Nothing puts life into context like death. And so it was that while at Edwin Coleman’s memorial service last Tuesday, I was reminded why, in 1974, the former University of Oregon English professor put such a timely, and significant, piece in my life puzzle.
The reason was rooted in a mugging. My own.
Like a tagged trout, I had, as a high school sophomore, just been released by my folks into the shallow waters of freedom; for the first time, I was being allowed to attend the state basketball tournament in Portland without parental accompaniment. I would stay with family friends, who would keep track of my comings and goings.
I was stoked; my alma matter, Corvallis High, was undefeated and favored to win it all. I was free; walking through those Memorial Coliseum turnstiles was like a passage to the brave new world of adulthood.
I was distraught. Moments after I entered the arena to watch the Corvallis-Jefferson opening game, a handful of young men shoved me into a lobby nook, ripped a back pocket off my jeans, stole my wallet — I had about $100 in it — and fled.
They were black.
In terms of life trauma, the incident — after my initial shock — didn’t weigh on me heavily. Nor, at the time, did I suppose it clouded my perceptions of black people in general. And yet, with the passing of time, I was reminded that bias often works the night shift, hidden where those who need to see it most, can’t, or won’t, recognize it in the darkness.
In hindsight, I wonder if the incident shaded how, two years later, I wrote a story for our high school paper about a Jefferson High-Corvallis High student exchange that triggered angry responses from some at the predominantly black Portland school. They claimed it was tinged with an anti-black bias.
My adviser, my colleagues, my friends — virtually everyone at lily white Corvallis High — defended me to the hilt; the Jefferson folks, we concluded, were just “overly sensitive.”
In the fall, I left for the University of Oregon School of Journalism. I opened the door to my dorm room, a moment that proved to be another “turnstile passage” of sorts. There sat two black students. In my room. Twin brothers, it turned out, who lived right across the hall. It was an awkward moment, but an awakening one, as well. We forged a friendship mortared with humor, me chiding them for their incessant playing of Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead,” they laughing at me for dressing like a “hippie farmer.”
As the school year deepened, I became intrigued enough about their culture that, beginning fall term 1973, I took a year of African-American History and two classes by Coleman: Black Poetry and Introduction to Black Literature.
If three terms of history enlightened me on the black experience, Coleman’s poetry and literature classes engaged me at an emotional level, which, for me, always has been the better teacher. For the first time, I came to understand life through the eyes of people whose experiences were far different from my “Wonder Years” upbringing in Corvallis.
I read authors who chiseled words out of oppression — true oppression, not the “why-can’t-I-get-a-10-speed?” variety I had known. Oppression that sounded like the crack of a whip and smelled like the burning flesh of a branded slave.
I discussed the poems of Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni and others with classmates.
I listened as Coleman, in his gravely voice, read poems as if he’d written the words himself. He might as well have. As an African-American, he’d lived much of what the writers had lived. Knew what it was like to be refused service at a restaurant or not be trusted enough to have a check cashed — discrimination amortized daily.
In short, those 20 weeks with Dr. Coleman changed me. For the first time, I realized that when I subtly mocked those Jefferson High kids for dancing wildly to Michael Jackson on their lunch hour, it was because instead of trying to understand their world I was subconsciously measuring them by my own, a dangerous premise in a diverse society.
They weren’t being overly sensitive; I wasn’t being sensitive enough.
To confront my skewed vision wasn’t to feel guilty for a comfortable middle-class upbringing that I’d been born into; instead, it was to understand why time and experience and a willingness to get beyond ourselves can make us see the world more clearly.
As the saying goes: “If a man looks at the world when he is 50 the same way he looked at it when he was 20 — and it hasn’t changed, then that man has wasted 30 years of his life.”
I graduated and left Eugene in 1976. When I returned more than a decade later, Coleman and I no longer were professor and student, but friends. Lunch at Rennie’s Landing. A wild search at his house for an old “Afro Duck” decal from the ’70s. Sitting together while his son and daughter-in-law sang the blues on this 80th birthday at Café 440.
I once told him I’d gotten rid of almost all my books from college, but I couldn’t part with “I Am the Darker Brother: An Anthology of Modern Poems by African Americans.”
Still, I wish I’d taken the time to tell him more. Wish I’d told him what I’ve just told you. Wish I’d thanked him for a gift that’s valuable but rare in these days when we so seldom dare to confront the biases that silently enslave us.
The gift of new perspective.