Call of the Tribe
An audio essay in two parts
As I continue to work on my memoir and to think through my past, I’ll occasionally encounter a memory or incident that encapsulates a defining theme in my life. This is the case with a memory about my childhood friend Woody. As you’ll see below, our fateful decision to attend a Black Panthers rally in Chicago led to not only a schism in our friendship but a set of questions about identity, authenticity, and belonging that I have spent my life circling.
I’ve split this reminiscence into two parts, each of which has an accompanying video produced by my creative director, Nikita Petrov. Anyone can read and watch the first part, but the second part is available only to newsletter subscribers. So if you want access to this story’s conclusion—along with a host of other benefits and exclusive content—click below and become a subscriber now.
We are all familiar with what I will call the “identity reflex.” We all hear the call of some tribe or another. We humans are a variegated lot—differing by race, ethnicity, cultural heritage, religion, and political and sexual orientation. This is, of course, as it should be. Diversity is a good thing—really.
Still, there are times when the call of the tribe just might be a siren’s call and when an excessive focus on “identity” could lead one badly astray. What is more, I firmly believe that now is just such a time.
We are living through what by all accounts has been a most extraordinary period of national reckoning on racial issues—one in which questions of identity have played a huge role—I believe it is important to at least raise (if not answer!), in a gentle and nonpartisan way, the question of what role “identity” ought to play in our politics and in our lives.
I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s and '60s. A formative experience for me occurred during one of those earnest political rallies so typical of the period. Woody, who had been my best friend since boyhood, suggested that we attend. The rally had been called by the Black Panther Party and was intended to galvanize our community’s response to the killing by the Chicago police of Party activists Mark Clark and Fred Hampton during an early morning raid on their apartment in one of the city’s many all-black neighborhoods. I can remember even now how agitated about it we all were at the time. And judging by his demeanor, Woody was among the most zealous.
Despite this zeal, it took courage for Woody to attend. For, although he proclaimed his blackness often, and though he had descended from a Negro grandparent on either side of his family, he nevertheless looked to the entire world like your typical white guy. Everyone, on first meeting him, assumed as much. I did too when we had begun to play together a decade earlier, just after I had moved into the middle-class neighborhood called Park Manor where Woody’s family had been living for some time. There were a number of white families on our block when we first arrived; within a couple of years they had all been replaced by aspiring black families like our own. Yet, Woody’s parents never moved, which puzzled me. Then one day I overheard his mother declare to one of her new neighbors, “We just wouldn’t run from our own kind.” Somewhat later, while watching the film Imitation of Life on TV, my mother explained how someone could be “black,” even though they looked “white.” She told me about people like that in our own family—second cousins who lived in a fashionable suburb, and on whom one would never dare drop in unannounced because they were passing for white. This was my earliest glimpse of the truth that racial identity in America is inherently a social and cultural, not simply a biological, construct—that it necessarily involves an irreducible element of personal choice.
Evidently, Woody’s family had also been passing for white in pre-integration Park Manor. The neighborhood’s changing racial composition had forced them to choose between staying and raising their children among “their own kind.” This was a fateful decision for Woody who, as he matured, became determined not simply to live among blacks but, perhaps in atonement for his parents’ sins, unambiguously to become one. The boys in the neighborhood did not make this easy. Many delighted in teasing him about being a “white boy,” and most simply refused to credit his insistent, often-repeated claim: “I’m a brother, too!”
The fact that some of his relatives were passing made Woody’s racial identity claims more urgent for him but less compelling to others. He desperately wanted to be black, but his peers in the neighborhood would not let him. Because he had the option to be white—an option he radically rejected at the time—those without the option could not accept his claim to a shared racial experience. I knew Woody well, and I wanted to accept him on his own terms. But even I found myself doubting that he fully grasped the pain, frustration, anger, and self-doubt many of us felt upon encountering the intractability of American racism. However much he sympathized with our plight, he seemed to experience it only vicariously.
So there we were, at this boisterous, angry political rally. A critical moment came when Woody, seized by some idea, enthusiastically raised his voice above the murmur to be heard. He was cut short in mid-sentence by one of the dashiki-clad brothers-in-charge, who demanded to know how a white boy got the authority to have an opinion on what black people should be doing. A silence then fell over the room. “Who can vouch for this white boy?” asked the brother indignantly. More excruciating silence ensued. Now was my time to act. Woody turned plaintively toward me, but I would not meet his eyes. To my eternal shame, I failed to speak up for my friend, and he was forced to leave the meeting without a word having been uttered in his defense.
That was not exactly a profile in courage on my part, I must confess. Our friendship limped along for years; then I moved away from Chicago and we pretty much lost touch. We never really discussed the incident. Much later I learned that he had been sympathetic to my plight—he fully understood that forced to choose, as he put it, between my friend and “my people,” I would have chosen “my people.” He only wished that I had made him aware of how anguished I was about the whole thing. I never did.
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