the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for Rachel and Her Children, and countless other honors for Savage Inequalities, Amazing Grace, The Shame of the Nation, and Fire in the Ashes. The final and culminating work of his career is now nearing completion.

Jonathan remains one of the nation’s most eloquent and outspoken advocates for equality and racial justice and has been a fearless critic of the testing mania and the corporate attempt to privatize our public schools. He continues to visit children in their classrooms and to give encouragement to overburdened but devoted principals and teachers. He’s been doing that for over 50 years. He isn’t stopping now.








©2020 by Seventy And Me: Women Getting Older & Wiser Proudly created with Wix.com