“I am not a racist.”
It’s so easy for a white person like me to say that and think I actually know what I’m saying. But is it true? I was raised in a white community in Connecticut in the 1950s, and there were racists there. Even my mother was a racist, although she would never admit it. There was only one black family in our town at that time.
But when I was 13 years old, I fell in love with jazz and decided I wanted to play jazz piano. Suddenly, almost all my heroes were black people. I worshiped them, collected photos of them, and of course bought their records and listened to them. This opened up a whole new world for me.
During the following decades, after I began to play professionally, I worked with many black players, and also had many black friends over the years. I had two marriages to black men, the first one back in the 1960s, when mixed marriages weren’t common at all. I continued to consider black musicians my heroes and mentors.
Then, in the 1990s, I moved to Brazil, to Rio de Janeiro, where there is a large black population. I felt right at home. I believed there couldn’t be anyone less racist than me. But recently I’ve been reading a book called Growing up Black, by Jay David, and it’s a serious wake-up call. The book is a collection of black childhood experiences, including some well-known names, throughout American history.
Reading the stories of what it was like for these people to grow up in America rattled me to the core. I realized that no matter how many black friends, colleagues, and even husbands I had, I would never, ever understand and certainly never feel what it was like to be a black person in America or anywhere else.
I used to take pride in the fact that I was “color blind.” Now I see it differently. It isn’t for me to “unsee” the blackness of my black friends, consciously or otherwise. To do so, I believe, would dishonor them. The best I can do in my ignorance is to love them with all my heart and soul.