White on Black

My earliest image of black Miami was supplied by one of my uncles, a man who always looked nine months pregnant in his thin cotton undershirts. Darting in and out of traffic in his Chevy station wagon, he would explain to me the finer points of race relations. "If a black moves into the neighborhood, the value of your house will automatically go down," he'd say, deftly twirling the steering wheel. "They'll put garbage in their front yards and park their cars there, too." With no way of knowing for ourselves, my five cousins and I bounced along in the back seat like the spring-necked toy dogs allegedly found in every Hispanic's car.

The local TV news seemed to confirm my uncle's appraisal. As the cameras rolled, people - mostly young, mostly men, mostly black - were arrested, handcuffed, and dragged off to prison for committing all manner of heinous crimes. Later, during prime time on Thursdays, I'd tune in to the all-American Huxtables, the very model of tidiness and high-minded goals. All these images, though, were created by other people, and had no basis in my own experience. I could - and did - argue against negativestereotypes, but I felt like a hypocrite; growing up in white, Hispanic parts of Miami, my best friends weren't black. Most of the blacks I knew I'd met through school or work. I'd never been to their houses, never sat at their tables, never met their families. Nor had I ever been invited. What I "learned" about black life, about Overtown and Liberty City, I learned on the streets and television sets of Westchester.

When I recently approached several black Miamians - personal acquaintances and prominent leaders - to ask them what they would think of a story that dealt with black Miami, some of the clubs, restaurants, shops, and churches, about which white outsiders know little if anything, almost everyone responded with enthusiasm - and specific suggestions. "Anything that can help to enlighten one ethnic group about another is beneficial," said H.T. Smith, the attorney who initiated the ongoing Boycott Miami campaign. He added only one caveat: "It just can't be an expedition to the jungle."

Of the dozen people who gave me advice, only T. Willard Fair, president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Greater Miami, was wary of the idea. "I find it sort of patronizing when I see a white person in my club," Fair told me. "Why should I expect them to feel overly concerned as a group for going to a black club? Integration is a social goal that will never be achievable. Desegregation was the point."

Everybody else seemed to be in favor of anything that might promote social interaction and empathy between people of different cultures, saying the current lack of exchange is symptomatic of a much greater problem, one that's rooted in our perception of desegregation and integration. "The burden is always put on us to integrate," said Johnnie McMillian, president of the local chapter of the NAACP. "We have never been looked upon as equal - in housing, on the job, politically. If you don't consider someone an equal, why would you want to socialize with them? Integration has to be a two-way street."

And for blacks, the one-way street of integration has been a rough road. "There's an old expression that the white man's ice is colder," Bill Perry, a former NAACP president, told me. "In this community, there are people who have a difficult time accepting the fact that African-Americans are just as intelligent and competent as they are. I get so frustrated. I really believe my life has been shortened by ten years because of my interaction with white people - the stress, the frustration. Things don't get done just because they're right. You have to figure out a way to get the right things done."

The roofs of warehouses and small homes corralled by chain-link fences streak past as Carinne Johnson and I drive north from downtown on I-95. We exit at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (NW 62nd Street) and roll out of the shadow of the overpass and past Liberty City's Edison Senior High School. The business cliches - fast-food restaurants, a Winn-Dixie - soon disappear, replaced by aging establishments and newer places splashed in bold red, yellow, and green.

"Sometimes in college I'd get sick of Wendy's and McDonald's," says Carinne, a University of Miami graduate who grew up in this neighborhood, as we pull into the parking lot of a pink-colored building. Misspelled plainly in big black letters on the side of the building are the words D-A-V-I-S R-E-S-T-U-A-R-A-N-T. "My roommate and I would look at each other and say, `Let's go!' We'd drive from Coral Gables and pig out here. I'd say, `Is that a pecan pie? I'll take two!'"

Carinne stops outside the entrance to look at the handmade earrings and bracelets being laid out on a folding table by a small, goateed man in a rust-brown dashiki. When we walk inside, the bitter smell of boiling collard greens and black-eyed peas is soon dominated by the heavier scent of batter-fried pork chops. We find a table toward the back of the room, beyond the lunch counter where two black men sit on low beige stools that sprout from the cement floor like mushrooms.

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