Neo,
As a fairly new reader and childhood friend, I appreciate the metaphors you use in your writing. I suppose I am one of the few who know where a lot of your writing emanates from because we go as far back as elementary school.

That is where I met a brilliant young gentleman with a radiant and unforgettable smile. I watched people ridicule your intelligence as “trying to be white”. I watched white teachers trying to keep you in your place. I witnessed the racism from parents who wanted to use you as the token acceptable black friend of their child or judged you only by “what will our friends and family think” if you were allowed too close to their children. My white parents included.

I am the friend you mentioned in your Essay on Race. I am the one whose brother said you were my n-word boyfriend when you called our home. It is true, we were only kids back then. I don’t think I had even a tenth of your courage when we were 12. But I was then, as I am now, utterly ashamed of my parents who never stopped being the bigots they hoped I would grow up to be.

I have thought of you often and tried to imagine where your life would lead you. Your depth of understanding was something I leaned on during those confusing times. You were the teenage counsel to a lot of classmates, and yet, many of us had no idea what you were going through all by yourself with your own sense of identity as a human being who didn’t quite fit anybody’s stereotype of a black kid.

As I read through your website and connected the dots, I can only beg your forgiveness for whatever role me and my family played in some of the torment you suffered. Given the level of rejection that surrounded you with family, friends, and society, I am amazed by the love that has remained in your heart.

Amazed, but not surprised. In reading through your various commentary, it is as consistent now, as it was then. Only now, I am able to see the beautiful gift that the young girl in me appreciated, but was in no position to understand or defend you like you deserved. Can you forgive me?

Your race never played any role in my heart when you were my very best friend. I was naïve and not at all prepared for the ugliness I saw in the people I called family when they realized how close we really were.

I can still remember back in high school when our principal died at the hands of a drunk driver. Our white principal. You responded with a song. I still have the words,

What can I say
Can I do
To show how much I care
Feelings we all share
You’re gone
We’re still here
We’ve lost much more than we can really say
Life just doesn’t pay
It gives
And takes away
Dear God
Of Amazing Grace
You’ve taken him to a better place
I know
And we shouldn’t live
Our lives in sorrow
For tomorrow
We must
Carry on
Dear God
Of Amazing Grace
You’ve taken him to a better place
I know
What can I say
Can I do
To show how much I care
Feelings we all share
You’re gone
We’re still here

And that wasn’t the only time. You wrote another song when we lost two classmates in an accident. And again, when we were about to graduate, you wrote a song for our class. Gracious, Neo. For every tragedy or challenge that faced us in high school, they played one of your songs to end our closed circuit student news program. I still have a copy of every one of them even though we were no longer talking.

Neo, you have never attended any of our reunions, but I want to tell you how much you are spoken of between a group of us, how much we remember your songs and what they have grown to mean to many of us over the years.

It didn’t surprise us to hear you were in ministry for a time. Certainly you ministered to us even back then. It didn’t surprise me to hear you had left ministry. I knew by the way you challenged dogma in class that your mind and heart could never be constrained by any religion.

Through the friends we commonly share, I was able to keep up with some of the accomplishments of your life. When a guy like you turns down fame and fortune, people talk. And what they had to say was not always nice. Many thought you were a fool. But I like to think those are the people who just don’t know the pricelessness of your heart. Nothing was ever about money with you. It was always about the freedom to be who you are. I see that so clearly now.

I had heard the talk before, but the hardest thing for me to have read on your website, is what was done to your heart and your life at the hands of your wife. Yes, your white wife. Having lived so many years with the guilt of what my family did, that whole situation hurt me to the core of my very being.

I know from experience that white privilege will often deny a black person an honest chance even when the truth is on his side. I really did not need any more detail than what I read for me to understand that you never had a chance. Maybe she did have issues, but in the end, you were set up by her whiteness and she chose to take advantage of that. I am sorry if I am speaking out of turn but I have a lot of pinned up emotions knowing how long this has been happening. My guilt over you has made me even more sensitive to what is going on with the police shootings in our country.

Now that I look back, of course my friendship with you was not the first time I heard racist things come from the mouths of my family members. But it was the first time it happened to involve someone I truly cared about.

That moment changed my life forever. So you see, dear Neo, I could have lived my whole life just as blind and well-meaning and indifferent to what is going on in this country as so many of my ignorant neighbors who probably had parents just like mine. I could have stuffed that ugly part away out of some kind of sick family loyalty. I could have kept going to my mostly segregated church every Sunday and thought everything was ok because of the few black people there that were accepted only because their mannerisms closely resembled all the white people there. That could have been me. Even today. Except you and the special person that you were then and continue to be, made me into something different.

I realize now I have spent most of my life atoning for the pain my parents caused you. I was never the same. I became the “black sheep” of my white family. I still am. You just don’t know how much joy it brought to my heart when one of our classmates sent me the link to your website. How much I have learned from your journey.

You have turned my years of pain into inspiration. After 37 years, I am not sure how much of any of this even matters to you anymore. The wisdom in your writing tells me you have already gone so far away from those memories. But I needed to reach out to you. For my sake. I needed to tell my childhood friend how much I loved him then, and what that friendship has meant to me all my life even after you were gone.

I am proudly sharing your articles with my friends, colleagues, and family members. My husband is one of our classmates who you also know. He was pretty much preppy and privileged when we were in school but we both ended up teaching and that opened his eyes to a lot of things he also didn’t see back then. Our daughter is married and our grandchildren are biracial. We have always spoken openly to our kids about the hidden racism behind closed doors in our families. I told them the story of you when I was young and she and her husband were stunned to see that story appear in one of your essays. They were also the ones to encourage me to write you. My husband agreed.

I just want to say we love you Neo. As a 12-year-old girl I could not tell you this 37 years ago, but on behalf of me and my husband and all the people who are a part of our family, I want to welcome you into our home anytime you are here.

Signed Class of ‘85

MY REPLY

Dear Sweet  Class of ‘85

But for the tears, you have brought from the depths of my every memory of you, I would have written a novel in response to your thoughtful letter. Of course the incident with your family was forgiven so long ago. We were children and there was nothing you could do back then.

I was too young to understand that it was wrong to hold you accountable for standing up to your parents at such a young age. I had to forgive myself for even putting you through that. But by the time I had grown up enough to learn all those lessons, we lived in different worlds and were out of touch. It isn’t like today where we can so easily go online and track someone down.

We were inseparable soulmates throughout elementary school. We sat together on field trips. Your mom would chaperone a lot of them and she smiled as we held hands at the zoo or the museum making sure I was always next to you. You see, I remember so vividly that it was your mom who first gave me your phone number to call you at home. So I know that bigotry did not dwell in the hearts of everyone in your family.

But it was a different time. Women were often the silent change makers who challenged more behind the scenes. Your mom chose me to be a part of the kids she chaperoned every single time. When I grew up and matured out of the fog of all that pain, I just cried when I realized how much things really weren’t as they seemed and how much that hurt denied our friendship for the remainder of our school days.

My father had a deep mistrust of white people. He lived through segregation and the Civil Rights Movement. But he never discouraged the friendship we had. He had a cautious optimism telling me that because we were going to school together from childhood, that we had a better chance at changing things. Sadly, the phone incident, for him, confirmed his worst fears. We were both victims, you and I, of the fears of our fathers. Much like what is going on in this country today.

But I can recall the last time we held hands. It was in 1979 when we stood next to each other in the elementary school chorus singing for our 6th grade graduation ceremony. Mrs Wycherley was at the piano and began to play the first notes to “We’ve Only Just Begun” by the Carpenters. I felt your eyes smile at me as your hand sneaked from the side of your robe to hold mine. Our hands were hidden by the classmates standing on the next riser level down as we sang the whole song together that way.

We had no idea of knowing that those were the innocent days that we would never see again. A time in the hearts of hopeful children when race really did not matter. I want to thank you for making me go back into my mind about all this. Because it proves that we come from a generation that knows better and that we have an obligation to what we have learned.

The fears of our fathers are like a great vile plague that has been set loose upon our country. We have been so busy protecting our kids from it that we have left them unprepared – even more so, than we were to deal with it from our own parents when we were young. We’ve seen enough sides of this to call it what it is. There are opportunists on all sides profiting from all this confusion but we have the ability to offer clarity even through sharing our stories.

Thank you for compelling me to openly remember this. I have your contact information. I will be in touch so we can gather the next time I am home.

It’s funny. I can’t remember the last time I used that word when speaking of traveling there….

Forever your friend

Neo