Black and White Authors Hope Discussion Will Help End Racism
(Cheryl Weiss, Oct. 10, 2018)
Oak Park, MI- Racism. The word alone can divide communities. How do we get rid of this division? According to Thomas Daniels and Thomas Marsh, authors of Black and White Like You and Me, we need to talk to each other.
Their book and their events are opportunities to create those conversations. From library talks to book club meetings, to talks at local schools, Daniels and Marsh encourage others to share memories, ask questions, and, most importantly, to listen to each other.
At a recent presentation at the Oak Park Library, Daniels and Marsh opened the event by offering the audience Oreos. This sweet childhood treat, a black and white cookie, is symbolic of their work. Marsh, whose nickname since childhood is “Cookie,” is black and grew up on the west side of Detroit. Daniels, whose nickname since childhood is “Whitey,” is white and grew up on the east side of Detroit. Daniels said, “We all live parallel lives. Rarely do we have a chance to intersect with others; Black, White, Muslim, etc. Because of that, we start stereotyping. Cookie and I, we led parallel lives for our first 40 years…We could have met at U of D, but never met, probably because of the white and black issue.”
It was not until many years later that they met, because of a “Geezerball,” basketball team. On their website, www.blackandwhitelikeyouandme.com , they say, “Geezerball is a place where new friendships are made and old friendships are strengthened. It’s a place where getting along is expected. It is a place where egos are checked at the door and where we competed against each other ferociously but enjoyed each other immensely. It was a place where Whitey met Cookie. It’s the place where an amazing friendship began and where our story began to emerge. Geezerball is where parallel lines finally intersected.”
Both Daniels and Marsh grew up in Detroit in the 1950’s and 60’s in households with high expectations of them. They went to different schools; Daniels in a private Catholic school and Marsh in Detroit Public Schools. Daniels’ neighborhood was mixed and Marsh’s neighborhood was black. The book chronicles their lives, from childhood through Geezerball, and how their lives were impacted by race. In spite of their differences, their lives were very similar in many ways.
Daniels shared that since he grew up in a mixed neighborhood, he had friends that were both black and white. His mother grew up prejudicial but did not say much about it. There was one time, however. He played basketball after school, but practice did not begin until two hours after school was dismissed. His friend invited him to come over to have snacks and play in between school and practice. After about a month of doing this, Daniels’ mother asked him where he went every day. He told her, and she told him he was never to go there again. His friend was black. He disobeyed and continued going there every day; he just didn’t tell her.
Since Marsh lived in a black neighborhood, he did not interact with white people much when he was young. “My world consisted of a black world, a world where you only saw white people on TV…” When his family traveled from Detroit to Mississippi for family vacations he witnessed segregation and the Jim Crow laws of that time.
In the book and in his talk, Marsh related the story of the summer he was nine years old in Mississippi visiting his family. He was not accustomed to the signs that said “For Whites Only” and “For Coloreds Only” on the water fountains. He did not understand that he could not go into restaurants for white people, and that’s exactly what he did.
While his mom was shopping, he wandered around with his cousin. He went right in while his cousin waited at the door with his head down and hands clasped together in front of him, as blacks were required to do then.
Marsh went to the counter and started spinning on a stool, playing. He was told by the woman at the counter that they will not serve him, and he left. When his mother found out that he was in the all white restaurant, she ran to get him, and his cousin was punished for allowing Marsh to go in there when he knew better. Looking back, Marsh realized he could have been lynched, as others at that time were.
Marsh also shared a story of a family trip when the alternator in his father’s car went out. As it was in the South, nobody would do the repair. They made excuses, saying they don’t work on that car, they don’t have the tools for that car, the mechanic just left, or other excuses. It was another culture with different messages and different ways to behave than here in Detroit.
For both Marsh and Daniels, basketball was a huge part of their lives. It also helped to break down stereotypes. In the book, Marsh says, “…the one thing about athletics is that if you were good, you were good. It didn’t make any difference if you were black or white. You quickly learned to respect individuals not by the color of their skin but by how good could they play and what type of athlete they were.”
It was basketball that finally brought the two men together. They met at Geezerball, and Daniels was struck by how much they had in common throughout their lives. He wanted to write a book with Marsh, but was nervous about approaching him.
“Everyone says once in their lifetime they should write a book. I never thought it would take place,” he said “Why don’t we tell this story?” he asked. Marsh never thought he’d write a book, but as Daniels shared the vision he had for the project, how it was an opportunity to not only share their stories, but to begin conversations about race, Marsh agreed. He wanted to do something to help the community; to share how they met, and how parallel lines can intersect. They wanted it to be a grassroots effort, to bring people together.
As they collaborated, from the first conversation about writing a book together four years ago until the book was published in 2017, they became close friends and shared many experiences together. Marsh and Daniels traveled together, met each other’s families, had conferences together, and developed their plan. This project would encompass the past, the present, and the future of race relations in their lives and through their experiences.
Marsh and Daniels’ main purpose is to fight divisiveness. “Everyone’s divided between this and that. There is one race: the human race,” Daniels said, “Our message is to make sure we have a conversation that doesn’t divide us; that unites us. When you get to know the person, you know how much richer your life can be.” They are sharing their message by going to libraries, book clubs, and schools and talking to groups from one person to 30 people or more.
They try to educate white people, and give black people hope. “To this day, there are discriminatory practices. That’s a big part of what we’re trying to do here.”
In the talks and book signings, Daniels and Marsh invite the audience to share their memories of those days, and the experiences they’ve had, as well as questions they may have regarding race relations and racism. One attendee shared that her family traveled to the south for vacations also, and she could relate to much of what Marsh said.
Another audience member who is white shared that his wife is black, and talked about the time they were dating, and he overheard a conversation between his wife and her mother. “I thought I told you never to bring home a white boy!” she said angrily.
The work Marsh and Daniel are doing has already impacted lives in the area. They talked about the first library where they spoke after the book was published. It went great, then at the end, a white woman approached them and asked, “How do you talk to a black person?”
Four or five months later, the same woman contacted them to speak at her book club. They had invited a black book club to join them, so it became a large group of white and black members. The woman was bubbly, filled with enthusiasm and told them that the group was even talking about having a recipe exchange. It was then that Marsh and Daniel knew they were making a difference.
What advice do the men have? Instead of making judgments, talk to each other. Reach out, have conversations, and listen to what the other person says. We need more communication, more talk, according to the authors. When faced with someone who is angry in regards to race, ask why they are angry. If possible, have a discussion. According to Daniel, we have to have courage to confront this anger. Ask, “Why do you say that? Do you have any idea why people may not like something?” He said, “Ask, do not assume. Ask why they are kneeling instead of standing for the flag. Ask why people are sensitive. Ask them.”
Marsh said, “We’re doing what we can to help the situation. The smallest thing you can do can sometimes be the largest thing you can do.”
At the end of the program, they played the song “Accidental Racist” by Brad Paisley and LL Cool J. The lyrics include:
“Our generation didn’t start this nation
We’re still picking up the pieces,
Walking on eggshells,
Fighting over yesterday
And caught between Southern pride and Southern shame.”
Daniels and Marsh will have a talk and book signing at the Huntington Woods Library on February 13, 2019.
To find out more about Daniels and Marsh, check out their website at http://www.blackandwhitelikeyouandme.com/