From 1960 to 1968, I attended a Catholic elementary school in Jeffersonville, Indiana. The only nonwhite students there were Ed and Steve Gosun. Ed was my age, and he was my best friend. His brother Steve was a year younger.
Their mother was a lovely and talented white American from rural Indiana. She played the piano and sang like an angel. Their father was Taiwanese. Like my dad, he had fought the Japanese in World War II. Years before Bruce Lee movies popularized karate, I watched Mr. Gosun break boards with his bare hands.
They drove a foreign minicar; I have no idea what kind. Mr. Gosun was strong, and the minicar was light. Sometimes he showed off his strength by lifting one end of the car entirely off the ground.
The Gosun family had a plan: they would live in Indiana until the boys finished elementary school, and then move to Taiwan and remain there. After school and on weekends, Ed and Steve studied Chinese at home. I watched as they practiced drawing (or writing) hundreds, maybe thousands of traditional Chinese characters. For example, the word “friend” appeared as.
My life was enriched by my friendship with the Gosuns. They were very nice people — talented, intelligent, and kind. It was a sad day when the Gosuns said goodbye and moved to Taiwan.
In 1970, on my 16th birthday, I went to work at Kroger. There I made my first Black friend. Anthony worked in the produce department. Saturday was payday, and every Saturday afternoon Anthony and I ate a big steak dinner at Frank’s Steak House. Before I became friends with Anthony, I usually ate lunch at Burger King. Anthony taught me to splurge a bit and treat myself on payday — a tradition I maintained most of my life.
In high school I became friends with Cindy Haq. Cindy’s father was Pakistani; her mother was a lovely white American from rural Indiana. Cindy’s many honors include two Fulbright scholarships, an American Academy of Family Physicians President’s Award and Exemplary Teaching Award, a Society of Teachers of Family Medicine National Excellence in Education Award, and two Arnold Gold Foundation Humanism in Medicine Awards.
Cynthia Haq, MD currently serves as Chair of the University of California-Irvine Department of Family Medicine. To this day I am very proud to call “Dr. Cindy” my friend.
From 1981 to 1985, I served in the US Army. There I made friends with people from a variety of cultures and countries such as Belize, Jamaica, Panama, and Malta. I had a French girlfriend in Lyon, France.
However, I was not raised to be multicultural. When I grew up in Jeffersonville, racism and racial prejudice were commonplace — if not entirely the norm. I was aware of it, and I mostly ignored it. It was easy and convenient to ignore it as a normal, everyday part of our culture because, in many ways, it was.
Although I lack his prodigious talent, I feel a certain kinship with Mark Twain. Born in 1835, Twain writes of his youth in pro-slavery Missouri: “In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it. No one arraigned it in my hearing; the local papers said nothing against it; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing, and that the doubter need only look in the Bible if he wished to settle his mind....”
Similarly, I had no aversion to racism in my youth. And yet, like Twain, I made friends with Blacks and people of different ethnicities and cultures. Twain writes about his childhood friendships with Black slaves:
“All the negroes were friends of ours, and with those of our own age we were in effect comrades...We had a faithful and affectionate good friend, ally and adviser in ‘Uncle Dan’l,’ a middle-aged slave whose head was the best one in the negro-quarter, whose sympathies were wide and warm, and whose heart was honest and simple and knew no guile. He has served me well, these many, many years. I have not seen him for more than half a century, and yet spiritually I have had his welcome company a good part of that time, and have staged him in books under his own name and as ‘Jim,’ and carted him all around — to Hannibal, down the Mississippi on a raft, and even across the Desert of Sahara in a balloon — and he has endured it all with the patience and friendliness and loyalty which were his birthright. It was on the farm that I got my strong liking for his race and my appreciation of certain of its fine qualities. This feeling and this estimate have stood the test of sixty years and more and have suffered no impairment. The black face is as welcome to me now as it was then.”
In 1901, at age 65, Twain wrote an essay, “The United States of Lyncherdom,” in which he denounced lynch mobs for succumbing to a herd mentality. “It must be the increase [in lynching] comes of the inborn human instinct to imitate — that and man’s commonest weakness, his aversion to being unpleasantly conspicuous, pointed at, shunned, as being on the unpopular side. Its other name is Moral Cowardice, and is the supreme feature of the make-up of 9,999 men in the 10,000. I am not offering this as a discovery; privately the dullest of us knows it to be true.”
At age 66, I am much less tolerant of racism than I was in my youth, and I try to help educate others when I can.
Before I retired a few years ago, I was a substitute teacher in Edmonson County. I was pleased and proud to have the opportunity to teach third graders about race to celebrate and understand Martin Luther King Day.
“Do we like or dislike someone because their eyes are blue, not brown? Or because their hair is red, or brown, or blond?” I asked. The children understood at once — no, of course we don’t.
“Should we like or dislike someone because of the color of their skin?” I asked. The children understood at once — no, of course we shouldn’t.
“There is only one race,” I told them. “Does anyone know what that race is?”
“The human race,” a student answered correctly.
Indeed, there is only one race: Homo sapiens, or human.
Mark Heinz lives at Nolin Lake. He supports the cause of racial justice. Visit his website at amazon.com/author/markheinzbooks.