My Turn: Two lives, two worlds: And where is Deborah now?

For the Monitor
Published: 6/13/2020 6:00:12 AM

My birthday is coming up, and this is a big one. It is big enough that I would rather choose to ignore it and pretend I am not this old.

I will stay away from mirrors for the day and find what comfort I can in knowing there are still a few more years waiting ahead. It is the years gone by that age the face and slow the body. But there is still time to make things different, better. Still time to holler and shout and protest injustice.

One person I always think about on my birthday is Deborah Smith.

Deborah and I were born on the exact same day. We met when we were 20 years old. For her, I was a big deal because she had never met anyone born on the same day as she. To her disappointment I was a bit blasé about it; all my life I had known people who shared my birth date. In my elementary school class of 30, four of us were born on June 15.

Fifty years ago, she and I were both on the Washington staff for the National Welfare Rights Organization, an organization we felt was leading the way toward a more equitable America. Our goal was to make the United States a better, more just society full of opportunity, a place where racism and intolerance would become universally reviled. And for a while it even felt like we were succeeding.

Though connected through employment and a common birth date, there was little else Deborah and I shared. I was a white male who grew up in a middle-class, up-state New York community, coasting through adventures with a kind of cavalier spirit I could afford to expend. Deborah was black, grew up in the inner city of Washington, and had two kids.

For me, the job at NWRO was about rebellion, carrying on a fight against all the wrongs I saw. For Deborah, there was some of that, but it is was also about survival.

Deborah struggled in ways I could never understand. It was persevering beyond the struggle that defined her. Even within the confines of our office she was not to be held back.

A single mom on welfare she became a member of the D.C. NWRO chapter. She started coming in to the office to help and in time was hired to be the part-time switchboard operator. Within a year she was working full time at the center of the organization. Assertive and confident, with just a touch of swagger, she radiated strength. But I could also see her vulnerabilities – maybe because she let me.

To this day I can hear clearly in my mind the distinct precision with which she spoke every word, her incredulous reaction to some of my stories, and the admonitions she would deliver about my white naivete. She was my favorite person to banter with. And though we rarely saw each other outside of work, we were friends, bound by a common birth date

It was not as clear to me then, but our life’s journeys were both shaped by white privilege. Mine, by what was offered. Hers, by what was denied. And because I believed the world was a good place, I never saw, or even considered, that my privilege contributed to her oppression.

When I left Washington, Deborah organized a surprise going-away party for me. She used to express concern that I always ate lunch at my desk while working. It was one of several ongoing dialogues between us that measured our differences.

As an acknowledgement of my odd behavior, she organized the entire staff to come back and have their lunch with me in my work area. It was a final gesture of friendship to solidify, maybe even celebrate, what we shared and didn’t share.

A few days later I left Washington, moving on to pursue other opportunities. It was something a young white male without any children to raise could do pretty easily. After I left, Deborah and I would talk occasionally on the phone. She was always encouraging about what I was doing. But, with time the phone calls became less frequent and eventually stopped.

Like grass growing up in the cracks of a sidewalk, nature took its course.

In theory we are all born an empty book of promise. As pages fill in, we adapt to the storyline, we become the storyline. It is never pre-ordained, but some people have pages that turn more easily than others. The lines that connect back through generations become burdens that must be pulled, or ropes to throw forward and lasso what is waiting.

For 70 years I have been able to walk on the edge and not fall. My good luck, I guess. Good luck has always played a role. It seems that all I needed to do was just keep watch so as not to fall. From there, life just filled in the pages.

That is why I will wonder all the more this birthday what happened to Deborah. Did we change the world enough back then so that she could do a little coasting every now and then, so she could know the freedom of good luck that I have spent a lifetime swimming in?

The tired in me looks around and tries to understand how it is that our country is devolving into this chaos. The expectations of my younger years are not at all this moment’s reality.

Once I thought the battles had been won, racism and inequality were being nailed shut tight in their coffin. All that needed to come was the final burial and that was just pro-forma, motions to go through before moving into a brighter, better future.

But it is beyond obvious that much work clearly remains.

Wherever you are, Deborah, I want you to know that on most days I still eat my lunch while working at my desk. I can see the look on your face as you hear me say that. I hope that even in this chaos of now your children and grandchildren are strong like you. I hope that they have been able to use their heritage and prosper from your determination.

To know that is true would tell me that at least something changed for the better.

(John Gfroerer of Concord owns a video production company based at the Capitol Center for the Arts.)


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