I was on the Atlanta-Greensboro leg of a trip to Wake Forest University for a conference on Law and Violence. The man seated next to me and I struck up a conversation, starting with the usual small talk. “What takes you to Greensboro?” “Work. I have a conference at Wake Forest. How about you?” “I’m visiting my nieces. I’ve got three of them there.” “You are a nice uncle to make a trip just to visit your nieces.” “Well, they’re great and we’re very close. So what kind of work do you do?” “I teach at a law school.” “You’re a professor? Really? You don’t look old enough to be a professor. I would guess…. You are in your thirties.” “That is very kind! But I’m 49, so more than 20 years older than most of my students now.” Then he asked me, “How old do you think I am.” I turned so I could see him straight on. He was African-American, with dark skin and a smooth complexion, but some small wrinkles around the eyes. “I would say, in your thirties?” “No, I’m just a few years younger than you—44.” “Well we’re just the mutual admiration society then!” I said, and we laughed about that, and then settled in a bit. I took out my book and started reading. He opened a magazine. At some point we started chatting again. (Some flights are like that. People are open and friendly. Others are not; everyone dives into a book or device and pretends they are not in elbow to thigh proximity.)
He told me he was from Milwaukee. I told him I grew up in New Jersey, but now lived in Colorado. I asked him about his work, and he told me that he is a general contractor and works mostly on renovations. He had been a realtor in Atlanta, but when the market crashed he left and had to start over. He asked me if I had ever traveled outside of the country. I said yes, including recently to Rome. He said he would love to go to Rome some day. Two years ago he visited Finland and Latvia, and caught the travel bug. “Really? Latvia?” I asked. “I was there once too, but ages ago.” “No kidding! I was in Riga, you know, the capital.” “That’s where I was!” We agreed it was a beautiful city, with its cobblestone streets and medieval European look. “I loved it,” he said. “It was cool, and the food was good.” This surprised me, I told him, because the food in the former USSR was uniformly awful when I was there decades ago. He laughed and said, “Well it’s good now. And I’ll tell you what. They have hardly any Black people there, and so that was interesting.” I asked him about that. “What was that like? Was that kind of refreshing, because they don’t have all of our baggage? Or was it weird?” “No, it was great. Because the only Black people they see are the ones on television, the Michael Jordans, Will Smiths, and so they think we are all rich and famous! They see me and think… ‘he must be like Jay-Z.’” This made us both laugh, and then he said, “But the coolest thing, and I’m going to tell you this because you seem like you get it, was that I walked out of a night club at 2:00 in the morning, and a group of women, White women—because they were all White women there—was coming toward me. And they walked right by me without even blinking, without crossing the street. And I saw a cop too, and same thing. He just nodded and said hello.” So I said something like, what a relief that must have been, and what a drag that he had to come home to the same old racist treatment here. And from then on, he started leaning in to talk to me, whispering almost, because he didn’t want all the (White) people around us to hear. And what he talked about was, in short, the vast gap between what his life is like as a Black man in America and what most White people think his life is like. At one point I asked him if he thought things were better or worse now than when he was younger, or could he tell. And he leaned in close again and said, “I’m going to be completely honest with you, because I can tell you care. Things are not better but they are different. They are more underground, you know what I’m saying? But are they better? They are not going to get better because people like to hang on to what they have. And I’ll tell you something, this goes way back. In the South, they made poor white people feel better by making them think that at least they weren’t Black. And that’s where it all starts, dividing up people by making some people feel, well at least I’m better off than they are.” No historian or social theorist could put it any more concisely or clearly than this man sitting next to me on a flight from Atlanta to Greensboro.
We talked for the rest of the short trip, quietly and intensely, about race in America, but other things too. He asked about my family, and I asked about his, and we talked about all of it, from the mundane to the personal to the deeply political. And when the plane was landing I told him that I hoped he would travel to Rome someday, as he said he wanted to, and wished him the best. He said he hoped I had safe travels, and that it was good to meet me and to talk, to really talk. We shook hands. I got off the plane feeling deeply sad about my country and its color line that has never been erased, and yet at the same time filled with wonder and a small flame of hope. Hope fueled by the sense that, despite the embedded structures of racism that divide us, strangers can connect, at least for a short while on an airplane where we are crammed elbow to thigh and provided an opportunity, if we choose to take it, to talk, to really talk.