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Learning About Racial Injustice as a Young Man in the 1980s

Taking David Dinkins' class in Black Political Leadership in New York

Africa was the original continent, from which all the others split off and drifted.

The first members of our species, homo sapiens, are thought to have come from Ethiopia, or the Horn of Africa.

When King Solomon married the Queen of Sheba, an Ethiopian woman, they may have inaugurated interracial romance, although Jewish men, even then, were already known to like shiksas.

David married Bathsheba, a Hittite.  Joseph married Anaseth, an Egyptian.

When I moved to New York City in the late 1980s, David Dinkins was the Manhattan Borough President.  In 1989, he would defeat then-Mayor Ed Koch in a tough Democratic primary and would go on to become the first African-American mayor of New York City.

In late 1987 or early 1988, I took a night class, taught by Dinkins, at the New School for Social Research.  The class was titled, “Black Political Leadership in New York.”  There was also a class in Jewish Political Leadership.  Though I am Jewish, I was not as interested in that class.

I can recall a number of the weekly classes taught by Dinkins.  

One of them had, among its panelists, Charles Rangel, who was a longtime power broker and congressman from Harlem.

Another session, which may have focused on entrepreneurship, featured Percy Sutton, an African-American businessman, who himself had run for mayor against Ed Koch.

Sutton, who had been the Manhattan Borough President from 1966 until 1977, had competed against Koch, as did many others, in the 1977 Democratic primary, a race that Koch ultimately won in a runoff against Mario Cuomo, who would later become a three-term governor of the state of New York.

I was impressed with Sutton’s dapper elegance, and I enjoyed many of the weekly classes.

But the one that stood out for me was a class on criminal justice.

The panelists were C. Vernon Mason, then a well-known civil rights attorney, who would later become a minister after being disbarred; Sterling Johnson, then a special prosecutor for the state of New York, who would become a federal judge; Ben Ward, the first African-American police commissioner of New York City; and a jurist, with whom I was not familiar.  I apologize for forgetting her name.

At that time, I was just a 22-year-old kid, less than a year out of college.  I was working as a paralegal at a law firm, and I wore goofy ties, which were not always knotted so well.

I was so maladroit in tying them that C. Vernon Mason and Sterling Johnson both cracked up a bit, as I, who sat in the front row, approached them.  If I am remembering correctly, Mason helped fix my tie.

Mason and Johnson were not big fans of Ben Ward, who was not well-liked by many African-Americans, partly because of all the hate crimes against African-Americans, such as the Howard Beach case, that had taken place on Ward’s watch and partly because he was perceived to be a sellout in working for Mayor Koch.

At our class at the New School, Ward spoke of how, when he was growing up, the expectation in his family was not just that he would go to college, but that he would also get a Master’s degree.

That comment did not go over well with the other panelists or with many of the students in the class, because Ward was not showing sensitivity to the systemic racism that made such aspirations quite difficult for African-Americans in New York and elsewhere.

At one point in our class that night, Ward posed a question about the racial composition of the class: “How come there are no white students in this class, except journalists?” 

I, who was not a journalist at the time, raised my hand.  

And David Dinkins, to his credit, said, “The white students in this class have paid to be here too.”

Not long after that class, I stopped working as a legal assistant and got a job as a waterfront planner for the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.

I have written about my time at the Parks Department before, but, given all the hate crimes and protests going on now, I could not help but think once again of my time working for the city of New York.

Starting in May 1988, I had a desk in the press office at the Parks Department, although I was a waterfront planner.

In the press office, I sat right next to Samson Mulugeta, who was originally from Ethiopia.  I often chatted with Samson and with Joe Richardson, another Parks spokesman, who was African-American and who had played basketball at Illinois State.

I remember asking Joe, who stood about 6-foot-five or so and had an imposing build, if he had ever played basketball against Larry Bird, who had gone to Indiana State.

Joe smiled at me and said, “You don’t know how good he (Bird) really is until you have to guard him.”

I would later play pickup basketball games with Joe and some other guys at Parks Department gyms.

And I talked often about the Tawana Brawley case with Joe and Samson, who had been the editor of the CCNY newspaper and was editing the Daily Plant, the Parks Department’s daily newsletter under Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern.

Indeed, Samson, who would go on to become a journalist for Newsday and would report from Africa, and I used to talk about many of the issues of the day.  

We talked about Operation Moses, in which Israel airlifted thousands of Falasha Jews out of the Horn of Africa and brought them to the holy land.  

We talked about the New York Mets, who were Parks Department tenants back then at Shea Stadium, and we went to a couple of games.  

We talked about writing.  Samson was aware that I had conceptualized and written a proposal for the “Baseball Ferry,” a waterborne transit service that would take fans from various places throughout New York to the World’s Fair Marina for Mets games.

We talked about Spike Lee’s movies, like Do the Right Thing, which came out in the summer of 1989.  I can recall Samson and others in the press office asking me what I thought about one of the apparent criticisms of that now-classic film; evidently, some critics were saying that Spike Lee had depicted Bed-Stuy, the Brooklyn neighborhood, where the film is set, through a roseate gauze, that it was an unrealistic and overly sanitized portrayal.

I said that I did not agree with that critique, and I said that whoever made such a critique was misguided, at best, since Spike Lee had included, among other characters, a Greek chorus of elders, who sat around and drank booze much of the day.   

Samson and I also talked about Bernard Goetz, who a few years earlier had been surrounded by and shot a group of black teens on a subway.

I remember that Samson convinced me to think about that case from a different perspective.

What would have happened in that case had Goetz been African-American?

What would have been the public and prosecutorial reaction if, in such a scenario, a black Goetz had shot a bunch of white teens on the subway?

These were the kinds of discussions that my Parks Department colleagues and I often had.

Samson used to say to me that the fact that we could talk about race meant that there was hope.

Those days at the Parks Department, in the waning months of the Koch administration, were some of the most riveting times I have experienced.  I felt as if I were part of the fabric of the city, as if I were part of a movement of a sort, perhaps not unlike the way some young people feel now.

There were hideous hate crimes, like Howard Beach and Bensonhurst, in both of which an African-American youth was killed by a gang of white teens.  There were cases of police brutality, whose victims included Michael Stewart and Eleanor Bumpurs, both of whom died at the hands of cops a few years before I moved to New York.

It is true that not as many white people seemed to be involved back then in any protests or in the debates taking place.

It is also true that not as many white people seemed to care in those days.

But some of us did, and some of us alway have.

I wrote my first novel, Strikeout at Hell Gate, about that period of time when I lived in racially torn New York City.  I was very ill, on the verge of my first psychotic break, when I wrote that book in the late 1990s, but I knew when I was beginning to write it that I would have an African-American protagonist and that the book would revolve around baseball.

When I gave the keynote address for the “Baseball Ferry” in August 1989, Samson Mulugeta covered my speech at Pier 11, down by the East River, and interviewed me for the Daily Plant, the Parks Department’s publication.

He was a nice man, and we were friends.

Maybe, Samson and I both descend from Solomon and Sheba.

While it may be that not everyone remembers me quite as well as I remember them, I am convinced that love fuels memory, just as love fuels and always has fueled friendships, as well as romances, both within and outside of one’s race or religion.

And those first interracial friendships and romances began in the Horn of Africa, where all homo sapiens come from originally.  

So, in the beginning, we were all black.

That is another way of saying that black lives matter, and they always have.

We might all try to remember that, and we should remember that out of love.  

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