Dan Mac Alpine wonders how life-long slights affected personal responses in the Henry Louis Gates affair.
It was the autumn of 1975. I would graduate high school that spring in our nation’s bicentennial year. After Vietnam and the Watergate domestic spying scandal that took down President Nixon, the country was ready to embrace a neo-patriotism. My class would graduate in blue robes with spangled red, white and blue collars.Maybe we weren’t so bad after all. Craig was a junior that year. His brother was big, at least by a cross-country runner’s standards. He played basketball. By contrast Craig was about 5-foot-7, although his Afro made him look taller. Thin lipped with a big, easy smile that revealed even, white teeth that shone even brighter when contrasted with his skin, a few shades darker than a regular coffee. Like the rest of us on the Natick cross-country team, he was thin. The team was knotted near the finish line. We were anticipating celebration. It looked as if we had just beaten Wellesley on their home course. The coaches were huddled, adding up the complicated scoring system in which the team with the lowest score wins. We took special satisfaction in beating the rich kids from Wellesley. Not that Natick was the wrong side of the tracks or anything. But we showed up for meets in regular yellow school buses. Not the air-conditioned, chartered buses Wellesley used. Natick kids were more likely to have summer jobs than summer homes. Craig and I worked landscape together on weekends in the fall raking leaves in Wellesley yards. Families in Natick generally raked their own leaves. Just after the coach triumphantly announced the score, Craig kind of stumbled into the group. His smile was kind of forced and quick. Somebody said something about him being stoned during the race. Not stoned in the mid ‘70s sense of the term. Stoned as in “The Lottery” sense of term. I went over to him as asked him what was going on. He said a group of kids had thrown stones at him during the race and yelled at him to, “Go back to Africa.” As team co-captain, I went with Craig to my coach with the beard halfway down his chest and a ponytail, and told him the story. He promptly did nothing. Craig wanted to drop it there, but Bob, the other co-captain and I, decided to lodge some kind of protest with the Wellesley coach, thinking it was his town. His school. Maybe he’d file a report or something. Maybe with the police. He gave us blank stares and did nothing, not even apologizing to Craig, as I recall. I remember getting back on the team bus confused, thinking the adults had somehow failed us, hadn’t done their jobs in some way. As I watched Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates vs. the Cambridge police Sgt. James M. Crowley play out on the national stage like a slow-motion car crash, I remembered Craig and wondered how or if we can separate individual injustices and life slights from history and racism. It never seemed to me Crowley was acting in a racist manner. He was just trying to do his job. A job, by the way, I wouldn’t want to do. Nobody ever calls the police to say, “Hey, we’re all getting along great. Want to come over and share the joy?” No. Police always see us at our worst. And this was probably the case with Gates. Jet lagged from a flight from China. Arriving home to a jammed front door. He probably wasn’t in the mood to be polite when questioned about his right to be in his own home. Should Gates have been more cooperative? Yes. But I wonder how many times, in how many ways, he’s had to justify the neighborhood in which he lives throughout his life. How many times he might have had to wonder if it was worth the potential hassle to go out for a late-night walk around the block on a hot summer night. Maybe he’d just had it. And maybe Crowley was in no mood to put up with guff that night. Here’s what I’d hope an Ipswich police officer would have done under similar circumstances: Once he’d established Gates’ right to be in his home, that there were no restraining orders out on him for the address, outstanding warrants, stuff like that, you just leave. Sorry to bother you Mr. Gates. Just trying to our job. Have a nice night. Bye. No need to escalate a non-crime involving a grumpy, somewhat egotistical, tired man. Instead, we have yet another “teachable moment” involving race in our country. Maybe this time we’ll actually learn something. Dan Mac Alpine is senior editor of the Ipswich Chronicle. Contact him at Ipswich@cnc.com.