Thomas Webber, author of Flying over 96th Street: Memoir of an East Harlem White Boy

December 16th, 2004

Thomas Webber,

author of

Flying Over 96th Street:

Memoir of an East Harlem White Boy

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Tommy Webber is nine years old when his father, a founding minister of the East Harlem Protestant Parish, moves the family of six from a spacious apartment in an ivy-covered Gothic-style seminary on New York City’s Upper West Side to a small one in a massive public-housing project on East 102nd Street. But it isn’t the size of the apartment, the architecture of the building, or the unfamiliar streets that make the new surroundings feel so strange. While Tommy’s old neighborhood was overwhelmingly middle class and white, El Barrio is poor and predominantly black and Puerto Rican. In Washington Houses, a complex of over 1,500 apartments, the Webbers are now one of only a small handful of white familes.

Set during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Flying over 96th Street: Memoir of an East Harlem White Boy is the story of one boy’s struggle with race, poverty, and identity in a city — and a country — grappling with the same issues. Tommy’s classmates at the exclusive Collegiate School for Boys, which he attends on scholarship, dare not venture above the city’s Mason-Dixon Line of 96th Street into the unknown territory of muggers, gangs, and junkies. Tommy, however, slowly makes new friends on the local basketball courts and at church, and discovers a different East Harlem, one where an exuberant human spirit hides within the oppressive projects and drab tenements, fighting to break through the cracked sidewalks. Webber interweaves the nation’s growing Civil Rights movement — from watching on television the forced integration of Little Rock’s Central High School to participating in the famous 1963 March on Washington — with the subtler, more immediate changes he observes in the lives of his friends and neighbors.#

In a December 16, 2004 interview hosted by Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita, Webber talks about the East Harlem he knew as a child, and the hope that remains in its neighborhoods today.

 

 

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Tom Webber, age 10

“I carry East Harlem within me wherever I go just as surely as I carry my likes and dislikes, my beliefs and values. Yes, I’m an American. Yes, I’m English and a little Irish and who knows what else. But I’m more than just plain old white. I’m Tom of 105th Street, Tom of the Wilson Houses, Tom of El Barrio. I can diddy-bop, give skin, hold my own in a sounding match, eat bacalao with relish, and speak some pointed Spanish. I’ve been changed and molded by the neighborhood, taken El Barrio, like the air I breathe, into my blood. At my core, in my hearts of hearts, in my corazon, I’m an East Harlem White Boy.”

 

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JJM  The humorist Dave Barry said, “Tom Webber had the most interesting childhood of any white person I know,” and after reading your book, it is easy to see why he would say such a thing.  When did you decide to write your memoirs?

TW  In 1995, I attended a conference where Jonathan Kozol spoke about a book he had just written called Amazing Grace, which is a story about a South Bronx church congregate and a set of families he visited over a six or eight month period. He wrote beautifully about what life was like in the South Bronx. Kozol’s writing began in the fifties when he wrote Death at an Early Age, which is about teaching in the public schools, how frustrated he felt as a teacher, and how the kids he taught didn’t really have much of a future. I have loved his stuff ever since. I believe he now lives on a farmhouse somewhere in Massachusetts. While writing Amazing Grace he moved temporarily into a hotel on the east side of Manhattan, and then took the train to the Bronx every day to sort of live with a family for eight or ten hours a day. From this experience, he then writes their story. While it was a beautifully written story that I loved, it was not really anything like the stories that I know, having grown up in the public housing projects of East Harlem. Since I lived there day and night, traveled up the elevator with the piss on the floor, knew kids who were being beaten by their parents, and experienced the good and bad parts of life in the projects, I felt I could add depth to the story Kozol told — not that I could tell it better but that I could tell it different. At that point I decided I had to write my own story about growing up in East Harlem from the perspective of a young white male.

JJM  What was your life like prior to this move to East Harlem?

TW  We lived in a wonderful place called Union Theological Seminary, which is the school of theology of Columbia University. My father was the Dean of Students there. It is an old, somewhat liberal seminary where many of the famous protestant ministers of the thirties, forties and fifties got their education. The most famous philosophers and theologians of the day taught there. I think I met two black people in the entire place — one was the mailroom man, and the other was the carpenter who came around to fix something if it was broken. There were no black students, and no black faculty. We roamed the halls and the classrooms, and we sort of ruled the seminary. It was an enchanted life, set in the quiet and beautiful Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York. When my father told us that we were going to move, I was choking for air. I did not want to leave. The Seminary was my world. It was my home.

JJM  Why did your father decide to move to East Harlem?

TW  He would say that God “called.” Whether he actually heard God’s voice, he debates that a little bit. {Laughs}. He and two fellow seminary students started the East Harlem Protestant Parish in 1948, eight years before he decided to move there. Because the parish had grown, and since many of the people in it — as well as the other ministers — were living in East Harlem, he didn’t feel he could be one of the leaders of the parish without actually living there. So, he felt that God was telling him it was time to commit his whole life to the East Harlem parish. He didn’t believe he could be Dean of Students as well as help run the parish — he needed to do one or the other. He was famous for having family councils, and called one to announce this decision. It wasn’t so much “counseling,” since he and my mother had already made their decision. It was more like rallying the troops.

JJM  How do you remember taking the news about this move?

TW  I was devastated. I didn’t like the idea that I was going to move out of the world I loved. I had visited the parish and East Harlem several times, and it was a little frightening to me. Most of the people there had dark skin, and many of them didn’t speak English. In those days, the streets of East Harlem were incredibly crowded with people — twice as many as there are now. People would run up and down the streets, shouting, and playing games. It was scary for a little boy of six or seven who was used to a very quiet street, and where an exciting event might be seeing someone walk their poodle.

JJM  Yes, you wrote, “At the Seminary, it was rare to see anyone walking a dog or pushing a baby carriage on Claremont Avenue. Here, people seem to live on the streets.”

TW  Yes, that’s right, and they did live on the streets, especially in the summertime. Since there was no air conditioning, people lived on the stoops, or in front of the fire hydrant. So, it was pretty frightening, and I did not want to move. Now I have lived my entire life since then in East Harlem and it’s home; but I was very much against moving there at the beginning.

JJM  What do you remember doing immediately after your dad announced this move during the family council meeting? Did you go into your room with your brother and talk about it?

TW  That is one of the things about writing a memoir — it is difficult to remember all the details. I do remember talking it over with my older brother Johnny, and seem to recall that he stomped out of the meeting. But, we didn’t move for another six months, so it wasn’t like we were going to be moving the next day. I kept hoping that something would happen to make Dad change his mind, or that Mom would change his mind for him, but Johnny told me that it was all set, that nothing would prevent us from moving.

JJM  You were eight years old at this time?

TW  Yes, and by the time we moved I was nine.

JJM  And your brother was three years older than you?

TW  Yes. He was eleven or twelve, becoming a wise teenager at that time.

JJM  Sure, that is a tough time to move anywhere…

TW  Yes. I think I was lucky that I hadn’t started puberty yet before we moved. I was perhaps more open to exploring certain things than my older brother.

JJM  You quote your mom as saying, “Negroes are the same as other people, only with brown skin instead of white.” You then responded, “I am not so sure, they don’t act like the people I know.” What was your image of black people before the move?

TW  The only two blacks I knew were the mailroom man and the carpenter at the Seminary. The mailroom man was an older southern gentleman who always wore a suit that smelled a little strange — it must have been washed one thousand times because he had a musty smell about him. Then there were my experiences of going to the parish in East Harlem. The shouting and the running and the laughing and the craziness of the streets presented a chaotic view of East Harlem, and an entirely different world. During those days, imagine four thousand people living on one block — between First and Second Avenue on 100th Street. Many villages in Vermont only total eight hundred people — there were four thousand on this one block of East Harlem. It was unbelievable, and quite frightening for an eight-year-old. It was too wild, too out of control. And I simply assumed that was how people of color were; people who spoke a strange language and who acted different than the people I was used to. I didn’t really have a way of understanding it.

JJM   You must have had anxiety about being able to make friends. What are your memories of your first successful encounter with an East Harlem child your own age?

TW  In the book I tell the story of my meeting a boy named Rabbit on the basketball court right across the street from our apartment. I was so relieved that he was friendly to me, and that he didn’t want to fight me. There was great relief in realizing that when I talked to people they were not so much different than the friends I had at the Seminary. Rabbit wanted to play basketball with me and to beat me at it the same way my old friends at the Seminary did. He was interested in me, and he wanted to talk to me. I believe that because I was so different than everyone else in the neighborhood, people found me interesting. I wasn’t someone who they had to prove they were tougher than, or prove that they knew the rules of East Harlem to. Instead, they could sort of take me under their wing. Also, I knew of worlds that they didn’t, so while they showed me how things worked in East Harlem, I would occasionally take them downtown to museums, and share with them what the world there was like. My family was also unique to my friends. They loved coming to our apartment because there were so many books, as well as adults who talked to them and who showed an interest in their lives. Many of my friends didn’t have this in their own lives.

JJM  Your mother encouraged your friends to read…

TW  Yes. She started a reading program for them. One entire wall of our living was filled with books, while many of my friends didn’t have one book in their entire house. When I gave my friend Danny a book at age eleven or twelve, he told me it was the first time anyone ever gave him a book for a present. He couldn’t understand why anyone would want to give a book for a present. Books were for school. My mother believed that education is reading, reading, reading, and that is how you get ahead in the world. She felt that education is what parents need to make sure their kids get. The idea that kids didn’t read, or didn’t have access to books and parents or adult figures who would read to them, was hard for her to accept, because reading was absolutely essential to our family culture.

JJM  That must have been a little shocking to you.

TW  It is very interesting how often people use the word “shock” with me. When I was eight or nine-years-old, even when I was walking down the streets of Harlem, I wasn’t shocked, because I didn’t know what to expect. Everything was just so different, and there were so many new experiences hitting me in the face. The first time you go to a Yankee game, for example, it is very different from anything else you may have experienced, but it is not going to shock you. It is something else, as if you are just taking it all in, taking in the world. So I was never shocked, I just felt that that must be the way things are here.

I would occasionally try to get an explanation from my parents about why things were the way they were in East Harlem. My next door neighbor used to beat her children, and I would try to get an explanation from them about why something like this would happen, or I would ask them about the welfare system, and they would always take the side of people in ways that the people themselves would not. It was interesting and a little disconcerting to hear my parents talk about welfare as being something the government needed to provide in order to make sure mothers without jobs or with young children didn’t starve and then to hear the recipients of the assistance themselves talk about how they hated it. To many of them, welfare was the most abominable thing in the world.

JJM  You say they considered it shameful.

TW  Yes, they would say it was shameful, but my parents wouldn’t want to admit that. The welfare recipients knew it was a system that was not helping them, and that it was actually keeping them dependent and often made them feel ashamed.

JJM  Did you talk to your father about that at all?

TW  I don’t remember any conversations about it until after I went to college. My mother was involved in the Welfare Rights Organization, whose goal was to make the system more sympathetic, and to prevent welfare workers from trying to catch regulation violators. My parents were always fighting to improve the welfare system — not to get rid of it or create an alternative to it.

JJM  Your best friend Danny was a central figure in your childhood. You portray him as a very interesting kid who took a lot of risks. You once told him, “I never know what you are going to do next.” What did you learn from him?

TW   I learned a love of life from Danny. I also learned that you can’t always be afraid of trying new things, and that you have to go out and overcome things. I was a naturally inquisitive but shy kid, so it was hard for me to walk up to people and easily become friends with them. I generally let them come to me. If I were playing basketball, and there were five other kids playing on the courts, I would go to an empty court and start playing by myself and see if someone else would come over to play with me. Danny was just the opposite. He taught me that if I liked something, or if I wanted to meet someone, to not be scared, to take on the challenge. I often think of Danny when I am doing something that requires courage. Life is too short to be afraid. Danny, who I loved like a brother, died of AIDS at the age of forty-six, so maybe there is a downside to being that adventuresome. But he taught me a certain love of life that has always stayed with me.

JJM  Basketball, pretty predictably, played a big part in the community in terms of how the boys gathered, all the posturing during the games…

TW  There were four things that got me comfortable about living in East Harlem: The first was my dad’s church, where I met many people from the neighborhood; the second was basketball, where I made many of my friends; the third was Union Settlement House, where I took acting lessons, guitar lessons; the fourth, of course, was Danny. Danny didn’t like to hang out with other boys with me — he wanted me pretty much to himself. So, we had our own adventures, whether it was going out to Coney Island, or riding the Staten Island Ferry…

JJM  You told a story about how he balanced himself on the handrail of the ferry during one of those trips to Staten Island.

TW  Yes, that is the sort of thing I was talking about, regarding how fearless he was. He once told me he was going to cross the subway tracks, and I told him that the subway in New York has a third rail, and no way was I going to let him cross the tracks. But that was the kind of thing he would do. Mostly he would do it to get a rise out of me, to get me upset or worried, but it was done in fun. He took so many risks. I remember him hanging off the roof of a tenement, balancing on the handrail of a ferryboat, climbing on the outside back bumper of a city bus. He would do that all the time, but that was who Danny was.

JJM  Concerning an experience you had with the police at one time, you wrote that one advised you by saying, “Son, I have a piece of advice for you. Don’t hang out with these niggers and spics, they will only get you in trouble.” Was this typical of the type of advice you got from police during that time?

TW  The police force was mostly Irish and Italian in those days. I don’t remember seeing a black cop in East Harlem in the fifties. It wasn’t until the mid-sixties before they started showing up in the neighborhood. The cops were not used to seeing a white kid hanging out with black or Puerto Rican kids, and I could tell that they didn’t especially like it. While there was a large Italian population in East Harlem, you wouldn’t see them, at least not hanging out with blacks and Puerto Ricans. They went to their own churches and attended their own parochial schools. I grew up in a neighborhood that was one-third Italian, yet I didn’t meet one Italian kid until I came back after college. So, seeing a white kid in East Harlem playing with black and Puerto Rican kids was not something the cops encountered very often. That quote you refer to is the only time a cop was ever that blunt with me, which is why I remember it so vividly.

JJM  Was the language among the other white community members as blunt?

TW  I don’t know how they talked among themselves because I never hung out with them, but I would hear them calling out, using the word “nigger,” for sure.

It was a very interesting neighborhood. I recently did a reading at New York University, and afterwards, a woman about my age told me that she grew up in the neighborhood the same time I did, and felt that East Harlem was nothing like I wrote about in the book. I asked her where she grew up, and she said 114th Street and Mt. Pleasant, which was an Italian neighborhood. I asked her how many blacks or Puerto Ricans she met, and she said none. So, here she was, growing up the same time as me, but she didn’t have a black or Puerto Rican friend, or even one she knew. For her, East Harlem was an Italian neighborhood, yet we lived eight blocks from each other. I think that is typically American, and even in East Harlem today, there are blocks of Hondurans, Mexicans, or Haitians where they pretty much stay in their own groups.

JJM  Of your family’s Summer residence in Maine, you wrote, “At night I am lulled to sleep by the lapping of the waves on the rocky beach below our cabin, especially if it’s high tide and there’s a wind over the water. No place could be more different from East Harlem; even China couldn’t be more different. Only the roosters crowing each morning at the chicken farm next to the golf course remind me of 102nd Street.” How did you view your Summer residence in Maine after your first year in Harlem?

TW  It was during that first year that I realized I had certain privileges other kids didn’t. I certainly knew that from going to school, and from reading books, but going to Maine was a special privilege. I remember very distinctly how other kids from the street and the building watched us pack our car with toys, baseball bats, and summer stuff before leaving on our trip. They would ask me where I was going, what I was doing, and I realized I was going to this incredible, wonderful place that they may not have even heard of. I felt very embarrassed about that, and every year after I didn’t want to be anywhere around when we packed the car.

JJM  Would you tell them where you were going?

TW  I would say we were going away for the month. I remember Danny asking me once, “What is Maine?” He had no idea what or where Maine was.

JJM  Did you ever invite any of your friends up there?

TW  No, I did not. Sorrento, Maine is one of those communities where fifty lobstermen live the entire year, and then three thousand wealthy people show up during the Summer to live on Frenchmen’s Bay, which is across from Bar Harbor. My father and mother bought a log cabin without electricity, and it was our place to go during the Summer. It is one of the most beautiful spots in the world. It is funny because I grew so used to living in East Harlem amid all the noise that it is difficult for me to sleep through all the quiet of Maine. It almost spooks me out. I became very “East Harlem” in that way. I remember at Summer camp, the city kids were unable to sleep because they were so used to hearing noise all the time. Noise made them feel safe, and quiet made them feel unsafe. My father, who has lived in East Harlem for as long as I have, but who didn’t move there until he was twenty-nine, still has the opposite reaction. He sleeps better in the quiet and not so well through the noise.

JJM You write about the different ways the community valued music. There are great descriptions in your book about the doo-wop singers in the projects, for example…

TW  There is sadness but also great joy in black and Puerto Rican culture. The joyousness comes out in music and performance and in church services. When you go to a black church service, it is a place of joy, and you feel the joy of singing, of praying, of preaching, and just being with your folks. Singing in public, playing music, playing any kind of musical instrument, or singing with a group was a vibrant communal pastime. Singing would be done on your stoop, or in the house.

We used to joke about the differences in the cultures; when you go to a black party, there was always music, dancing and singing; a Puerto Rican party would be filled with dancing; but when you go to a white party, you would sit around and talk all the time. I remember going to a church service where people were clapping and shouting during the middle of the service, and I asked my mother about that. She told me that we don’t clap or shout out in church because it is a place of reverence, it is not a place to get happy, or to shout out, or to sing uncontrollably, or to fall on the floor with the spirit in you. What went on in the black churches was completely opposite of the churches my parents grew up in, or of the white churches I went to as a child. Yet, if religion doesn’t make you happy, what should make you happy? If singing and dancing isn’t something we can do to share with our friends and make us happy, what is the purpose of music? Just to sit in a concert hall to listen to a symphony orchestra play? No, it is something to share, and something that can be an extension of who you are and who you want to be. I think almost all the kids in East Harlem sang and danced. I will never forget how proud I felt when someone said I danced like a black kid.

JJM  Did you have musician friends?

TW  Oh yes, mostly singers. Union Settlement House had a wonderful music program, led by Blake Hobbs, who everyone called the “music man.” He taught everyone their instruments, and many of the kids played trumpets, guitars, or drums. But, just like with books, they didn’t have instruments in their homes. From the time I was born, we had a piano in our home, and I learned to play piano and guitar, but the other kids mostly sang and danced. It seemed as if every other kid was an unbelievable dancer or singer. Danny was a natural dancer — he couldn’t keep still — and he wound up having quite a career with Alvin Ailey, and then on Broadway. He actually became quite famous.

JJM  The dream of having a career in sports or music as a way out of this world is well known, of course, and you write about that in the book. Another career choice as a way out of the projects is joining the military. Did you see a lot of kids making this chioce?

TW  Yes, especially those who made it through high school. If a kid was fairly good in high school, no one talked to him about going to college. Instead, they talked to him about going into the military, learning a career, and learning a skill. Then, after that, they might go to college if they wanted to. To most of the kids, the idea of college was not part of their family identity or culture.

JJM  Danny’s brother joined the military. Did he actually go off to Vietnam?

TW  Yes, he did two tours there. When he came back, he was clearly not the same. He became an alcoholic, and asked me for money on the street whenever he saw me. I remember Danny telling me not to give any money to him, that perhaps he had to sink to the bottom before he would determine to pull himself together. He fell asleep in an old burned out tenement one day — the tenement went up in flames and he got severely burned and died. Danny went through an awful lot when that happened. His brother was the sweetest man, and really unfit for the military. I guess what he saw or did in Vietnam destroyed him. He never wanted to talk about it.

JJM  When you were fourteen, your family moved to a new apartment complex that also included other white tenants.

TW  Yes, it was an experiment of the New York Housing Authority, to see if they could comprise a population of one-third black, one-third Hispanic, and one-third white residents.

JJM  Did your friendships change when you made this move?

TW  My older brother Johnny and I were the oldest white kids in the building, and I don’t believe the entire three-building complex was ever nearly one-third white — there were only two or three other white families in our building. We would occasionally see each other and look one another over, but by then I was going to Collegiate High School every day, and I was in my own world. Although we moved, the culture really didn’t change at all — the neighborhood was still overwhelmingly black and Puerto Rican.

JJM  Did you invite your friends from Collegiate to your house? Did they feel uneasy about going because it may be unsafe, or perhaps their parents didn’t want them to go there?

TW  When we first moved, I invited two or three of my friends several times, and they always made excuses about why they couldn’t come, so I stopped inviting them. It was very clear that their parents never went above 96th Street — it was pretty much an absolute rule. 96th Street might as well have been a huge wall that you did not attempt to climb if you were white. On one side of the street, you would see buttoned-down doormen, and on the other side, men were playing dominoes and drinking beer on the street. If you were black or Puerto Rican, you did not go south of 96th Street unless you had a job or a specific place to go.

My brother and I would ride the bus home after school. When we got on, it would be half black and half white. We would make a bet about who the last white person getting off the bus would be. Without fail, that person always got off before 96th Street. My brother and I — and later, when I rode the bus alone — were the only white people traveling beyond 96th. Invariably, some kindly, elderly woman would come up to me and ask if I were lost because there was no other explanation for why a white kid might be traveling beyond 96th. This was the middle of the Upper East Side of Manhattan — one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the world — and on the other side of 96th Street was Spanish Harlem, which was one of the poorest communities, and a place whites found to be very scary. My Collegiate friends and I used to spend time looking for a basketball court to play on, but there were very few to be found south of 96th Street. I would tell my friends that we could go three blocks north of 96th Street because I knew of about ten courts up there, but there was just no way they were willing to go north of 96th. Some of the kids in East Harlem took to calling 96th Street the “demilitarized zone.”

JJM  Concerning the fear whites had of the street, you wrote, “Even when traveling to and from the city, they stick to the West Side Highway or FDR Drive.”

TW  It’s like that scene in Bonfire of the Vanities, where the guy breaks down in the South Bronx. The great fear of many of my white friends and their families is that they will have car trouble in the middle of 116th Street, become surrounded, and not know how to handle it. They may not be wrong, and that is certainly a problem.

JJM   John Kennedy’s emergence as a leader was inspiring to you, but you were ultimately disillusioned by him. Can you talk a little about that?

TW  As I got older, I realized that my father and all of his associates in the parish were working long hours, seven days a week, and despite this, things within the community were not getting better — there were more drugs, more gangs, and schools were just as bad as ever. I believed we needed to change the system, and Kennedy gave us hope for that. Danny and I went to hear him speak, and he talked about the world no longer being divided by rich and poor, and how everyone deserved equal opportunity. His eloquence inspired me to believe that by changing the laws and the politics, we could change the world.

But, as time went on, we became aware that Kennedy frequently put the priorities of the Southern Democrats ahead of his opportunity to speak forcefully about change. I remember how disappointed my mother and father were when he didn’t include the issue of civil rights in his speeches. They couldn’t understand how we could be living in the middle of the civil rights era and have a President who wouldn’t speak out forcibly on issues pertaining to civil rights. I realize now why he had to appease these Southern Democrats, but at the time, we were waiting for someone to be a “voice in the wilderness,” as my father used to say — someone who would passionately speak for the rights of poor people, and for the rights of blacks and Hispanics. There were no national leaders speaking that way, certainly not in the early sixties. The only people standing up and speaking out seemed to be blacks. I then realized that my father had been doing this throughout his life in his own little way, with the people who worked with him in the parish.

JJM  It was during this time that you had a school assignment requiring you to write a biography of a role model to pattern yourself after.

TW  Yes, and I could only think of black people to profile and, for some reason, I wanted a white person. I knew the quotes Abraham Lincoln made concerning how he didn’t especially appreciate slavery, but he would never want his sister to marry a black person, and I knew that Thomas Jefferson and many of the Founding Fathers were slave owners so I couldn’t write about any of them. John Brown was the only man who was somewhat close to what I was looking for, but he was portrayed as such an insane person — I even remember one of my teachers saying that he probably had a mental problem. So, there was nobody left, nobody white left, and I wound up writing about Lincoln and Kennedy together, and how they were basically failed leaders.

JJM Concerning the anger your black friends and neighbors may have felt about the past, you wrote, “I wonder if their anger at slavery, lynching and segregation ever slips over into hate toward white people.” Did you ever ask Danny that question?

TW  Later in life, yes. After he moved from Hollywood back to New York, we had long talks about this sort of thing. He was such a free spirit, and he judged people according to who they were. Perhaps it was because he was gay and he had other challenges to face, but he never got into the racial identity bag that many blacks and Puerto Ricans did. When I came back to East Harlem after college in the summer of 1969, I saw how the world had changed and how it affected the neighborhood and how people worked together. Black pride was everywhere, African garb was being worn, and the motives of whites wanting to help blacks and Puerto Ricans were questioned. Missionary work in general was questioned in the late sixties and early seventies. Because I was white, they wanted me to work within my own community, but East Harlem was my community, and I had to tell them I grew up there.

From the time I was a little boy, the whole idea of slavery haunted me. I was horrified by the idea that a child could be sold away from his parents. I used to hear people in the parish talk about the old days down south, and I couldn’t hear enough stories. It seemed so terrible to live in a society where, by law, someone could take children from their parents. How could such a society exist and call itself a free democracy? It seemed like a huge contradiction to itself. It fascinated me to the point that I eventually wrote an entire book on the culture and history of slavery in the United States, Deep Like the Rivers.

JJM  Flying Over 96th Street is such a passionate and personal memoir. It takes courage to expose so much of your past and so many intimate thoughts, especially when some may not be particularly favorable to members of your family. Toward the end of the book, for example, you wrote about your father, “I realize that my dad will never be proud of me, that what I’ve been hoping for, working for, all my life will never happen. It just isn’t in Dad to be proud of me. Pride’s not part of his vocabulary. Maybe deep inside somewhere he’s proud, but he can’t admit it, not even to himself.” How did your father respond to that passage in the book?

TW  That is a funny story. Before the book was published, just as I was about to give the publisher the final revision, I visited my father to have a talk with him. I told him that there were a couple parts in the book I wanted to make him aware of, and that he may not have a memory of them. As a teenager, I wrote him a letter one Summer that he never responded to. In it I asked him many troubling religious questions like, was there really life after death? I also mentioned that I wrote in the book about how he said he could never being proud of me or of my siblings. How he always said he felt grateful rather than proud, that it is only through God’s grace that anything good happens. I asked Dad if he remembered these things, and he said he did, and in fact he had saved the letter. I asked him why he never responded to it. He said he wasn’t sure, and promptly changed the subject. About six months later, a month of so after the book came out, he called me one day and said, “Tommy, I just want you to know how proud I am of you.” I asked him, “Dad, who put you up to this?” He said that he had received a lot of phone calls, but he said he thought we were using the word “proud” in different ways. I told him that may be true, and that I appreciated hearing it anyway. About three weeks later we were having dinner together, and Mom said, “Tommy, you let him off the hook. You should have made him say he was proud of you to your face, not over the telephone.” That is typical of my mother, who wouldn’t let my father ask her to marry him in a letter. But he said it again at the table, that he is proud of me, and that he is proud of my brothers and sisters.

JJM  I just couldn’t help but think about how difficult it would be to be that honest, but that is essential to an effective memoir.

TW  Early on one of my editors at Scribner reminded me that this is essentially a book about me. It is not about Danny, it is not about East Harlem, it is not about race relations in the United States. Flying Over 96th Street is a coming of age story, and throughout it, in order for it to be effective, I have to talk candidly about my parents, my friendships, and my feelings. They never told me what to say or which stories to write, but they insisted that I write it truly, as authentically as possible.

JJM  You wrote about the residents of East Harlem, “It is a world with its share of saints and sinners, heroes and hustlers, but mostly it is a neighborhood of common people working hard to make ends meet and struggling every day to raise their children the best way they know. It is a world of folks who pray to God and praise Him and, in 1957 at least, still believed in the American Dream.” Are residents of East Harlem less likely to believe in the American Dream today than they may have in 1957?

TW   I raised that question, although I am not sure of the answer to it. When I wrote the prologue — where this quote is taken from — and then later the epilogue where I talked about how much had changed while at the same time how little had changed over the years in East Harlem, I was feeling pessimistic about America’s commitment to providing everyone with equal opportunity, and I didn’t know if it ever would since America is so driven by money, and because the gap between poverty and wealth continues to widen. I don’t think America is as racially divided as it used to be, but I think it is just as much divided between those who have and those who have not.

I have been taken to task by some of my father’s colleagues for the epilogue, for not acknowledging the changes that have come due to their hard work and the hard work of so many others. There have been many great improvements but I’m not sure that a black child born to a single nineteen-year-old mother in East Harlem today has any more opportunity than Danny or anyone else from our time did.  I have to say that it is inspiring and hopeful to meet so many people who continue to hope, who continue to believe in the American Dream. I am amazed at the great strength of black Americans — and to some degree of immigrant Americans — and of their belief that America, despite all its faults, is the best country in the world. I think they may be right, but we have a lot of work to do.

We have certainly come a long way. In 1957, there was no certainty that Jim Crow laws were ever going to change. In most places in America today, few people admit to being a racist out loud, yet in 1957, politicians were being elected on clearly racist platforms. So, that world has changed, but history tells us that there are many ups and downs over a period of three or four hundred years. I no longer see history as evidence of things getting better, where each struggle gets you to a new level. The reality is that each struggle creates another struggle, each victory another challenge; that is perhaps the human predicament.

I have hope for the future because I think there is something in the American psyche about fairness. I think that is the key word. When polls are taken and people are asked if they are for quota systems, they always say “no.” When they are asked if they are for a system that gives blacks or any minority an advantage over whites in admissions, they say “no.” But if they are asked if they are for a society in which everyone has an equal opportunity, in which everyone has an equal chance to attend good schools, have equal access to health care, have an equal chance for a good job, they will overwhelmingly say “yes.” There is something about America that believes that things should be fair. We can use that philosophy to do what Martin Luther King used to urge, “Use the great exalting words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to call America home, to call it back to its best self.” I still believe that America can become a fairer more just society and to a great extent I think poor people also believe that.

JJM  You have anything else you want to add?

TW  One of the things I hope people take away from the experience of reading my book is the idea that friendships among people of great diversity and wildly differing backgrounds is a wonderfully human and spiritually uplifting experience. It is personally empowering and rewarding to have friends who are different than you, to open yourself up to them, to be open to how they think about the world, and to what they value as a result of their own life challenges. It is through such close personal relationships that we become better, fuller people ourselves.
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“I’m white, but I live in a Negro and Puerto Rican community.  I’ve experienced something of what it’s like to be poor; I live in a public housing project, pass winos and junkies every day on the street, understand what it is to be an object of hate because of the color of my skin.  At the same time, I attend school with the sons of the rich and the powerful.  I can talk their language, move comfortably in their circles, help them understand why it’s in their own best interest to end poverty, defeat racism, and create educational and economic opportunity.  I can be a bridge between white and black, rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless.  I have found my calling in my own way, on my own time, without God’s assistance.”

– Tom Webber

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Flying Over 96th Street:

Memoir of an East Harlem White Boy

by

Thomas Webber

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About Tom Webber

JJM  Who was your childhood hero?

TW  As a child, I went through several stages where heroes were important to me. The earliest hero I had was the Lone Ranger. He came on the radio every night at 7:30, and my brother and I would lie in bed and listen to the show. I loved the idea that his unknown identity helped him right the wrong and help the weak, and then at the end he would ride off into the dust without letting anyone thank him. It was great.

During the 1953 World Series, I wanted to be like Jackie Robinson. I still remember how he danced off third base, and how he then stole home. I was about six years old at the time, and I would tell people I was Jackie Robinson.

JJM  What was their reaction to that?

TW  They would sort of laugh and look at me — this little blonde, freckled, blue-eyed kid. The world has changed a lot since then. White kids today can say their hero is Michael Jordan without anyone batting an eyelash. It would have been rare in our day for white kids to have a black hero, but today kids have the ability to identify with whomever.

When I was a teenager, my father was my hero, and I wanted to be like him. He taught me that giving back to others and helping those in need is what is important in life. That was his identity. He used to laugh at the idea that people would work solely for the purpose of making money. Who would want to spend eight to twelve hours of their day for that reason? He felt it was more important to be doing something to make the world better, to have fun while doing it, and you will consequently feel good about yourself. He would always say that he was not a minister for some ‘do-gooding’ purpose, but because he enjoyed it, he found it fulfilling and made his life more significant. After having spent all my life working with so-called “troubled” teenagers, I find myself saying that as well.

Later on in my high school and early college years, I went through a period where I rejected the idea of working with individuals — if you did that you would never change the system. So, John Kennedy became my hero for a while during that time. Heroes change as you change. I don’t really like the idea of heroes now. We all need role models, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be anyone’s hero. To be someone’s hero is a pretty heavy burden that I am not sure any of us can carry. We all have feet of clay.

 

 

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Thomas L. Webber is the founder and Superintendent/Executive Director of Edwin Gould Academy, a coeducational, residential treatment school for adolescents in the foster care and juvenile justice systems. He is considered an expert on the needs of so-called troubled youth and on the future of education in inner cities. A graduate of Harvard College with a Ph.D. in education from Columbia University, Webber is the author of Deep Like the Rivers, the acclaimed book on how African-Americans preserved and nurtured their values under slavery. Webber served for seven years as an elected member of Community School Board 4 in East Harlem, the neighborhood where he and his wife raised their family, the neighborhood they continue to call home.

Thomas Webber products at Amazon.com

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This interview took place on December 16, 2004

 

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If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with John Lindsay biographer Vincent Cannato

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Other Jerry Jazz Musician interviews

# Text from publisher.

 

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