In part 2 of the series, In Mixed Company, where I, the white guy, recount my continuing education on my white privilege as I continually learn from my partner, renowned gay African American artist Willie Little.
As I’m trying to pin down what makes Black people different from white people, I only have to look as far as my own relationship. That’s why for this article I decided to focus on what it was like for each of us, Willie and myself, growing up.
As a child, I never thought about my future. My days were spent playing. I never daydreamed that one day I would be famous for anything. I never really knew what I wanted to do except to play and go to the lake. My family didn’t take trips to Disneyland, but we did go to the lake. I got to go quite often since my friend’s family had lake property. I also had another good friend whose family owned a small yacht. I was often invited to take week-long cruises into the San Juan Islands with them and they would take me snow skiing whenever they could. My family wasn’t rich. We were far from it. But I lucked out in the friend department it seems.
Now contrast that with Willie’s life. While I spent summers at the lake, or cruising around the San Juan Islands, Willie was working hard on his family’s tobacco farm, picking tobacco or corn or whatever the crop of the week was. While I’m getting up early to go waterskiing, Willie was breaking his back to help bring in the money to be sure they could keep the Little farm going and have food on the table.
And memories of those long hours in the hot sun as a child were seared into Willie’s memory. I asked him how he as a child came to the realization that there was something better? What made him think that not everyone lived the way he did? What made him think that he could have more than what he had at the time? And how did he get past the idea that his dreams weren’t to be realized by a child growing up Black.
He told me as a child he wanted to live on Park Avenue in New York. The penthouse that Buffy and Jody lived in with Uncle Bill was what he yearned for. Or the New York penthouse that Lisa Douglas on Green Acres lived in before she was whisked away to live on a farm. That was his dream as a young Black child living in the rural south.
As a child, my opinions were formed by 60’s and 70’s tv. If I hadn’t seen Buffy and Jody of The Family Affair living in their New York City penthouse, or seen Lisa, played by Eva Gabor on Green Acres, I wouldn’t have known there was anything better. With 60’s and 70’s tv shows I learned there was a whole world outside of Little Washington. “Willie Little
It seems that desire, and an innate stubbornness, were the forces that drove him to work for something better. The thought of continuing life on a farm was inspiration enough, and unlike Eva Gabor in Green Acres, he wasn’t going to agree to anything that involved hogs, chickens and tobacco. He knew he was meant for bigger things than slopping hogs and picking corn.
Sidenote here: I once put forth the idea that Willie and I buy a large plot of land, grow our own food and raise chickens. It didn’t go over well to say the least. He confessed to me later that he and his friends had a good laugh about me actually playing a farmer. And yes, the reference to me as Oliver Wendell, and Willie as Lisa Douglas from Green Acres, did serve as a comparison. I told him I was glad to know that their gleeful discussion of me brought them so much joy.
So, it seems that growing up I was quite lazy. I didn’t really strive for anything because I already had the lake, yacht trips and hot dogs. What more would a child need or want?
Willie didn’t have any trips like that as a child. Tobacco farming required a lot of back-breaking work. If Willie was lazy, he didn’t get much time to show it.
So, with that Willie was driven by the desire for something different. He knew he didn’t belong in Little Washington, NC. He knew as he fantasized about the New York skyline that he was going to get out of there and that he was going to be an artist:
“… the Art Deco wardrobe and the heater that were laid out in the room somehow reminded me of New York City’s Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building… I fantasized that one day I would live in New York and be a part of the luxury and glamor. “
“… I lived another life through the characters on TV, the adopted twins, Buffy and Jodie, who lived in a penthouse on Park Avenue.
I also imagined I was Corey, the little chocolate son of correct and proper practical nurse Julia, played by Diahann Carroll, a pioneer. She was the first non-stereotypical black role on TV, period. She wasn’t buggin’ out her eyes, or a maid. “Willie Little – In the Sticks
So, with all the discussion around “white privilege” I began to wonder; first, what does it mean, and second does it apply to me? I asked Willie if he knew what the term meant and he gave me an example:
“You drive with no worries.” he said. “I would never run a red light, drive 50 in a 20 mph zone, make illegal u-turns… I wouldn’t do it. For you, there are no worries about the consequences. As a Black person, I don’t have that luxury… my very life could depend on not being pulled over.”
And I think of all the times I’ve been pulled over and I have to wonder, if I were Black would I still be alive today?
With such an easy life comparatively… I mean summers at the lake vs picking tobacco, cucumbers, corn…you name it… maybe that’s why I didn’t have the same drive? Maybe I didn’t suffer enough to want to find a better life? Maybe my life comparatively was an example of white privilege?
Willie decided when he was in high school, he was going to college and Carolina was his choice. He chose the University of North Carolina, even though the counselor advised him he basically had no chance of getting in…
“I had been accepted at the college I dreamed of going to. Just as North Carolina initiated desegregation in 1968 with my class, I was accepted at the University of North Carolina, a somewhat integrated school.
Ironically, my guidance counsellor, a Black woman, urged me to apply to other schools, saying it would be an uphill battle to get accepted.
That didn’t stop me. I applied myself the last two years of high school. I improved my grades to get on the principles list practically every semester and managed to get accepted to the only school I secretly sent my application to.”Willie Little – In the Sticks
Willie applied himself during his last 2 years of high school to be sure he got into the college of his dreams.
Me? In my last years in high school, I took easy courses with friends. High school for us was more about…once again… having fun. I took co-ed foods with two buddies and a “work at your own pace” Spanish class with another friend. “Co-ed Foods” was right after lunch. We’d smoke a bowl or two and arrive high. It was supposed to be an easy A but my grade for two quarters in a row was a D-. I was told that was due to my attitude.
But hey, I passed. And then combine that with the F I got for the work at your own pace Spanish class I took and… let’s just say I didn’t make the ‘Principle’s list’. At least not the one that Willie made repeatedly.
Willie left high school and went straight to the University of North Carolina. No break. Four more years of school. Driven by the desire to leave country living and find his way in big city life. He hasn’t lived in New York yet, but you never know. And he’s made a name for himself as most of you reading this know.
After high school, I moved to Seattle, lived with my sister, and took a job with Pacific NW Bell. I started as a Long-Distance Operator. I moved over to the mainframe group after one year. I hated it, and I hated my boss so I quit and started working as a waiter. I waited tables for a good six years. It was great. I only had to work 3 days a week, and the rest of my time was my own to waste as I saw fit.
But that said, I did finally find my motivation. After 7 or 8 years out of high school, I found the kick in the butt I needed to move beyond waiting tables. No kidding here, this was my true motivation…the people I was dating kept dumping me. When I’d ask why the answer invariably was I wasn’t ‘… materialistic enough!’
And then it clicked. Cute wasn’t good enough. Somehow, a guy who worked 3 days a week as a waiter, drove a beat-up Toyota Corolla that broke down often, and had no clue how to keep a place clean, wasn’t the package that was being sought after. So, I realized if I wanted to a relationship and stop getting dumped I needed to become ‘more materialistic’.
So, I put my life dream of becoming head waiter aside, I took a 6-month computer course and the rest is history.
And, I’ve done OK. My white privilege has gotten me into several corporate jobs and I’ve risen up the ladder of success a few times in a few different companies. All because I found my motivation late in life.
Now Willie continues to produce work that is relevant to the world we live in today. His work on race is eye-opening and inspires us to think about race relations in a different way.
And, after nearly 20 years together, I’ve only begun to peel back the layers of our relationship to really begin to understand how complicated racial relations are in America. And I’ve finally realized that we white people cannot sit back and wait for Black people to solve this problem.
Black people can’t solve our lack of action. They can’t solve our complacency and unwillingness to get involved. It’s our lack of confronting racism when we see it (I’m guilty), that IS the problem. Until we as white people accept that we have to solve this, Black people will continue to be killed for driving with a broken tail light.
Thank you for supporting Willie. Now with his improved health and successful back surgery, he’s more driven than ever.
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Also, if you feel inclined to share the love, here are some additional places to show your support:
Leave the Light on Foundation Inc.
This one is very dear to us as they helped when Willie was hospitalized and we weren’t sure he was going to make it.
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