At Last I Know What I Don’t Know

Fourteen months of intensive reading, viewing and online research have convinced me that my understanding of American history was constricted by a very narrow, self-serving and highly biased point of view. As a white, middle class, Jewish male, I saw only what my eyes were trained to see. I committed transgressions upon my fellow Americans that I now find embarrassing and appalling.

It is difficult for me to make sense of my prior behavior, because I have had friends and colleagues that I liked, admired and respected, who were black and brown, gay and bisexual, conservative and liberal. Many of my pop culture heroes in sports and entertainment, also are members of these groups. So what was I thinking?

Like many otherwise sensible people, I only knew what I knew. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. The only hint that I had about growing up as a minority was an occasional brush with antisemitism. The result was a bit of hurt feelings and shock at how small-minded some people could be. But I did not generalize these incidents to what some people deal with 24/7.

My life as a child was “the block” in Queens, New York that my friends and I grew up on. There were no black or brown faces to be seen. Things changed dramatically when my family moved to Jamaica, New York, where I attended Jamaica High School. In the early sixties, the student body was about 40% black. A few years later, that number was closer to 90%. In that environment I “learned” to stay away from “those” students, for my own safety. We all cheered for our outstanding black athletes, but that was the only point of contact. In my four years there I don’t recall a single incident where a black student hurt a white student and yet the fear was always there.

In my undergraduate years as a Music Education major at Wilkes University in the former coal-mining town of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, I had a few black friends in the department, primarily based on our mutual interests in music and performance. I also escorted the Winter Carnival Queen, a beautiful and brilliant black woman to the annual event. My biggest concern was that my many relatives who lived in the area would see the picture of us that appeared in the local newspaper. A few of them, but not all, openly shared their hatred for anyone who could be considered as Other than them. I clearly remember that as the first time I openly questioned myself as to why that attitude existed. It bothered me, but not enough to challenge them. I saw it as a losing battle.

When my cousin from Wilkes Barre moved to Manhattan, New York and marred a black man, most of the family disowned her. As far as I know, only two cousins dis-obeyed the edict and made contact with her. I was one of them. I visited their Greenwich Village apartment and found my cousin’s husband to be a kind, thoughtful, and likable guy. He was very dark-skinned and had grown up in Africa. The sight of the two of them together was not yet a common one in the early seventies and I suspect they had to endure quite a bit of ugliness. That thought rattled around in my head for quite some time.

In my forty-five year career as an educator in New York I worked in several school districts with large minority populations. I worked with community organizations of all kinds, chaired committees that addressed human rights topics, led professional development programs and wrote curriculum. At no time during all of those years did I recognize the need to expand my knowledge of race in America. It’s shocking when I think about it!

Of course, I heard and agreed with all of the platitudes about the need to work together as one community of learners. But there was so much more that I could have done. As Sinatra sings, “Regrets I’ve had a few…” I would like to start over. I would like to talk to my staff about the effect of the false history we have fed to our students for all these years. I would like to update our curricula to include recognition of the contributions of BIPOC in all fields of endeavor. I would like to have my staff make home visits and conduct meaningful conversations with the parents of their students, recognizing the need to respect and honor these families.

What’s done is done. But I am not done. At last I know what I don’t know.

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Mark Rosenbaum

Mark Rosenbaum is a retired teacher, teacher union president, principal, Assistant Superintendent, Superintendent, and University Instructor on Long Island, NY.