The phone was for me. My sister held out the receiver and whispered, “It’s a boy!”
The voice wasn’t familiar. “Hi, Becky, it’s Don.”
He said it with all confidence, like we talked all the time. I said something like, “Oh, hi.”
I was trying to think who it could be, thinking I ought to know. I tried buying time with a little small talk, but he got right to it.
“I’m calling to ask you to go to prom with me.” I paused just a second, and said okay, I would. “Don who?” I wondered but didn’t ask before he said something about talking later and then hung up, Good Bye.
So, I was going to prom in a few weeks and I didn’t know who my date was. I thought of all the Dons I knew and finally decided it was probably Don Buckingham, a tall rosy-cheeked freckled faced boy in my English class who always wore ironed shirts. But next day at school he showed no sign we had a date.
I was on the lookout. I kept thinking Don would stop me in the hall or come up to me outside the school and signal that he was the guy on the phone, but that didn’t happen. Days passed and I had no clue. Another guy asked me, at school, but I turned him down and said I was already going. But I was beginning to wonder if I really did have a date.
Then I had the brilliant idea to look at all the Dons in the year book. My high school was big – about four thousand students – but there were only so many guys named Don and surely I could figure it out by process of elimination. I spent several evenings studying the faces and ID’s in the yearbook. No dice.
Then, the week before prom, Don called again to tell me he’d pick me up at seven on Saturday night, but he didn’t have a car. He was going to borrow a friend’s tandem bicycle, and he wanted me to be prepared to ride the six miles to the high school. It was way too late to ask his last name.
My mom was an amazing seamstress and whipped up a pair of snazzy culottes for me to wear. My whole family knew I didn’t know who my date was, and everybody thought it was pretty funny. Like a blind date.
Saturday night came and sure enough, Don came riding up to our house on a tandem bicycle. I sure was surprised – I knew him all right. It was Don Hornbuckle who I’d known since elementary school. I introduced him to my family and off we rode to prom.
We had a nice time, and per prom usual, alternated between dancing and standing around. We rode home after dark without a light and I was really relieved to get home without getting hit by a car. He wanted to kiss me at the door after parking the bike, but I shied away.
I always thought this was kind of a flattering story about my family because Don is black, and nobody freaked out when he showed up at our door in 1972. As if, because we are white, we showed some kind of admirable largesse by being cool with the whole situation.
Then, the other day, after Charlottesville and the President acting like an ass, I escaped to a local public pool to swim laps. It was free day at Witter pool, and I noticed there were a lot of people there that didn’t look like me. More than usual, I thought. I sounded to myself like a racist for that. Checked myself.
But, no, I wasn’t raised that way. I reassured myself, went through some family history highlights. My father took me to see Martin Luther King speak at the Village Green when I was ten. Patty Borden was my friend, and Gerald Cooper and Teddy Davis. Andrew Subuyu, a graduate student from Zambia lived with our family one summer while he attended the University of Chicago. And, I’d gone to prom with Don Hornbuckle.
And then, I thought more about Don Hornbuckle. And I realized that I am a racist, after all. When I ran my finger over the photos of all those boys named Don in the yearbook, I did not for one moment pause on his name or his face as a possible candidate for my mystery prom date. He was invisible to me on some level, and the only recognition I afforded him was some fleeting noblesse oblige where he played the part of the hapless suitor, lucky to have showed up for a girl whose parents wouldn’t run him off with a shotgun or insults or worse.
However much I don’t want to be racist, I recognize I have no special immunity. I’m not color blind. My point of view, my way in the world, is the product of millions of tiny slivers of experience over my lifetime. I was shaped, and continue to be shaped by every one.