My mother died in 1969, at the end of my sixth-grade year, and one year later, during the summer before eighth grade, my father remarried and moved the family from suburban Long Island back to our former home on the East End, in the sleepy seaside town of Amagansett where haul-seiners still cast their nets each morning into the sea.
Already extremely shy, my mother dying, compounded by our family’s reconfiguration and move, jolted me from shyness into numbness, and when it came to school and my main passion, sports, I found myself on the outside looking in. Still teaching “up island” at Dowling College, my dad was rarely around. I’d spend afternoons at the neighborhood playground which had a pristine basketball court with nylon nets and freshly painted lines. Tucked behind the Amagansett grade school, the court was sheltered from the wind and the eyes of adults, and I joined a motley assortment of other outliers, sons of tradesmen and fishermen, making mischief and doing what I loved most, playing basketball.
One afternoon during the spring of my ninth grade year at East Hampton High, a group of varsity players, having discovered our oasis, showed up at the Amagansett court and, needing one more, pulled me into a game. I remember getting the ball on a breakaway, hurrying the shot and missing the layup. Running back up the court, a black guy named Frosty, starting point guard, middle linebacker on the football team, a barrel-chested dude renowned on the East End for his strength and toughness, jogged past me and said, “Don’t be scared, man.”
The first time I’d ventured onto the court with the town’s best players, the toughest dude in East Hampton was telling me I could play with them—if I let myself enter the fray.
Two years later, after I’d made the varsity team as an unknown junior—I was now six-foot-one, able to dunk with relative ease—Coach took me aside after the first game and told me he was sending me down to the JV so I could get more experience and be ready for next season. I was disappointed, of course, but also understood—I had only played on one actual basketball team before and that one, a seventh- grade team cobbled together by an English teacher before we moved back east, had played a total of one game.
During the first JV game, I was playing cautiously when during a stoppage for a pair of free throws a few black guys from the varsity team called to me from where they stood beyond the endline, one of them my fellow junior, Gilbert Mabry, who’d been playing varsity since he was a freshman. “Skip!” Gilbert called, using the nickname I went by. He flicked his wrist from his forehead in a shooting motion. “Let it go, dude.”
From that point on, I shot nearly every time I got the ball, and though I missed more than I made, I felt I’d been given permission to let it go. I didn’t quite break out of the bubble that contained me, but I at least began to push myself against it.
One early summer afternoon after my ninth grade year, as I stood in the outfield on the East Hampton village playground during a pickup softball game, a black friend named John Hudson leaned out from the window of his mother’s passing car and called, “Skip! You want a job?” The car pulled over, I climbed in the backseat, and John’s mother dropped us outside the village at the hot Hamptons restaurant, Bruce’s, named for the chef and owner, Bruce Weed.
From that first night in June through Labor Day, I washed dishes five, sometimes six, nights a week at Bruce’s. Although John soon got pulled onto the cooking staff, he and his mother usually gave me rides to work, and he and I would hitchhike home afterward, generally at one or two in the morning, though on busy weekend nights not till three or four.
It was amazing how hard we worked, trying to keep up with the summer crush of diners in the undersized kitchen, the bus staff carrying in tray after tray piled high with dishes to me and a second dishwasher, one of us emptying the glasses, scraping the plates, loading the machine, the other unloading, stacking dishes, racks of glasses, and hustling them back out to the bussing station. The Hamptons were just becoming the Hamptons, and the staffs at this and a few other restaurants were feeling the early tremors as the land beneath us started to shift.
At the end of our shift, sweaty and grimy, John and I would drink a Heineken while mopping the floor, lock up the kitchen, and walk out to the highway to hitchhike home, John to the outskirts of an area still identified on some maps as Freetown, an historical settlement of small houses for freed slaves and displaced Native Americans, and me to Amagansett. Many nights it would be so late that the highway would be empty, and John and I would playact beside the street in the far reaches of the restaurant’s exterior flood lamps.
Over the first few weeks, our characters, at John’s direction, took shape, he, at six foot-two and more than 200 pounds, the angry black bear of a servant, and pre-growth-spurt me, at five-foot-six and 125, the white master trying to keep him in check.
“I can’t take it no more,” John would grumble, pacing before me on the shoulder of the roadway in the faint light.
“What can’t you take?” I’d say. “Doing what I tell you?”
Each night we’d argue back and forth, John simmering, then erupting. “I said I can’t take it no more!” At which point, John would hoist me onto his shoulder, spin around, and flip me to the ground, making sure to land me on my feet.
Often we were so immersed in our roadside theater we’d miss a passing car, though eventually we always got a ride, from late-night revelers winding down or an early morning fisherman heading to Montauk. We’d drop John first, at the second light in East Hampton, half mile or so from Freetown, then me in Amagansett, where I’d walk from the highway down Atlantic Avenue as the first tendrils of light pushed into the eastern sky.
As I think back to when we’d drop John to walk off toward the railway trestle that served as a gateway to Freetown, I can’t picture how his nightly journey ended. I have only a vague memory of, maybe, one time seeing his house. Partly, perhaps, because he didn’t want me to, many of Freetown’s modest homes in states of disrepair, and possibly because I didn’t want to, either, the roadside theater all I could handle.
After spending junior year acclimating on the JV, the following season I joined Gilbert and a few other varsity veterans on the starting five.
On the bus rides to and from away games, a group of black players led by Gilbert, would sit in the back of the bus playing the dozens, the verbal put-down game, forerunner of rap battles I had read about in books such as Claude McKay’s Manchild in the Promised Land and Gordon Parks’ The Learning Tree, Gilbert erupting with laughter as he described Evelyn, the mother of his backcourt mate, cooking pancakes on the hot summer asphalt street because they couldn’t afford a stove.
At this time, black students made up about ten percent of the population at East Hampton High, ninety or so out of nine hundred kids. Of the 25 or 30 boys who comprised the core of basketball players, about half were black. Of these 15, I can think of 7 off the top of my head, including Gilbert, who are dead now, most before turning 40. Of the 15 or so white guys, I know of one.
I feel a lot less nostalgia when it comes to my time playing basketball in college.
After a disappointing freshman year at Ithaca College where, after a serious early-season ankle sprain, I never got untracked, I transferred to SUNY Oneonta. There, the first week playing pick-up in the gym, the head coach invited me to join the team for preseason workouts. (NCAA rules prohibited me, as a transfer, from playing on the team until the following year.)
I spent the rest of that first year partying, experimenting with literature classes, and the next fall joined the team for pre-season conditioning. By the time the season began, I had developed a case of patella tendinitis, which got worse as the season progressed, reducing the strength of my left leg to seventy-five, then fifty, then twenty-five percent. But I had other problems too.
Although my laid-back persona had generally been a salve, helping me smooth over, if not sidestep altogether, most conflicts, at Oneonta, it attracted the ire of a couple of teammates. The truth was, it had begun to attract my own ire. Avoiding conflict, along with my ritual of nightly drinking, was getting tiresome, the protective bubble I lived in getting thicker, despite my attempts to break out, rather than thinner.
“Damn, Skip,” Bobby Colbert, a black kid from Hempstead, Long Island, would say to me after practice in the locker room, “why don’t you have any women? Good-looking white dude like you. What’s wrong with you, man?” To which I’d respond with a clever rejoinder and continue getting dressed, humor, I’d found long ago, the great deflector.
Some days, Bobby, a thick, powerfully built 6’ 3” forward, was friendly and seemed to like, perhaps even admire, me. Yet other days he wouldn’t let up. “Just tell me,” he’d say, “what’s wrong with you, man?”
The second teammate whose ire I aroused was a 6’ 8” black dude named Jim Miller. As a transfer from Monmouth College, Jim came in with high expectations, having transferred down from Division One to Division Three, and a good deal of bluster.
The first time Jim and I played together during a preseason pickup game, he made a bogus call, citing a rule that didn’t exist, and when I questioned him, he shouted across the gym, having no idea I was one of the top players on campus, “You ever play organized ball before?” To which I shot back something to the effect of, “As a matter of fact, yes. And I also learned the rules.”
From that point until the season began, Jim and I rarely crossed paths, and two months later during practice, the incident I’d assumed long forgotten, Jim raced in on a two-on-one fast break, me the lone defender, and threw down a fierce one-handed dunk as I stood below, Jim turning back to shout, “That’s you, pussy!” as he ran back up the court.
Now, times have changed since the late 70s, trash-talking having become more common. But the point wasn’t the words but the heat.
I took the ball from the net, cocked it at my shoulder to fire at his retreating form, but as I’m wont to do, thought better of it, instead passing to a teammate, and continuing the drill.
Over the years, I have had several encounters on the hoop court with volcanically angry dudes, sometimes white, sometimes black, but never before or since with a teammate over something that seemed so trivial. Yet, there’s no question that in the instance of Jim Miller, and likely Bobby Colbert, the disagreements were fueled not merely by my apparently blithe manner, but by race. Just as they were black dudes to me, I must have been a white dude to them. Aloof, untroubled, irritating as hell.
In the late 90s, once my tortuous academic path had finally concluded with the procurement of a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the University of Utah, I entered the market for a college teaching position. I had little hope of being hired. For although I had amassed a range of qualifying credentials—a degree from a top-rated program, teaching experience, published stories—I had not published a book. To my delight, however, I received several invitations to interview at that year’s big hiring conference hosted by the Modern Language Association (MLA).
My excitement didn’t last long. At each interview, the hosts, generally a department dean and senior faculty member or two, seemed to lose interest almost immediately, asking a few perfunctory questions and wrapping up with a polite, “Nice to meet you, Shelby.”
One question, tendered by a guy from San Jose State, struck me as especially odd. Once the few pro forma questions had been asked, the guy, switching to an offhand, post-interview tone, asked about my time playing basketball at Oneonta, an item at the end of my CV in the “Other Interests” category, the guy wondering if I’d played against his alma mater which was also in upstate New York.
A couple of weeks after the conference, from which no one had followed up, I had a phone interview with the English dean at Penn State, Erie. The conversation began wonderfully, the dean clearly excited about my candidacy. But then she too asked a question that struck me as odd: How would I feel about living in a semi-rural town like Erie? Being from the East End of Long Island, which at the time was more rural than suburban, I said it would be fine, and the dean promised to call back ASAP with details for a campus visit.
An hour later, I got a call from the dean’s assistant who told me they were no longer interested in my candidacy. Miffed, I thought back to the phone interview, and it occurred to me that the dean must have thought I was black, and had subsequently, after reviewing my CV and perhaps making an investigatory call or two, discovered her error. Yet the idea of being viewed through a racial lens was so foreign to me that I quickly dismissed the dean’s error, if she had even made an error, as a one-off, and got back to the hunt.
A month or so later, I was invited to visit campus for a one-year position at a college in Maryland. As it turned out, my meeting with the department dean and search committee was more a welcome than an interview, as our meeting was their last scheduled duty before they headed off on summer break, and I left thrilled to have landed the job even though it was only for a year.
Sometime in October, two months into fall term, a colleague from the search committee mentioned in passing how they’d thought I was black. This time, I took a closer look at my CV, and though I could understand how a cursory view might lead someone to misconstrue my race—one of my areas of study was African-American literature, and I’d published a short story in the African-American journal, Callaloo—I nevertheless continued to assume that any such error was the exception rather than the rule.
The clincher occurred later that school year when, back on the job market, I had a terrific phone interview with a search committee chair from a small college in New Hampshire who invited me for a campus visit.
On a cold, rainy day in late March, the visit went so-so, the series of meetings and interviews pleasant enough, but the sample creative writing class I taught a total clunker, the students not recognizing any of the strengths of the sample story I’d brought, an amazing piece by a mixed-race student from the Maryland college about getting validation from tattoos in her otherwise loveless world. And so I left New Hampshire to a tepid farewell, the realization I would not be a good fit clearly mutual.
It wasn’t until I spoke with the Humanities dean on the phone a month or so later when, after he’d apologized for the delay and offered me the job, we had a discussion in which the light blinked fully on. They had first offered the job to someone else, the dean explained, but now that this person had formally declined, they were offering it to me. I told him I was sorry but had decided to accept a high school position in southern California. As the dean made his final pitch—it was now late April and they were desperate to fill the position—we talked about my visit, the class I taught, how impressed he had been with the story I’d brought, and how he thought I’d be a great person for the job. “To be honest, Shelby,” he said, “I was surprised when I first met you—the whole committee had thought you were black.”
So it wasn’t the occasional school that had misconstrued my race, but a good many, perhaps all of them—at least all of those that expressed interest. Never did I feel so, well, white. Not default, per expectation, no-need-to-even-think-about-your-race white, but white as in wrong, ineligible, disqualified, a fact that, at first, felt terribly unfair.
But then, reflecting on my own academic experiences in grad school, college, high school, all the way back to my first year in kindergarten, I could count the black teachers I’d had, or even seen on the faculties of my schools, on one hand. So sure, I was disappointed, but I also understood, even respected, the schools’ pursuit of a black candidate—what they thought was a black candidate.
I should also add that my distress over being on the wrong side of affirmative action was lessened by the ironic fact that I, as a white applicant, had actually benefitted from it. For it was only due to the initial misconception that I’d been invited for those two campus visits in the first place, and would not, otherwise, have been there, last one standing, when the clock ran out on the two search committees that had offered me jobs.
In the end, the issue of my ambiguous race (on paper, at least) was remedied simply enough. All I had to do was, in my application materials, explicitly declare my whiteness. Yet for some reason, the prospect of doing so felt strange, foreign, somehow beneath me. I had always felt that using one’s race as an identifier represented a defeat of sorts, a surrender to our racist American typology—a feeling borne of privilege, no doubt.
Finally, with a sigh, as if a bubble had been pricked and was slowly losing air, I added a single sentence to my cover letter: As a white writer, I am keenly interested in African-American culture and, even more, in cross-cultural perspectives—white of black and black of white.
Meanwhile, I’d gotten married to a mixed-race woman, her dad an African-American born in the States to Jamaican émigrés, her mother of northern European descent, our wedding a festive gathering, many of my wife, Page’s relatives being from her dad’s side, and my side mostly white with a few black members mixed in, my sister Terry having four children with her black, Costa Rican husband.
Within a year, Page gave birth to our first child, Talia, and two years later, once we’d moved to California, to our second, Sebastian. Two more years later, Talia now four and Sebastian two, we completed the circle, moving from California back to East Hampton where I took a job at a posh new private high school.
Despite being more developed than when I’d grown up there, the East End, or The Hamptons, remained a difficult-to-reach resort area that was in many ways cut off from the wider world. Yet in other ways, it was less outlier and more microcosm, with its ever-widening class divide, having, on one hand, a perpetually increasing number of wealthy second homeowners, and on the other hand, a continual influx of LatinX laborers to provide the services they required.
Meanwhile, the number of working class whites and blacks had steadily diminished, some dying off, and most of the others who owned homes in what had become desirable locales—Lazy Point, a bayside hamlet for fishermen, and Freetown—selling and moving away.
Still, despite the stark social stratification and changing demographics, the overwhelming affluence of the area meant laborers had a clear path into management and ownership, and we returned to being a place that was, still, largely buffered from the tensions of the wider world.
My wife Page being, biologically, one-fourth black, our children one-eighth (Talia’s skin a bit darker than her brother’s), they grew up with their race rarely coming into question, which is to say, they grew up, by default, white. Still, there were moments that gave them pause, for Talia, the occasional “What are you?” questions from peers, and for both children, the limited options on the demographic sections of those early state-administered standardized tests, “mixed race” or “other” not yet being offered.
My children also received gentle reminders of their mixed-race heritage from their mother, especially when she would cart them off to New York City to visit her cousins, or to D.C. to visit Talia’s godfather, all of whom were black.
In sum, both Page and I were pleased with the smooth introduction to race our children had and, aside from the occasional perplexing questions, they grew up without distress or confusion, Talia, in particular, embracing her role as oldest-child-problem-solver and taking any small bump in stride, always positive, bright, effervescent.
Until, that is, she went off to a large state university in Pennsylvania and saw the world through a wider lens, at which point the implications of those “What are you?” questions asked by friends, and by the state, as well as the occasional intimation that being bi-racial was not a simple matter, began to rattle around in her conscience.
Then, about four years ago, the summer before her senior year, Talia had an experience that fully cemented her identity as a person of color.
She and her college roommate, a first-generation American born to Guatemalan immigrants, were on their way back from a spring break trip to Puerto Rico when, passing through rural Pennsylvania en route from the airport, they stopped at a MacDonald’s. Fresh off the beach, both Talia and her friend’s skin had roasted from its normal pale-almond color to a bronzy-brown.
A white dude—nondescript, unshaven, wearing a baseball cap—standing at the register beside them said, not as a question but a statement, “Why don’t you go back to where you came from.” Talia’s friend responded, “This is where I came from, but thanks anyway,” at which point a second guy stepped over to the first and said, loud enough for the girls to hear, “I got my 12-gauge in the truck if we need it.”
For the first time in her life, Talia would later tell me, she felt she had not only been singled out because of her darker skin but was in actual physical danger because of it. It wasn’t even a matter of race, or ethnicity, not exactly. These men had no idea if the girls were Latina, African-American, Pacific Islander, Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Caribbean, Native American—they only knew they were something.
The experience hit my daughter like a gut punch. Now she knew, first-hand, not only what so many people of color have to face, but how insulated from this reality she, and the white people she’d grown up with, had been.
After hearing her tell the story, once my blood had settled, I couldn’t help but wonder if my own particular brand of whiteness—my approach to race, my aloofness, my choice of where to live—had helped buffer her from a racialism which, despite my wishful thinking, had been growing more toxic rather than less, and if my daughter might, on some level, conscious or unconscious, hold this against me.
Yet as Talia recounted the incident to me over the phone, still processing what had happened, neither my race nor my attitude came up—in fact, I didn’t come up. What my daughter wanted, as she had told me before, and has told me since, was for me to simply listen—not to offer a remedy, or even reassurance, merely to listen. She herself would figure out how to work through this. All Talia wanted was for me, her father, to be there.
My son, Sebastian, began disconnecting from the mainstream when he was still in elementary school. Like me, he became friends with other outliers. In his case, this was mostly kids from low-income families, including several kids of color, a phrase that has broader meaning now with the proportion of LatinX locals so much higher.
As a result of his early subversion of our East End class and race stratification, Sebastian never had an epiphany similar to his sister’s, and as a 24-year-old who is every bit as fair-skinned as me, his blonde-haired, freckle-faced father, moves fluidly from his white friends to his black and brown ones. The seamlessness is natural for him. Just as a vicious and archaic racism has been unleashed by the country’s deepening divide, kids of Sebastian and Talia’s generation live in a youth culture where rap and neo-soul are signifiers of cool, and their world, bending toward justice, is what provokes such ire among those wishing to stop history.
Up until a few years ago, Sebastian and I played a lot of sports together, in the latter years mostly basketball. Sebastian is a gifted athlete who excelled in school sports until, after years of school refusal, he dropped out completely in tenth grade.
We continued playing ball together in the gym of the private school at which I worked until I gave up teaching a few years ago, along the way the two of us becoming avid NBA fans, maintaining an ongoing discussion about our favorite teams and players.
Sebastian’s favorites are often black, though lately a couple of Serbians have moved to the top of his list. What he admires most is brashness combined with grace—flair, swag. At the bottom of his list, often eliciting mockery and scorn, are the American white guys, who, with a few notable exceptions, lack the style and grit of the blacks and Serbs.
In the end, my son’s antipathy for American white players has nothing to do with skin color, but is about bearing, style, attitude. Sebastian has always had contempt for authority—schoolteachers, administrators, police—anyone who enforces, upholds, or simply buys into a system that works for some but not others, and certainly not for him. In this sense, with his implicit distrust of the status quo, my fair-skinned son may, in some core way, be blacker than his darker-skinned sister.
Sometimes, when we have a disagreement, Sebastian, who has an extremely short fuse, will become especially annoyed with my reasoned calm. As I sit before him in our living room determined to maintain my composure, his voice will rise, his mode of argument shifting from logic to ad hominem as he claims how humiliated I must feel knowing I am wrong, that he can see my face growing red with embarrassment. And although I am positive my demeanor betrays none of what he claims, as the sniping continues, the frustration will begin to bubble up into my throat, and the blood into my face, my own anger rising to match the anger that has geysered in my son.
With strikingly different dispositions, yet each with the direct, on-the-ground view of our world that only the next generation can provide, my children remind me, sometimes gently, other times less so, of the fortress I have long lived in, the defenses forever reconstructing themselves; and too, they remind me it’s okay to lower my guard, mix it up, get dirty—no, not okay, necessary.
In a country built from its inception upon a color-coded foundation, my children remind me that if they are part-black then so too are they part-white, that just as Blackness has become reified, has become a thing, so too must Whiteness be a thing, a color on the same spectrum as the others, subject to the same social fluctuations and shifting political tides.
My children remind me of the cruel paradox that race in America continues to represent—how skin color, a physical characteristic as benign as hair or eye color, has continually, perpetually, virally embodied our most malignant political impulses, resulting in a constitutive, baked in, American racialism that shouldn’t exist but does.
Yet, too, they show me that another paradox may yet offer deliverance. For in the simple act of acknowledging the insidious construct, of owning it, inhabiting it, entering my white body into the system we have wrought, our fundamental connectedness might yet be affirmed—Frosty and Gilbert seeing through my reticence; John Hudson pulling me into those cathartic roadside romps; Bobby and Jim challenging my aloofness; the search committees, in reminding me what I was not, forcing me to face what I was; my two children, not demanding so much as requiring that I join them where they live—here, with all of them, on the ground.
Shelby Raebeck is author of the story collection, Louse Point: Stories from the East End, and three novels, Sparrow Beach, Amagansett '84, and Wonderless. He lives on Long Island's East End in the hamlet of Springs.
Brian's Mixing It Up Playlist
Photo: The circa-1885 George and Sarah Melissa Fowler House, which has been preserved by the Town of East Hampton. East Hampton Library Long Island Collection.
For more perspective on places like Freetown and a snapshot of how statistics play out in real lives, read Brandi Kellam's account of the destruction of a black neighborhood in Newport News: Follow the Real Estate.
We People Who Are Darker Than Blue ::: Curtis Mayfield
Merry Go Round ::: Fred Neil
They Go Low ::: Fantastic Negrito
Everybody Knows ::: Leonard Cohen
I May Not Be Your Kind ::: Garland Jeffreys
Blowin’ In The Wind (live) ::: Stevie Wonder
Highest Bidder ::: Fantastic Negrito
We People Who Are Darker Than Blue ::: Sinead O'Connor