THE STARTING BLOCKS
Home is where one starts from ...
THE FIRST THING an athlete learns is the importance of a good start. As a sprinter, I honed the ability to settle comfortably into the starting blocks and focus my attention radar-like, ready to explode the instant I heard the starter's gun. If I hesitated for a split second I might be too far behind to catch up; if I was overeager and tried to anticipate the gun, I might bolt too early and have a false start. In the decathlon, a good start also means scoring well in the first of the ten events, the hundred-meter dash. Because it sets the tone for everything that follows, the race can have a disproportionate impact on the outcome of the decathlon as a whole.
My start in the race of life had mixed results. By all objective standards, growing up black in Texas in the late 1930s and early 1940s would not be considered a good beginning. It was as if the starting blocks had been rigged and the running track in my lane was ploughed up and uneven. Still, I somehow acquired the necessary tools to take advantage of the opportunities that life would later present. Will I ever fully understand what made me a disciplined youngster and a determined adult? Looking back, I marvel at how I learned to give all I had to every challenge; to compete hard and try to win, but to play the game honestly and fairly.
I was born in Hillsboro, Texas, a tiny town in a flat expanse of land about sixty miles south of Dallas. With rich soil for growing crops and strong bodies to pick them cheap, the area's economy revolved around farming. Most people lived and worked on farms; the rest provided services for the farmers and hired hands. My father, Lewis Johnson, was one of those farmhands. Six foot six, lean and handsome, he had learned at an early age to go wherever there was a day's pay to be earned--something that was not easy to come by during the Great Depression. As a young man, he mostly picked cotton. People always described him as a hard-working, responsible, generous man who loved to have a good time.
While working the fields around Hillsboro, he met a girl with cheerful eyes and a round, endearing face with prominent dimples. Alma Gibson was three years younger and a foot shorter than her beau, and his equal when it came to hard work. When they got married, in 1932, unemployment was at an all-time high, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was at an all-time low, and candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt was pledging a "New Deal" for hard-pressed Americans. Dad was twenty, Mom was seventeen. Their first child, a daughter, became seriously ill as an infant and did not survive. I was born next, in 1935. My father named me after a childhood friend of his who had died in grade school.
For the first two years of my life, we lived in Hillsboro in the home of my father's parents (my mother's parents had passed away before I was born). It was a good-sized house, but with five of my father's nine siblings living at home, it was crowded. Built on a corner property on the outskirts of town, it was an old wooden structure with front and back porches and a large back yard dominated by a vegetable garden. With no electricity or running water, we used oil lamps and an outhouse and pumped water from an outside well. Nearby was an open field and a network of dirt roads on which children could ride bicycles, run loose, and kick up storms of dust.
A railroad worker in his younger days, my grandfather was forced to retire early when he fell from a train and suffered disabling injuries. To sustain the family, his children worked the cotton fields, chopping and weeding in the spring and picking in the fall. My grandfather was a deeply religious man who had read the Bible to his children on a regular basis. By the time I knew him, though, his children were reading to him, for he had gone blind from glaucoma. I used to marvel at how this sightless man could work tirelessly and flawlessly around the house and in his vegetable garden. The family work ethic was reinforced by my grandmother, a strong, warm, loving woman who took care of everything and everyone--including me, her infant grandson, while my parents worked long hours in the fields.
Drawn by the demand for farmhands as New Deal programs put some money into the pockets of hungry Americans, my father moved us briefly to Oklahoma. He picked sugar cane; my mother cared for me and gave birth to my brother Ed. When I was three and Ed was two we moved back to Texas, settling in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas. There my brother Jim and sister Erma were born. My youngest sister, Dolores, was born in Houston, where we spent part of every summer at the home of my mother's aunt, Dollie Ann, and her husband, Aubrey. Aunt Sweet, as we called her, had raised my mother after her own mother died, and she raised Dolores as well until we relocated to California. As a child I did not understand why my baby sister did not live with us in Dallas. I assume now that it was because four kids and long working hours were about all my parents could handle at the time. It's an enigma that still lingers.
An all-black neighborhood west of downtown Dallas, Oak Cliff was nestled in a little valley formed by the Trinity River. Most of the hard-working people who lived there had jobs in oil companies, filling stations, or the paper plant nearby. Others did domestic and yard work in the white sections of town. Still others labored on construction sites. There was a lot of work in Dallas as the depression lifted and mobilization for World War II increased the demand for oil. The poor families of Oak Cliff struggled and scraped, but they always put food on their tables.
Except for the main arteries that ran to other areas of Dallas, the streets of the neighborhood were unpaved and without sidewalks. We constantly dragged either mud or dust into the house on our shoes. The fragile wooden homes in the neighborhood were built close together on small lots. During the six years we lived there, we rented three different houses. One of the moves was forced by a fire, which began in our wood-burning stove. I remember the terror I felt as my parents scrambled to rush us out of the inferno, and how heroic my father was when, out on the street, he realized someone was missing and ran back inside. A few heart-stopping minutes later he emerged, dragging my sister Erma by her nightgown.
My father worked for a man named John Eastman, who owned a company that made drilling implements and other equipment used by the oil industry. Dad was basically an all-purpose handyman. He worked on Mr. Eastman's cars, cleaned up around the office, did some work in the fields, served as a chauffeur, and helped out--as did my mother--at the Eastmans' private parties. By all accounts, he was fond of his employer and liked his job. Apparently he was well liked in return, and was paid a decent wage. As my uncle Leonard put it, "If white people in Texas didn't like you, they'd let you know. If they liked you, they'd go the limit for you."
In addition to helping out the Eastmans on occasion, my mother supplemented the family income by doing domestic work and sometimes wrapping gifts at a downtown department store--all the while caring for her children and making sure we were properly fed, clothed, and educated. Like most kids, I took it for granted at the time, but I came to marvel at her selflessness and indomitable strength.
I'm told by older relatives that we were somewhat better off than most families in Oak Cliff. For example, we owned a shiny Model A Ford. I remember a drive to Houston when I rode with my uncle in the uncovered rumble seat that folded open just above the trunk. It was a bone-rattling journey but it seemed like a great adventure to me, and surely preferable to squeezing into the front seat with my parents and my brother Ed.
The house I remember most seemed big to me as a boy, but was actually cramped. My brothers and I slept in the same bed, with Ed and me pointed in the usual direction and Jimmy between us facing the other way. We did not have electricity or indoor plumbing. I don't think anyone in Oak Cliff did. We carried buckets from a well for my mother to cook with, and used a dipper to fill our drinking glasses. We bathed in a metal tub, which was placed in the middle of the kitchen floor and filled with steaming water heated in the stove. That stove also provided heat in the winter. Kerosene lamps supplied light. Blocks of ice were hauled to our icebox for refrigeration. We trudged to the outhouse in all kinds of weather. I remember that outhouse well because Ed locked himself inside one day to escape punishment after he knocked Erma off the gate we used to swing on and bloodied her head. Erma still has the scar from that fall.
One of my most vivid memories is the time I nearly burned down the house because my desire to help out got the best of me. Our wallpaper was ancient and frayed. I thought I might be able to improve its appearance by burning off the frayed edges that curled out from the wall. I'd light a strand with a match and watch it burn, enchanted by the pretty flame and intrigued by the acrid smell. Then I'd snuff it out. At one point, I failed to act quickly enough and the flame climbed up the wall beyond my reach. I ran to the kitchen for a dipper of water. When I came back, a large section of the wall was on fire. I stood as close as I could and flung the' water. There was a hiss. Smoke billowed and filled the room. The flames were dead. I felt as proud of that water toss as I would later feel after an exceptional javelin throw. Naturally, my parents saw it another way. I had taken the precaution of hanging my mother's coat over the damage, as if that could hide a huge black patch in the middle of the wall. I got beaten within an inch of my life.
As kids, of course, we didn't know we were poor. No one told us we were deprived, and as far as we could tell, Mom and Dad made sure we had the basic necessities of life. Besides, we had steep hills to ride our wagons down, riverbanks to romp along and swimming holes to dive in, vines to swing from and trees to climb, fields to play baseball in and chase each other through, and even a cemetery through which to run at night and scare one another out of our wits. And we had each other. Although everyone--even we kids--had to work hard, we had fun at home; the love in our household was as tangible as the furniture, just as it is now whenever I'm with my brothers and sisters.
* * *
Every morning my mother would prepare a big breakfast--typically eggs and bacon or sausage--and then Dad would go off to his job. After helping the younger kids get ready for school, Mom would walk to the end of the block, cross Tama Street, then continue through an open field and up to the top of a hill; there she caught the streetcar to the home of some white family where she did day work. After school, and all day long during vacations, we kids were more or less on our own, although certain neighbors would keep an eye on us.
It was long before television, of course, let alone video games and computers. In our neighborhood we didn't have clubs or gymnasiums with structured activities. We had no organized sports either. I remember playing informal baseball games in the open field behind the church, but strangely enough, no football or basketball to speak of. We had roller skates, wagons, homemade scooters, marbles, secret hideouts, open fields, and all the indispensable ingredients of childhood fun: energy, friends, and imagination.
I loved to play, and I loved to compete. Maybe I was simply born that way. I wanted to be the fastest kid on the scooter and the first to reach whatever we were running to, whether the swimming hole or the candy store or the schoolyard fence. I spent long hours shooting marbles in a circle and felt great when I went home victorious, with my precious marble bag a few ounces heavier than it had been when I started out--and I felt awful when I trudged home with an underweight bag.
To say I did not like losing is an understatement; it felt like a kick in the stomach. But my desire to win was balanced by something I must have learned at home: Always play by the rules. Somehow I knew that there were consequences to playing unfairly, and that winning would not be satisfying if it were accomplished by cheating. Wherever it came from, this attitude stayed with me throughout my athletic career. For example, trying to guess when the starter would pull the trigger on the starting gun was a common practice, but I considered it a form of cheating and I often saw it backfire when an overeager sprinter was penalized for bursting from the blocks too soon.
Another lifelong philosophy was mysteriously transmitted to me in childhood: What matters even more than winning is to approach every challenge with total and complete effort. I learned never to give undue attention to the score or to my competitors. Instead I focused on being the best that I could be. Later in life, that attitude would be reinforced and put into words by gifted coaches; but from as far back as I can remember, it's what drove me. I did not lose often, and when I did it was a big disappointment. But if I worked as hard as I could, and did everything in my power to win, I was able to live with defeat. I would feel let down, but not down on myself.
That attitude did not diminish by one iota my desire to win or my hatred of losing. It simply made me a stronger, more focused competitor. It motivated me to prepare hard for each competition, and to push myself when it would have been perfectly acceptable to ease off. I believe it also made me a better sportsman. I was able to root for others to do their best even when I was trying to defeat them. Without that attitude, I would not have been able to form durable friendships with teammates and opponents alike, something I treasure more than all my trophies.
Apparently I showed signs of exceptional athletic ability as a child. My father once told Sports Illustrated, "He was awful good at running and throwing. Just his movements made you know he was good at them." (My mother, on the other hand, used to tell people that she could outrun me.) If I did have a gift for running, it must have been displayed on many occasions: when I had to chase down one of my brothers because he had misbehaved, when we raced through the spooky cemetery (I was always the first one out), or when I galloped on my stick horse. This was essentially a broomstick I imagined to be a dependable horse like the Lone Ranger's Silver. I was a fast stick-horse rider, but I never attributed that to personal talent: I just thought I had the swiftest horse around.
There was at least one moment when my throwing ability raised eyebrows, literally. A family of brothers who lived up the hill had a fondness for picking on Eddie and Jimmy. One day Eddie came home crying. Like a two-man posse, Jimmy and I jumped on our stick horses and rode off to avenge him. We found the thugs at home alone and held them hostage, throwing rocks at the house for half the day and threatening to use our slingshots if our enemies dared to show their faces.
Having made our point--and getting very bored--I called out, "Don't you ever put your hands on my brother again!" We started to leave but one of our enemies emerged from the house and taunted us. I wheeled and hurled a round, flat rock at him. It landed with a thwack just above his eyebrow--and stuck there. The rock lodged in his forehead. Blood ran down his face. Amazed and horrified by the gruesome sight, I galloped away on my stick horse with my brothers at my heels.
Someone with an eye for talent might have seen that throw and marked me as a future discus champion, quarterback, or rifle-armed third baseman. At the time, it was enough to know that those boys would never bother us again.
Our unsupervised times were not all play, not by a long shot. My brothers and I had responsibilities that had to be fulfilled before our parents got home. On any given day we might be asked to straighten up the house, sweep the floors, make the beds, or clean up the yard. Some of our chores were pretty grown-up, now that I think of it. To do the dishes, for example, we had to pump water from the well, carry it inside, light the wooden stove, heat the water, and fill the wash pan. We also had to look after our baby sister, Erma.
As the oldest I was naturally in charge. In part, that meant riding herd on my brothers to make sure the chores got done. I believe that a lot of my future success can be traced to the self-discipline I gained from being given responsibility at a young age. To the extent that I developed leadership qualities, I can thank the lessons I learned from those duties. Without them, I doubt if anyone would have made me a team captain, or student body president, or flag bearer at the Olympics.
When necessary, I could be a stern taskmaster. "If we didn't do what we were supposed to do, Rafer would put his finger in our face," Ed recalls. I seldom had to get tough with the younger kids, but when I did it was for their protection and my own self-preservation: If we didn't complete our chores, we'd get our tails whipped. Our parents believed in seat-of-the-pants discipline. If you were told to do something, to be somewhere at a certain time, or to act in a certain way, you had better comply or it could be whipping time. Dad would do it with a belt; Mom would use a switch. Both hurt, and both made their point. But if I had to be punished, I preferred to have my mother do the job. When she lashed me, I felt as much love as I did pain. It was like taking bad-tasting medicine sweetened with sugar. I was getting what I deserved; I was being taught a lesson and justice was being served.
Dad hurt me a lot more than Mom not only because he was stronger and his belt was fiercer than her switch, he also often seemed excessive. The punishment didn't always match the crime. Whereas my mother's strokes felt reluctant, like she hated having to do it, Dad's lashes had anger behind them. Sometimes he seemed to relish it; I thought he might even want to hurt me. I realize now that he was venting his own frustration and anguish, but at the time, all I felt was his rage. I was afraid he might someday lose control and do some real damage.
Although I've never laid a hand on my own children and would never condone abuse in any form, the whippings I received paid off in their own way. I was able to turn the experience to my advantage once I realized something crucial: Pain was temporary, and I could handle it. While I was being punished, I would think, "My father can hit me as long as he wants, and tomorrow it won't even matter." I even said that to his face when I felt defiant.
The ability to endure pain and still perform at a high capacity gave me a competitive edge. Sports is always referred to as character-building; a major part of that is learning to withstand sprains, twists, aches, bruises, cramps, spasms, soreness, cuts, scrapes, and unimaginable fatigue, while yet coaxing your body to do its best. Every sport entails physical and mental travail, but the decathlon is a veritable factory of pain. I never competed in one in which pain was not a factor. But I knew that an injury was an obstacle to success only if it prevented me from executing properly--that is, if I could not move my legs, arms, or torso the way I had to. During my career I had to endure grueling rehabilitation from injuries, and sometimes run and jump through searing pain. My only fear was that continuing to perform might cause permanent damage. The pain itself I could deal with.
Without my ability to withstand pain I could never have done what was necessary to set world records and win a gold medal. But long before I ever dreamed of becoming an athlete, I put this ability to good use. I saw that my younger brothers and sisters could not handle pain as well as I could. It hurt me more to watch them get whipped than to be whipped myself. So one day, when my father took the belt to one of them, I told him to punish me instead. He responded by thrashing both of us. Thereafter, I shielded my siblings by taking the blame for some of the things they did. That way, I'd get the belt instead of them.
Knowing I could handle pain also made me unafraid of fights. In trying to protect Ed and Jim from harm, I got into several scrapes. In most instances I was able to use either the threat of force or fast-talking diplomacy to settle conflicts before things got out of hand. "He was a peacemaker for other kids," my mother once told an interviewer. "When they got into fights, Rafer would stop them." I think my attitude toward pain gave me the upper hand in negotiations.
One day, before going to work, my father put some money on top of a dresser and told me to pay the bills when some merchants came by to collect. I followed his instructions, but somehow ran short of cash. When someone who did not get paid complained to my father, Dad got enraged. I told him that I hadn't done anything wrong and did not know where the money had gone. He wouldn't listen. He nearly tore my rear end off with his belt. It was the first time I was beaten for no good reason. Not only did the punishment not fit the crime--there was no crime.
Small as I was compared to this gigantic man, I warned my father to never again beat me for nothing. My reward for speaking my mind was another whipping. Later, Dad discovered the missing money behind the dresser. It had fallen during the course of the day. He never apologized. The sting of that undeserved punishment stayed with me. It not only made me tougher, it taught me the importance of justice. I began to look at everything in terms of fairness and proportion, always asking myself if my response to someone else's actions--and their reaction to mine--was equitable and reasonable. To this day, nothing upsets me more than being accused of something I didn't do, or seeing someone else get penalized unfairly.
Just as I was too young to be conscious of our poverty, I was too young to understand discrimination or to know that our chances in life were limited by the color of our skin. Texas was not Mississippi or Alabama, but Jim Crow was alive and well there. Segregation was a way of life where I lived; it was accepted in most of the country, even in the armed forces that were fighting fascism abroad. The only white person I saw on a regular basis was Mr. Emmett, the proprietor of the grocery store on our street, where my mother picked up the staples for our kitchen and we kids spent our pennies on candy. Mr. Emmett was a pleasant, friendly man who treated everyone well. At the downtown shops we would run into white people, but I did not know any white boys my age and I can't remember exchanging meaningful words with any white adult besides Mr. Emmett while we lived in Texas. Neither can my brothers and sisters.
Nor do I remember any racial incidents of the type that we associate with the South of that time: no Klan rallies or cross-burnings, no lynchings, no one beaten up or humiliated by rednecks, no slurs or insults, no rigged trials. I'm sure such things occurred, but I was too young and too isolated to know about them. I do remember separate drinking fountains, with signs reading WHITE and COLORED. I remember being led to the back of the streetcar on trips downtown, even though there were plenty of seats up front. I remember separate sections (Negroes upstairs, whites downstairs) at the movie house, and separate bathrooms as well, but on those Saturday afternoons we spent in the darkened theater my only concerns were the cartoons and the serials with characters like Flash Gordon and the Lone Ranger.
I don't remember thinking how absurd the racial division was, or realizing the indignity that was implied by it: that one group, the one I belonged to, was inferior to the other. Not that I was totally in the dark about racism. My parents and other elders told us kids about the legacy of slavery, and made sure we knew about great African Americans like Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass. Not to mention Joe Louis. In those days, Joe was a god to us. I remember sitting around a radio on someone's front porch, listening with my father and his friends to the broadcast of heavyweight championship battles. We suffered with every blow Joe received and we rejoiced in every punch he landed. We celebrated his knockouts as if we'd slain a wicked slavemaster ourselves. The fact that Joe's victories were victories for black people as a whole was hardly lost on me or the other kids.
For the most part, we paid little mind to racial issues. In that time and place, segregation just seemed normal; it was the way things were, and that was that. Kids like me assumed that the whole world was that way, and the grownups chose not to challenge the status quo. Recently I asked an older relative about those days. "We minded our business and tried to take care of our own," he said. "We left the white people alone and they mostly left us alone."
While black adults endured their lot in life with strength and quiet dignity, racism infected their spirits like a virus infects the cells of our bodies. I'm certain it contributed to the one dark shadow that hovered over my home life: My father drank as hard as he worked. Alcohol might have been his medicine, his way of alleviating the daily indignities he faced--even at a job where he was treated decently--and the frustration of knowing he could never live up to his potential or lift his family's prospects above the low ceiling that was set for people of color.
During the week our home life was smooth, harmonious, and peaceful, but I came to dread the weekends. I never knew when my father would decide to blow his paycheck on booze and set the place in an uproar. It was as if there were two of him: The kind, hard-working family man who showed affection for his wife and children, and the hell-raising drunk who would stay out till all hours and come home with a chip on his shoulder, slamming doors and roaring at the top of his lungs, ready to pull my mother out of bed and beat her at the slightest provocation. Sometimes he didn't return until Sunday.
To us kids, Dad's behavior was terrifying. He never unleashed his drunken rages on us, but time and again we felt the stable foundation of our home being shattered as if by earthquakes. We felt our mother's agony too. No woman deserves to be abused, least of all someone like Mom. They called her "Dimple" because of the cute little craters that formed on her cheeks when she smiled. And she smiled a lot. She was an upbeat, cheerful, outgoing woman, who seemed almost always to be happy. As strong as she was well-liked, she was extremely protective of her children, ready to pounce like a lioness on anyone who wronged us. She was, in every way, a good woman and a wonderful mother. My inability to protect her from my father's tantrums was agonizing. I felt helpless. It was not until my brothers and I were old enough to stand up to Dad that we were able to put an end to it.
My father's weakness for alcohol and the turmoil it caused made a deep impression on me. It was a powerful lesson in how not to be a man, and I vowed early on never to succumb to such self-defeating, hurtful behavior. I have always respected my body and treated it with care. I think I could fit all the alcohol I have ever drunk into three glasses.
Aside from his drinking, my father was a fine role model. No matter what had occurred over the weekend, come Monday morning he was up early and at the breakfast table. Often he'd look contrite and even apologize. Unfailingly he'd get to work on time, ready to give an honest day's labor. Once again he was good old Dad, and he'd stay that way all week. Come Friday, though, anything was possible.
My mother was a model of consistent goodness. To my mind, her ability to remain warm, loving, and joyful in the face of the harsh realities of her life was a greater achievement than anything I ever did in sports. My way of honoring her was to push myself to be all I was capable of being, and to do so with the kind of integrity she valued. It was one way of giving something to the woman who gave me so much.
The N. W. Harlee School was a rectangular brown brick building, two stories high, with a scruffy schoolyard spread out behind it. All the students, maybe fifteen to twenty per class, were black, as were ail the teachers. The ten- or fifteen-minute walk from home took us over some open fields, across a small bridge that spanned the Trinity River, and through the cemetery.
Everyone in my family remembers me as an eager student who loved to read and was diligent about his homework. I didn't start out that way. Like most of my peers, I valued the streets and playing fields far more than the classroom. That changed in the third grade, thanks to an exceptional teacher. Miss Bailey was a stout, dignified woman with great concern for the welfare of her pupils. With dedication and persistence, this gifted teacher stressed the importance of working hard and using one's full potential. Miss Baily instilled in me a love of learning and a desire to do well academically. The spark she ignited stayed lit all the way through college, and in many ways remains lit to this day.
I had a friend named Curtis who was a good athlete and a mischief-maker. To say he was an indifferent student is putting it mildly. He never did homework and hardly paid attention in class, finding every opportunity to disrupt a lesson with a joke or a prank. I sat next to him, and I enjoyed it. He brought out the naughty, fun-loving side of me that balanced the earnest, disciplined side.
Curtis was the kind of kid an adult would call a "bad influence." I hesitate to call him that, since I joined him happily and even initiated some of the troublemaking myself. The problem was, Curtis had a way of going too far. I'd go along with him, only to find that our innocent fun had turned into trouble. Once, for example, he got me to climb up onto the roof of our house. Then he decided that we should jump to the ground. Foolishly, I followed him, only to land on a board and end up with a nail piercing my foot from bottom to top.
It was clear to Miss Bailey that Curtis would not have a positive impact on my future. One day she told me point-blank that if I wanted to do well in her class I would have to stop doing the things my friend was doing. When the warning didn't sink in, she split us up by making Curtis repeat the grade.
Miss Bailey knew how to use rewards to reinforce good habits. For example, she would take students who did well on special trips. One glorious night a few classmates and I were rewarded with a trip to the Cotton Bowl to see a fireworks display. I remember it as a gray evening, with dazzling bursts of color lighting up the night sky. I also remember being frightened by some thunderous claps of sound, and Miss Bailey covering my ears protectively. Mostly I remember feeling very grateful for the chance to be there, and proud of having done well enough to be in that select company.
By showing me the pleasure of learning and by rewarding good work, Miss Bailey convinced me that it paid to study hard. That, plus my parents' encouragement (they made sure I always did my homework), turned me into a good enough student to eventually win an academic scholarship to UCLA. I believe that good learning habits helped me in everything I did. In sports I always felt there was more to learn, and I looked for information wherever I could find it--from coaches, teammates, even opponents. Good study habits also helped me concentrate on the field; I could block out distractions and stay focused on what I had to do at every moment, no matter what was going on around me or what had happened a few minutes earlier. This was invaluable in a two-day, ten-event competition like the decathlon, especially in the glare of an international spotlight. Sometimes I wonder if I would ever have gained those advantages if not for Miss Bailey.
Life in our close-knit community centered around the Baptist church. The house we lived in during most of our time in Oak Cliff was actually connected to the church grounds. Every Sunday morning we would stroll there down a narrow dirt path between two of our neighbors' homes. After services, we kids would go from chapel to Sunday School. I looked forward to that time; it felt less like a school than a social club, a gathering place for all the kids in the community. We would start out all together in a Bible class, then break up into different age groups and spend the better part of the day playing games, reading stories, and singing religious songs. Later we'd return with our parents for evening services and, usually, more social time with our friends.
It was not until high school that I understood the deep spiritual significance of Jesus' life and became a committed Christian. But even as a child, church had a major impact on me. I remember three things in particular about those Sundays. First, the music. The awesome power and passion that surged through the church when the choir sang spirituals and hymns was inspiration to the soul. Second, the sermons. I can't recall the preacher's name, but the clear conviction in his voice and the spirit of his message are still fresh in my mind--the message being that life should not be, and did not have to be, the way it was for people of color; that spiritual redemption could be found; and that betterment in the here and now could be had through proper actions.
Third, I remember the community itself. In retrospect it is clear to me that the people of Oak Hill tried to make up for the obstacles in their path by looking out for one another. My siblings and I experienced it firsthand; our parents were at work all day, but the neighbors made sure we never felt ignored, alone, or endangered. It was understood that life could be better for all if everyone took responsibility for each other, and that our own needs are best served when we contribute to the good of the whole. These became core beliefs of mine. Wherever fate has taken me, I've always tried to recreate the sense of community that we had in that small Baptist church.
Did I get off to a good start in Texas? If those years were the equivalent of the first decathlon event, I would say that, thanks to a strong support system, my score was better than it might have been considering the obstacles in my environment. Some mysterious combination of genes, upbringing, and community enabled me to compensate for my disadvantages, just as a gritty sprinter might make up for lost ground with extra effort and a well-timed lunge at the tape. But my prospects for the rest of the competition would not have been considered bright. From what I've been able to gather over the years, most of the boys I grew up with went on to lead good, decent lives, but were severely constrained from reaching their full potential by bigotry and inequality of opportunity. Others became small-time hoodlums. At least two died in prison. Another was stabbed with an ice pick during a brawl. Curtis, my best buddy and the class clown, was shot to death.
I was lucky. When I was nine my family moved to California, where conditions for the next phase of my life were exceptional. To my everlasting gratitude, I was given the tools I needed to make up for the slow start. (Continues...)