Rodney Phillips was my friend.
On the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King I feel compelled to say that. I can’t get it out of my mind and I have a feeling I won’t rest until I tell the world that simple fact. So there I ‘ve said it and now in 2018 through the miracle of the internet I’ve said it to a lot more people than I was able to say it to at the bus stop in 1965--the time I should have said it. When it would have mattered.
When I was in high school I was in a creative writing group that met at the Dallas Public Library and was led by Miss Siddie Joe Johnson, the head of the library system. Miss Johnson was a published author of several children’s books and much in demand as a creative writing teacher. She had only one condition: the class had to be integrated.
In 1963 in Dallas none of the high schools were integrated. Nothing was. So that was where I met Rodney Phillips, a negro boy my age who went to Booker T. Washington High School. This was before that school was named a Performing Arts school where Erykah Badu became famous.
Rodney stayed to himself in the writing class and I didn’t know much about him other than his writing style was way out there. Where most of us wrote poetry Rodney was into short stories and wild fantasy despite Miss Johnson’s admonitions to us all to “write what you know.”
One evening after class Rodney and I walked to the bus stop together to wait for our separate busses going to our very different parts of town to our very different homes. As we waited we continued our conversation about school or writing or whatever we had been talking about in class. It was a very natural thing for us to do: two students the same age with the same interests.
As we stood there a man approached us and asked me, “is this boy bothering you?” I was so taken back and knew immediately what was going on. So many thoughts and words swirled through my mind that all I could think to say was a simple “no.” And that was it.
I immediately wished that I had said “No, he’s my friend.” But the moment was over.
Rodney, of course, understood. We were both mindful that in other cities, in other moments, the guy could have, might have, pulled Rodney aside and beat him to a pulp or worse.
It’s over 50 years later and sometimes I despair that we haven’t made any progress at all. In many ways people are meaner to each other than ever before.
But I do know one thing: racial identity will eventually disappear. There is too much intermarriage to believe otherwise. Racial purity is a thing of the past and eventually everyone will be the same skin tone. So people are going to have to find another way to identify the folks they are going to hate.
In the meantime, I’m afraid I lost track of Rodney after high school. He was interested in dancing as much as writing and he had a dancer’s body and moves. I hope he found a way to pursue his passions. He was my friend.