I TOYED with the radio dial of our rental car, hoping to find a New England station that would play at least one soul song to make the transition easier.
Before I had left Washington with my mother and my oldest brother, my sister Gail had said, "I bet they don't have a WOL or WOOK up there, 'cause there probably aren't more than five or 10 blacks in the whole state of New Hampshire." She seemed to be right: I didn't hear a thing I liked on the radio. So I turned it off and watched the highway for something familiar, something to cradle the anxiety of a 15-year-old black from Anacostia heading for the elite white prep school world of the Phillips Exeter Academy.
Occasionally I saw other black faces in passing cars, and we would exchange waves or smiles. But after those brief moments I still felt unsettled, uncertain, a stranger in an alien land. It was, of course, an alien land to me.
It has taken six years now to rid myself of that painfully self-conscious feeling, to bridge the black and white worlds that long seemed to tear me apart. It has taken three years at Exeter and three more at another mostly white New England campus, Williams College, to learn one of the most basic lessons of my education: Don't make choices you don't have to make. Don't think you have to pick between having black friends or white friends, between talking black English or white English, between wearing street clothes or "preppie" clothes, between soul music or rock. Don't create unnecessary dilemmas. There are enough out there of other people's making.
That may seem a long time for so fundamental a lesson to sink in, but it was not very apparent to me when I was an eighth grader at the Frederick Douglass Junior High School in Anacostia, in 1971-72. In those days I had several teachers who knew my family well. They had taught nearly all six Witcher children and had attended my father's funeral in June 1972. They counseled me, the baby of the neighborhood family, to attend a recruitment meeting for several New England boarding schools, including Exeter.
At the meeting, my family and I learned about financial aid and admission requirements. My scores were low and I applied as an eighth grader, and I was not admitted anywhere. But my family and teachers encouraged me to try again. In the ninth grade, I actually doubled and tripled my scores, and two schools accepted me.
I did not know much about either "prep school." Who in Anacostia had ever heard of "prep school," let alone going all the way to New England to be at one? Indeed, before graduating from Douglass, my friends used to ask, "Why you want to go all the way up there to go to school with them white people? Don't it bother you none, Greg?"
I did not, in fact, know why I was leaving Anacostia. All I knew was I expected that going to Exeter was better than going to Ballou, or Anacostia or McKinley, since everybody said that white schools were better than black ones. I ended up picking Exeter because, among other things, I could continue studying the Spanish I loved.
But everybody else read much larger meaning into the decision and had endless advice to offer -- especially warnings about living in a white world. You don't think much about being black when you grow up in Anacostia, surrounded by other blacks. I had heard about whites, but for a long time I did not even know what they were. When I was 6 years old I had thought that a light-skinned uncle was white; he fit the description. My sixth-grade teacher was white. A teacher at 1972 summer program I attended at Trinity College was white. And the next year I spent two weeks among white students at the Potomac School in McLean. No lightning had struck.
Now, though, everybody was warning me about them. It made me feel that my advice-giving friends and family wanted to fasten onto me the tatter of a bitter experience they themselves had had with whites. Their words, although intended to be affectionate, helpful and reassuring, actually made me feel as though they thought me untrustworthy of keeping the so-called faith in my blackness.
There was, for example, the story my mother reminded me of. The incident had occurred when she and a friend stood at the lunch counter of a downtown Washington store in the early 1960s. Even though they waited longer to place their orders than others who entered after them, the waitress, a young white woman, would not serve them until she had taken care of all the white customers first. My mother and her friend, the only black customers, finally ordered a couple of half smokes. But when the waitress brought their food and asked them to pay, my mother's friend said, "There's the food. Now you eat it." They turned, as the waitress cursed them for not paying, and left the store -- satisfied customers.
Another piece of advice haunted me. Guy, my oldest brother, had told me that I could have a few white friends when I went to Exeter, but my closest friends should be black.
I had never, so far as I knew, been discriminated against. So I thought my mother's experience was an isolated event and my brother's advice wrong. I did not question the bitter feelings they sometimes expressed for whites -- I thought they deserved to have those feelings -- but I did not think that I had a reason to feel the same way. Their stories had made me distrustful of whites, all right, but I also relished the chance to prove them wrong. I hoped that chance was coming soon.
When we left for Exeter, there was one detail that I found deeply important: Soule Hall, Room 2. That was were I was to live during the first semester of my sophomore year. It was a single room -- the smallest room on campus, I later learned -- that I had requested because I was afraid who my roommate might be. More important, however, I worried that Soule (pronounced "soul") was the campus "ghetto" where all members of the black student union, called the Afro Exonian Society, lived.
I had received a letter the summer before welcoming me as a member of the Afro Exonian Society. I resented that. I did not want to be an automatic member of anything. I would not be taken for granted. I especially would not accept another self-conscious effort at blackness, another implicit warning against whites. I did not want to live just among black at Exeter. I wanted my integrated experience to succeed, if only to prove my family wrong. I could see how racial discrimination had embittered my family, and I saw this, however naively, as a chance to change things. This kid from Anacostia would be the one to solve the conflicts between blacks and whites.
My mother, brother and I arrived at Exeter on a Sunday afternoon. If I needed anything to remind me that I had left Anacostia, it was the green ivy hugging the walls of every building in sight, including Soule Hall. At Soule, not only a couple of blacks but several white and Asian students, too, greeted us and offered to carry my luggage to my room. I was relieved. My race-relations efforts could proceed.
One of my first friends at Exeter was another sophomore name Sterling. He was white. After a Sunday brunch at the Elm Street dining hall, we were walking back to my room in Soule. We were planning to hike along the river through nearby woods to admire the parade of autumn colors. Walking toward us in the opposite direction was a group of black male students. When I waved and said hello I heard one of the fellows say loudly, "Hey, man, what the hell are you doing with that white boy?" There it was, again. Sterling and I went hiking without saying another word.
The black teenager's Uncle Tom insult, like the warnings of my family and others, raised my fears about being friends with both blacks and whites. I felt as if I were being forced to choose between all black or all white friends, between being a member of the Afro Exonian Society or being an outsider. Some people may call that the beginning of "developing a black consciousness." But I just felt lousy.
The incident with Sterling provided the excuse that I wanted to avoid becoming active in the Afro Exonian Society. So most of the Exeter students that I became friends with were white. But that wasn't the world's greatest experience, either.
I was the only black that many of these friends had ever known. Consequently, I spent a lot of time answering their questions about black people. Some of the questions were silly, if not outright offensive, such as those about the Ultra Sheen hair oil I used. When the sunlight made my oily forehead shine, they would say, "Give me some of that shine, bro." Or occasionally, when I sat in their rooms, they might say, "Get your greaz-z-zy head off of my chair." That was usually followed by "I'm just kidding you, Greg." Terrific.
My white friends used to ask me, "Why do black always eat at their own dining table?" or "Why do they have to have their own room in the student center when we don't have one?" They never seemed to notice that whites also sat in isolated clusters in the dining hall and nearly everywhere else on campus. And there I was, somewhere in between all of them, defending whites when I was among blacks and blacks when I was among whites, never at home in either world.
I kept my feelings hidden from my family during vacations, preferring no conversation to one that might lead to an argument about race. I feared that acknowledging any kind of race problem at school amounted to admitting that my lofty experiment to unite blacks and whites had failed. Besides, I thought that my family's views on race relations were narrower than mine, because they'd had even less contact with whites than I'd had.
I took an 8-year-old Anacostia kid to make me begin realizing what was happening. During a summer vacation, when I was walking toward a bus stop, the little boy said to me, "Hey, boy, do you know the Rat Man?"
"Who is he? I asked.
"Don't you know him? He comes out at night to eat people up."
"No, I don't know the Rat Man. You ever see him?"
"Yeah," he answered, "but he didn't catch me because I punched him in the nose and ran away like this," he said, showing how quick he was for an 8-year-old. When he came back he said, "I thought you was going to put him in your sack and take him home with you." He was pointing to my back pack, an addition that I had picked up since going to Exeter, along with Brooks Brothers shirts, khaki slacks, blazers and other "preppie" clothes that didn't exactly fit in Anacostia.
"No, I sometimes carry books and clothes in this thing," I said.
"You don't live around here, do you?"
"I live right in that house," I said defensively, pointing to the brick row house that stood only a few doors away from his own. "I've always lived there, before your family moved around here or even before you were born."
"You wouldn't carry that sack if you always lived around here," he said. "Besides, if you come from around here, how come you talk so funny?"
"Funny?" I asked. "How do I sound?"
"Like that Rat Man," he said and ran quickly away.
The little boy obviously was right -- I had changed. That troubled me deeply. Was I betraying my heritage? My family? The friends I had grown up with? Was I the Rat Man? The only thing I knew for sure was that I was confused, unsure of where I belonged.
If I Didn't seem to "belong" back in Anacostia, I continued to be an outsider back at Exeter as well. It was a lonely role and certainly not the one that I had intended. Perhaps this was the basis of my friendship with Ralph, a student from West Germany: He, too, was an outsider. I was black, he was foreign. Exeter seemed an alien place to both of us. I remember telling my family about Ralph. My mother was surprised to learn that I had a German friend. "How did you two get together, anyway?" she asked. "I didn't think his people liked us. I thought Hitler had hated blacks as well as Jews. Well didn't he?"
Then one cool spring night, Ralph and I went to the Assembly Hall in the Academy Building to see the scheduled cartoons. "The Road Runner," clearly everyone's favorite, was one of the first features. Next was an "Amos and Andy" cartoon. Suddenly minstrel images appeared, with flopping lips the size of moon crescents. A black man's hair stood on end when he saw a ghost, and he said, "Feets, do yo' stuff." The student audience was laughing and whistling approvingly. Even Ralph was laughing. I was outraged.
I did not think these people were laughing at a silly cartoon but at all black people, including me. Under my breath and then again louder, I called "Ralph "a goddamn Kraut" and ran out of the auditorium. I leapfrogged down the rutted marble staircase. Transfixed, I felt as if I did not want to see another white face. I knew there was one place where I could find temporary refuge from "white Exeter" -- the Afro Exonian room in the Davis Student Center.
I felt the way I had felt when I approached Exetr for the first time -- uncertain. I did not know what I would find, whether the same people whose friendship I had ignored would welcome me or treat me suspiciously. As I approached the student center I heard the familiar sould beat that I had not listened to in a long time, that my sister had told me I would not find in New England, and I felt like a lost child heading home again.
I followed the beat past the door and was greeted unceremoniously. I didn't mind being ignored. I just felt grateful to be surrounded by blacks.
That sense of belonging did not mean that I joined the Afro Exonian Society automatically, either. In fact, I never really joined that group and did not join the Williams Black Student Union until the beginning of my sophomore year of college. But that night I spent in the Afro Exonian Society Room did nonetheless represent an important turning point. Not making many friends at all, I was finally beginning to see that I had created my own dilemma.
I had spent three years at Exeter believing that the world was either white or black and that I could solve the world's race problems. When I found out that I was trying to do the impossible, I was relieved. Once I discovered that, I realized that I did not have to keep explaining white to blacks, or vice versa. I could dress "preppie" if I wanted to, or talk the way I wanted to, or listen to any music I wanted to, and that did not mean that I was no longer black. I could be a member of the black student union and have white friends.
Change was the only constant. After spending three years at Exeter and then three more at Williams, there was no way that I could return home as the same kid who left Anacostia six years ago. And no one else but me could tell me who I was during that time. I could not be exactly what my family, or members of the Afro Exonian Society, or my white friends wanted me to be. I discovered that I did not have to make any of these choices. I could be myself, a part of both the black and white worlds.
That night at the Afro Exonian Society, as I sat silently looking at the kid who had labeled me an Uncle Tom and who sat nearby, I knew that all of his blacker-than-thou rhetoric was meaningless. Didn't he realize that he had changed at Exeter, too, become a part of both worlds? Although we had spent three years together thinking of each other as opposites, didn't he realize that we were more alike than different? Now that he is a student at Harvard and I go to Williams, I am sure that we are basically the same person. We are both the Rat Man.