A lesson from ‘Black Harry’

Published 11:53 am Saturday, April 5, 2014

By Dennis Edwards

If white people think dealing with multiracial groups is complicated, imagine how confounding dealing with color is for blacks among blacks.

In my family, as in most, the hues around the dinner table are shades within a rainbow. We run the gamut from what some used to call the “light, bright and d— near white” to cousins so black folks used to call them blue. The irony in all of that is each shade had a separate story to tell.

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Slavery’s special evil created a series of contradictory rifts in American culture between whites and blacks who played together but couldn’t go to school together; between poor whites and enslaved blacks who had jobs their white neighbors couldn’t get; and intra-racially among blacks who were light and blacks who were dark.

Make no mistake about it: A lot of people are still “color-struck” and they aren’t all white.

It’s only been in my lifetime that being called black has become a great thing, a source of pride. In fact there was a time, not long ago, that calling a black person black could get you killed.

I learned that lesson on “The Field” one Saturday, when somebody called one of my friends “Black Harry” (not his real name).

We’d been playing basketball. Things got intense, as they sometimes do, and like a clarion call to ridicule, somebody said, “Hey, Black Harry, you Black ….”

He went ballistic. Restraint was necessary. He ran home to get his father’s gun. Guys went to the house to make sure that didn’t happen. Somebody started looking for his mother. Others shoved him back into the house, taking the weapon away.

I stood in shock on “The Field” trying to understand rage born of a kind of pain I’d never experienced. I was too light skinned to know what it meant to be called black when nobody wanted to be. The stigma infiltrated everything from decisions to marry to friendships to job opportunities.

The brown paper bag test was real. Those who were darker than a paper bag didn’t get hired. Many brothers never got to take somebody’s daughter out, because they were too dark. Black families policed potential mates for their children just as religiously as whites did and, oddly enough, for similar reasons.

“Black Harry” went off that day, because he knew the stigma, rejected a predetermined destiny and wanted to determine for himself who he was and what he’d become.

Yet to this day I believe what hurt him more was the fact that those who looked like him were trying to use his shade against him in the same way color was used against them.

That day on “The Field,” I learned how far people will go to stand up for their dignity and how far some will go to snatch it away. Since then, I am careful about who I call “black.” The history is too fresh, the wounds too deep. And as much as we talk about racial prejudice, many of us still leave intra-racial prejudice unaddressed.

“Black Harry” went on to become a successful career and family man, to care meticulously for his mother until her death and to become a pillar of his church and community.

But the wounds in his spirit are still there. Maybe they shouldn’t go away. They’ve made a strong, God-fearing man out of him.

On “The Field” I learned how important it is to respect what hurts a friend and how friends (black or white) should never play the race card against each other.

Dennis Edwards is an Emmy Award-winning television news reporter and anchor, He is a 1974 graduate of Suffolk High School. Email him at dennisredwards@verizon.net.