During a recent visit to the cafeteria of my old predominantly white suburban junior high school I came upon something that I never expected to see again - the all-black lunch table.
As I look back on 27 years of often being the first and only black person integrating such activities and institutions as the college newspaper, the high school tennis team, summer music camps, our all-white suburban neighborhood, my eating club at Princeton or my private social club at Harvard Law School, the one scenario that puzzled me the most then and now is the all-black lunch table.Why was it there? Why did the black kids separate themselves?
What did the table say about the integration that was supposedly going on in home rooms and gym classes? What did it say about the black kids? The white kids?
What did it say about me when I refused to sit there, day after day, for three years?
Each afternoon, at 12:03 p.m., after the fourth period ended, I found myself among 600 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds who marched into the brightly lit cafeteria and dashed for a seat at one of the 27 blue Formica lunch tables.
No matter who I walked in with - usually a white friend - no matter what mood I was in, there was one thing that was certain: I would not sit at the black table.
I would like to think my decision was a heroic one, made in order to express my solidarity with the theories of integration that my community was espousing. But I was just 12 at the time and there was nothing heroic in my actions.
I avoided the black table for a very simple reason: I was afraid that I'd lose all my white friends.
Is that what the all-black table means? Is it a rejection of white people?
I no longer think so.
At the time I believed that the black kids were the reason other kids didn't mix more. I was ready to believe that their self-segregation was the cause of white bigotry.
Ironically, I even believed this after my best friend (who was white) told me I probably shouldn't come to his bar mitzvah because I'd be the only black and people would feel uncomfortable. I even believed this after my Saturday afternoon visit, at age 10, to a private country club pool prompted incensed white parents to pull their kids from the pool in terror.
In the face of this blatantly racist behavior I still blamed only the black kids for being the barrier to integration in my school and my little world.
I realize now how wrong I was. During that same time there were at least two tables of athletes, an Italian table, a Jewish girls' table, a Jewish boys' table (where I usually sat), a table of kids who were into heavy-metal music and smoking pot, a table of middle-class Irish kids. Weren't these tables just as segregationist as the black table?
At the time no one thought so.
Maybe it's the color difference that makes all-black tables or all-black groups attract the scrutiny and wrath of so many people. It scares and angers people; it exasperates.
It did those things to me and I'm black.
As an integrating black person I know my decision not to join the black lunch table attracted its own kind of scrutiny and wrath from my classmates. At the same time that I heard angry words such as "Oreo" and "white boy" being hurled at me from the black table, I was also dodging impatient questions from white classmates: "Why do all those black kids sit together?" or "Why don't you ever sit with the other blacks?"
The black lunch table, like those other segregated tables, is a comment on the superficial inroads that integration has made in society. Perhaps I should be happy that even this is a long way from where we started.
Yet, I can't get over the fact that the 27th table in my junior high school cafeteria is still known as the "black table" - 14 years after my adolescence.
(Lawrence Otis Graham is a lawyer in New York City.)