John Young went to college to learn about white people. He graduates this year.
This private agenda propelled him to win the 190-pound championship of the National Collegiate Boxing Association in Reno, Nev., three weeks ago and, eight months from now, will have led him to claim a degree in accounting from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.
A soft-spoken demeanor, a superprisingly average build, and a thoughtful sensitivity successfully mask the power of a man who in toe-to-toe confrontations has jack-hammered his opponents. Trunks on, large, square glasses off, John Young takes on the look of a nasty twin.
He selected Lehigh with his glasses on. Just what he wanted. The northeastern Pennsylvania school was selected because of its liberal financial aid program and its literal and figurative distance from the majority blackness of the District of Columbia.
"I wanted to go to a white institution," Young says. "Most of the USA is white. Most of the money is white. I had to learn about them -- above all, how to compete with them."
The only son in a family of six, Young was held on a tight rein by his mother, Etta, who after the death of her husband went to work and helped finance five children through college. Donna, the youngest, now 15, will be the next to join a professional household that now includes a commercial artist, a journalist, a schoolteacher and an auditor.
Before college, family and neighborhood had given Young a firm sense of who he was and what he was about: "All my strength came from here; appreciation of my heritage came from here." Lehigh, the university perched on the side of South Mountain in Bethlehem, the Christmas City, accepted him. John Young was elated.
Preppies awaited him there. At that time, 1977, 4,000 whites and a block of 100 minority students, that included some 70 blacks, were present and accounted for.
First impressions of his white classmates came in a rush: "They seemed to think life was the same as it was lived at home; whatever they were taught they believed. They were used to money, private schools, and not thinking. I knew differently. I lived differently. Generally, I was ignored."
During his freshman year, Young was asked to join a white fraternity but decided it was "not the proper thing to do" after a controversy in the school paper that year over the suggestion of starting a black sorority on campus.
"A letter-writer said it would be counterproductive and foster segregation," remembered Young. "I wanted nothing to do with that kind of thinking."
Then there was the matter of food. The university dining hall featured a Mexican night and an Italian night. Young asked why there wasn't a Soul night, and, according to him, was told that it would take too much time to prepare fried chicken. When watermelon was served, Young said whites would grin at all the blacks on the food line.
Every semester break, every holiday, and on weekends when he "lurked out" with some spare change, Young, for a respite, would jump behind the wheel of his '66 Chevy Malibu and "book down '95". Headin' home.
The economical phone call home would succinctly state the case: "Mom, be home tonight, have it ready."
"That meant he wanted some fried chicken, collard greens and rice, homecookin', as soon as he hit the door," said Etta Young.
Home to Belair Place NE and a neighborhood of detachment homes, narrow streets, yards, trees, shrubs, yapping dogs and Brown's barbershop, where lies were swapped for fun and truth never taken lightly. Across the street, and down the hill a bit, was The Gathering Place. The steps of Langdon Park, 20th and Franklin streets NE.
Since junior high school days, Young and Jed and Chippy and Agnew and Jay, and whoever happened to be passing along, would sit in the warm, sweet night air and listen to the crickets, the wind, Miles, Mingus, Grover Washington Jr. and each other. Occasionally, some doo-whopping. Some woofing. A friendly, spontaneous, yet skillful, boxing match. A little craps on the side. But mostly talk. A review of their lives. a pooling of strength.
Then back to Lehigh. Where Young "sold" a white classmate in his speech class and earned a B-plus from a professor who asked his students to sell a product of their choosing to the class as a whole.
With his "product" standing beside him, Young gave a spiel, updated though it was, in the same tone and tenor as given for slaves on the auction block. "Many were offended," he recalled, "a reaction I found interesting."
His agenda now called for the big move.Having mastered academic competition with his peers, he now wanted to test himself in a "traditional white sport" -- college boxing, while carrying his scholastic load. He put on the gloves for the first time in his life during his sophomore year, entering an intramural competition.
He joined a team sponsored by the Black Students Union and was criticized by white classmates in his dormitory for not representing his "hall."
"I had to tell them I was black long before I lived in anybody's hall; another instance of their not thinking," said Young.
Young won the intramurals. Using Northeast Washington footwork and deadly, slamming blows, he waltzed and bludgeoned his way to an 11-to-1 record in semi-finals involving 18 colleges around the country that sponsor boxing clubs. This month, he won the crown. And quit flat.
"College boxing is a thinking sport, the type I like," said the former McKinley Tech football captain, "but I will not pursue it (into professional boxing). I did the job I had to do to keep myself mentally sharp. Now it's time to move on."
What has he learned from his experiences on a white campus? "I've been given the tools necessary to make a living." Did the people there learn anything from him? "They should have."
This summer Young will begin work as a technical sales manager for IBM in Bethlehem. His new goal is to work for 20 years, and then retire, or become president or chairman of the board.
But first, a house for his mother. "I will build it right there," Young said as he pointed a half-block from the present family residence. "She sacrificed for me. Now it's my turn to do the same for her."
While working out "for fun" at the Metropolitan Police Boys' and Girls' Club Number 11 in Southeast, Young, home last weekend from Lehigh for Easter break, held the ends of a rope that disappeared as he whizzed it under his feet and over his head, while talking excitedly about an event that was to occur later that night. The talk continued as he pummeled a heavy bag out of shape.
Young was excited about a reunion. To take place on the steps of Langdon Park. With Jed and Chippy and Agnew and Jay. And whoever else passes by.
"Home," said the young man with the boxing gloves slung over his shoulder, "is home."