The Sentinel ran a syndicated column last Friday that I find unforgettable.

Black columnist Deborah Mathis proudly wrote about her son Joseph.

In it, she describes Joseph as "just what the doctor ordered. … thoughtful and loving and smart."

And he's been his mom's favorite shopping partner… until now when fear prompts her to want to keep him out of the stores. The near panic she is experiencing is just because he is black - a healthy, strong, teen-aged black who is automatically suspect.

She knows he will be watched warily as a potential thief and troublemaker and he is likely to be the one "falsely accused" if a crime occurs when he's in the store.

So she constantly tells Joseph to keep his hands out of his pockets, his jacket open, not to reach under his shirt - warnings he doesn't always follow. What are pockets for if you can't tuck your hands into them?

Mathis also laments that Joseph won't fully understand what she is going through until he has a child and "sees that child have to live on tiptoes because of some stinking stereotype that hasn't, doesn't and never will fit him."

Most who read her column can feel bad for her but can't actually feel what she feels. I know I can't.

As a child I lived in a white neighborhood in Brooklyn and went to an all-white school. When we moved to New Jersey, I again lived in an all-white neighborhood in a small town that had a small black population.

I recall only one black student in the entire eighth grade. Her name was Geraldine. But she wasn't in my classes because she wasn't college-bound. She dropped out long before high school graduation.

But a remote connection cropped up later when my oldest daughter, Sherry, went into first grade in the same school system that I attended.

Sherry came home talking about a classmate, Larry. I didn't know he was black until I brought in cookies for an Easter party where he hopped around chanting, "I'm the only chocolate bunny in here."

He was handsome, vocal, bright and had a winning smile. He became a favorite of mine in the class.

I later learned he lived in a run-down apartment in the so-called black section of town with his mother and four siblings. His mother had never married; her children did not all have the same father. Her name was Geraldine.

When I looked at Larry, I felt my former classmate had to be doing something right to turn out this alert and charming child.

Stereotypes say it shouldn't be so. After all, he came from an unstable, single-parent environment and was black. And he put up with unbearable slurs before he could even understand their meaning.

One such unforgivable experience occurred when a mother showed up in the class one day with birthday invitations for all the children but two - a tenant farmer's son and Larry.

The teacher can't be blamed. She probably didn't even immediately realize two of her students had been left out.

But Sherry came home upset. She had tried to give Larry her invitation; he wouldn't take it. So she didn't go to the party either, and I was proud of her decision.

Larry saw a lot of the ugly side of people; he suffered a lot of slights. But he graduated from high school. It would have been easy to slide into wrongdoing. At least one of his brothers did; he wound up in prison - convicted of murder.

But Larry never bowed to the pressure, never became bitter. And I heard somewhere along the way that he is now a lawyer.

So in many ways, my children and I grew together in our understanding that every person deserves the dignity of being judged only on what he or she does.

I thank my dad for laying the foundation for us to do this. I was never taught to hate. So I didn't teach my kids to hate. Perhaps we understood stigmas a little better than some others because my mom was mentally ill and people often avoided her because she was different.

But Sherry had another black friend in middle school. His family lived in a modest home in a white neighborhood not too far from our development. Walter was always well-dressed and extremely polite.

He taught my son the fundamentals of baseball. He and Sherry often sat on the curb talking for hours. But Walter refused every invitation to come inside our house or into our yard.

Over the years, I fretted about this - wondering if I had sent out the wrong vibes.

The Mathis column, however, gives me new insight. Walter's mother probably worried about him, too. He lived in a white world; he was a target. He probably was taught not to put himself at risk by going where he might be suspect or be hurt.

I should have figured it out because of incidents that occurred when I invited the daughter of black friends to visit us for a week during summer vacation.

Some neighborhood kids did not come around while Beverly was at our home. One neighbor went so far as to say in Beverly's hearing that their kids would not swim in our pool again because a black child had swum there. Only this loud-mouthed jerk across the street didn't phrase it that politely.

I was appalled and embarrassed that this could happen. But Beverly never showed a reaction. She'd been taught not to show she could be hurt.

I wish I could say such things don't happen anymore. But they do. I wish I could fully understand what it's like to be suspect or to be shunned just because the color of my skin is different. But I don't. I haven't lived it.

But the Mathis column paints a vividly painful picture - one that should be taped to everybody's refrigerator door to read and re-read.

Editor's note: Mathis' column and another one by black columnist Donna Britt have appeared on The Sentinel's Opinion page over the past two weeks as substitutions for vacationing regulars Ellen Goodman and Donald Kaul. Based on the very positive response we have received from readers, one of them definitely will become a regular contributor in this public forum.


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