Q: You say in
the beginning of your remarkable memoir White Boy that
your heroes were often black. You saw them on television and heard
them on the radio "without seeing their blackness as socially
significant." What made these particular athletes and performers
special to you?
A: They did what they did brilliantly and with
style and we wanted to imitate them—whether it was Willie
Mays making a catch, or Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers singing
harmony. And that made us the first generation of whites to openly
look to black people for inspiration.
Q: You describe in your chapter "Race
Conscious" the "threat" blacks posed—both
real and imagined—in your community and even in your school.
You were transferred (by your parents) to another high school after an "incident"
occurred in your high school locker room. How did these events
A: Being beaten up, or getting in fights, was
no big deal to me—it had happened plenty of times with white
kids. So my parents' decision to move me to another school seemed
irrational. My parents' racial outbursts—and their response
to black people generally—deeply offended me.
Q: You entered Columbia University with
the excitement and naivete of any Freshman. Yet your impressions
changed once you got there. Can you describe that?
A: It was an intimidating place for a kid from
the streets of Brooklyn, but there were some brilliant professors
and interesting students and I gradually gained confidence socially
Q: It was through friends of the Columbia
basketball team that you met Ruthie, your black girlfriend. You
spent six years with her, and your romance had serious repercussions
for both of you and your respective families. You claim you were
"not an activist trying to defy tradition" by having
this relationship. What can you say about this relationship?
A: It began with curiosity, attraction, and excitement,
and then a grim determination not to let prejudice drive us apart.
Ruthie shared these feelings, but she faced a lot of disapproval
from nationalist black students in the late '60s . Sometimes she
felt it was "too much pressure." My parents were violently
opposed to the relationship and continued to pretend that "Ruthie
was not a part of my life"
Q: How did the Black Power Movement's directive
that blacks "take control of their organizations" put
a strain on interracial friendships and organizations?
A: Many black intellectuals and activists came
to feel that the presence of whites in the black community retarded
the development of black leadership. They began to re-evaluate
personal and political relationships with white friends and co-workers.
Q: Do you care to comment about being arrested?
A: In the era of civil rights and the Vietnam
War, being arrested for one's political principles was a mark
of commitment. Getting arrested to protest Columbia's attempt
to build a gym in a Harlem park was something I was proud of at
the time—and am still proud of now.
Q: So you have no regrets?
A: None at all, I've had a great life!
Q: Would you have done anything different?
A: If I were a little smarter, I would have left
the Weatherman organization the minute I heard them talking about
"smashing monogamy" instead of waiting until I had gotten
arrested with them in a stupid incident in a Brooklyn coffee shop.
Q: How did you feel when you first began
teaching a Black History course? Wasn't that a risky undertaking
for a white man in 1968?
A: I felt nervous, but not frightened. I knew
most of the students I was teaching as a counselor and a coach.
But I made sure that their voices were equal to mine by organizing
the class around a debate format.
Q: How satisfying was it for your "life's
work" to culminate in being accepted as an instructor in
the Black Studies Department at Fordham?
A: It was extremely satisfying, but it was only
possible because my black colleagues believed that Black Studies
was for everyone in the university. Some black students rejected
my presence, but my large enrollments, the support of my colleagues,
and the friendships I made on the basketball court helped neutralize
their opposition. Eventually, I became more comfortable in my
job than anything I had ever done.
Q: Do you care to comment on the Leonard
A: I defended—and would still defend—his
right to teach, but deeply resented the fact that many whites
I met thought his theories and conduct were representative of
Q: What did you get out of revisiting all
of these heady times from your life?
A: The best part of it was seeing how excited
my students and my children have been about the book. They have
been White Boy's biggest supporters. They completely
identify with a tale about crossing racial boundaries. They have
shown their support by designing and wearing "White Boy
tee shirts," helping me develop a website and trying to set
up signings, book parties and media appearances.