Being Black in Westchester

The Lessons My Parents Taught Me About Being Black in Westchester



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Lawrence Otis Graham; Photo by Chris WareWith Barack Obama this close to moving into the White House, you’d think our society has at last become color blind. But try telling that to the Harvard lawyer and BEST-selling author whose strolls through neighboring towns sometimes elicit calls to the police.

“I’m sorry to bother you, but would you mind if my child felt your son’s hair?”

As I waited on line at the small pizza shop in downtown Chappaqua, I held tightly onto my four-year-old son’s hand and chatted quietly with his baby­sitter. “Excuse me, sir,” a voice repeated from behind us, “but would you mind if my child felt your son’s hair?”

At first I hadn’t realized the question was directed at me. I turned to see an attractive woman with wavy blonde hair and clear blue eyes. She smiled at me and waited for me to answer her question.

“I beg your pardon,” I answered while glancing over to the pink-cheeked little boy she cradled at her hip with one arm. She leaned in toward me, bringing her child closer, and in a stage whisper added, “Tommy’s just four and he’s never seen hair like your boy’s. Would you mind?”

As I looked down at my son, I saw his beautiful chocolate-brown skin, bright brown eyes, long lashes, and curly black hair—and I saw my own childhood staring back at me. Gordon had not comprehended the woman’s question, and he had no idea what I was thinking or what a few of the adults in the bustling pizza shop had just heard. It was one of those moments that virtually every middle-class black parent in Westchester and beyond has experienced when living in an affluent white community that remains mystified by their presence. It is a moment that is riddled, not with racial hostility, but with passive bias.

It was hard not to respond the way my Memphis-born parents had responded to similar remarks to them when we were the only black family in our all-white upper middle-class White Plains neighborhood in the 1960s and 1970s. But I resisted.

I happen to love Westchester. I have lived here all my life. I love my neighbors in Chappaqua. And I was determined not to receive it as an insult. So I responded with patience. “I’m sorry, miss, but I’d
actually mind very much.”

A wave of shock washed across the woman’s face as she placed her child down. He was slightly taller than my son, and he stood just inches away, staring with curious eyes.

“Really?” the woman asked with an air of surprise. “What’s the big deal?”

I ushered Gordon over to his baby­sitter and told them to sit down. “Madam, I’m sorry that your son has never touched hair like ours, but my four-year-old is not a social-studies experiment.”

“It’s just hair,” she declared, suddenly belittling a request that originally meant the world to her, “and you have to admit that hair like yours is kind of different from what Tommy is used to seeing around here.”

I calmly asked the woman how her four-year-old would feel if a feature on his body was pointed out as being unusual and so unique that it deserved a spotlight or a physical inspection by a complete stranger. As we walked out of the small shop with our three slices of pizza, I was rather certain that she still had no grasp of our feelings of alienation.

The African American experience in Westchester certainly could be portrayed in different ways depending on the period, the town, and the racial or socio-economic mix of the community in question.

Although African Americans have lived in Westchester since the 1700s, when they were brought to work as slaves at Philipsburg Manor in Tarrytown, and while there were small numbers of African Americans in the county in the early 1920s (the 1920 Census reported 11,066) with many living in Mount Vernon (1,350), White Plains (998), Yonkers (1,920), and New Rochelle (2,600), the earliest meaningful residential population of blacks did not arrive until the mid-1930s, particularly following the 1935 race riot that occurred in Harlem. Middle-class families, who had their own small businesses, or whose members were physicians, dentists, or worked for the U.S. Post Office, were the first ones to buy homes in Southern Westchester. By 1940, the population of African Americans living among Westchester’s 573,558 residents had tripled to 31,346. Most of these African Americans represented a working class population, with about 20 percent representing the middle and professional classes.

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