“I Grew Up in a Mostly White World.”
Last week, I saw this poem on Joe Butler's Facebook page. I thought it was powerful, and painful, and beautiful, so I asked if I could share it. And then Joe and I chatted about what moved him to write it.
I grew up in a mostly white world. It wasn’t directly hostile to me, but I still have scars.
I grew in a mostly white world.
I smile when I think about my childhood. I had family, I had friends. I had innocence, I had opportunity.
I smile when I think about my childhood.
I was a little black boy who thought he was just a boy. My skin color didn’t seem to be a thing. The small things that I didn’t notice still left a mark. I spent the night at my friends’ houses, but they never spent the night at mine. I was a little black boy who thought he was just a boy.
I had my eyes opened in middle school. The lunch room became a choice. The white kids ate here and the black kids ate there. My friend circle shrunk; in was Andre and out was Mark. Diversity disappeared.
I had my eyes opened in middle school.
I basked in the innocence of ignorance until the ignorance became a hindrance. Mr. Hein asked me what I saw. “A man” is what I answered. And when Time became Ebony, the curtains were undrawn. I saw a black man. I saw me; I saw how America saw me.
I basked in the innocence of ignorance until the ignorance became a hindrance.
I grew each day. College continued the journey. Malcolm evolved from a mad man to an intellect. The girl who crossed the street might as well have been in the car that drove by shouting nigger. The world grew wider as I grew wiser. The problem is not them or us.
The problem is that them and us forcefully fight the fact that "them and us" need to become we.
I grew each day.
I grew up in a mostly white world. I was a little black boy who thought he was just a boy.
I grew up in a mostly white world.
Joe Butler, 57 (his birthday is today!), was born and raised in Evanston's 5th ward--his family lived on Foster, then Darrow, and then Lee Street (his parents now live on Keeney)--and today he lives in south suburban Homewood where he has taught eighth-grade social studies at Parker Junior High for the past seven years.
He also worked at the McGaw YMCA.
Butler served as a police officer in Park Forest for 18 years, mostly as a DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) officer, which is how he found his calling in education.
"I was in the classroom with children and I loved the energy there. I knew that once I finished law enforcement, I would go back to school to become a teacher, which is what I did," Joe told me.
"I just love this job," he said. "I did a good job as a cop. But I was born to be a teacher. "
I asked Joe what inspired him to write his poem.
"Last Sunday morning, I was in a park in Oak Park, which is similar to Evanston," he said. "I was people watching and thinking about my experience growing up. And the phrase, 'I grew up in a mostly white world' kept running through my head as I walked."
He decided he'd write an essay about it, but when he sat down at his computer, it poured out as poetry.
I asked: Is the fact that you grew up in a white world something you think about all the time?
"I can say that I think about being Black all the time.
Not as a burden or a badge of honor," he replied. "It is what it is."
After graduating from Chute and then ETHS, Joe attended Augustana College, a predominantly white liberal arts campus in Rock Island. He told me about the time his Black Lit. professor freshman year asked the class to write down a list of ten things that describe them.
"The class was probably 50/50 African American and Caucasian," Joe said. "Almost all of African American students put 'Black' in their top one or two spots. And all the white students, none of them had 'white' on their list at all; or it was very low on their list."
Joe first realized he was Black in preschool, at the Child Care Center of Evanston on Asbury and Emerson (now Learning Bridge), when he had a little-boy crush on a white girl named Mary.
"I remember having an impression that Mary was white and realizing I was Black. That didn't have any meaning to me in preschool, though," he said.
But when he was in first or second grade, while staying at his cousins' house in Beloit, Wisconsin, Joe was victimized directly. He was playing outside when some kids on the block chased him home to his cousin's.
"They called me the N-word," he remembers. "I knew they were angry and they were chasing me, but growing up in Evanston, I hadn't really heard that phrase at all. I remember being very, very scared."
In middle school, Butler noticed that kids started to self-segregate. He also knew, but didn't understand, why when he went to his white friends' houses they were so much nicer than the houses in his neighborhood. And, he says, while writing his poem, he remembered that his white friends came to his house only once: to his birthday party. "Otherwise, I would always go to their houses for slumber parties. I didn't really consciously think about it," he said. "It was just the way it was. Just the way things were."
In college, tall and skinny, he remembers walking down the street and watching a girl cross to the other side as he walked toward her.
"I remember saying, 'Oh my God, that just happened,'" he says. On a separate occasion, walking off-campus in Rock Island, a group of young men driving by yelled the N-word out the window.
I asked Joe how he processes these experiences, what kind of hurt or anger he carries.
"My anger, when it comes, is more toward systems. It's less anger and more frustration and disappointment," he said. "But I prefer to look toward solutions instead of dwelling on the problems. The system needs to be repaired. It was set up for one group to be in power and another group to not."
And the labels 'Black' and 'white,' he believes, '"They're not connected to a person's humanity at all, they're a big part of the problem. As long as the labels stay there, the mindset stays there."
He writes about this realization in his poem, when he remembers as a young boy seeing 'a man' in a magazine. But later, he recognized race--his race--and its baggage.
"Mr. Hein asked me what I saw.
'A man' is what I answered.
And when Time became Ebony, the curtains were undrawn.
I saw a black man.
I saw me; I saw how America saw me.
I wondered: how do your friendships with other Black people and your connection within the community give you strength, resilience, and hope in the face of individual and systemic racism?
"Well ... we're still here," he laughed. "We have a common, shared experience and that lends itself to camaraderie, unspoken camaraderie. When I walk into a place and another Black guy is walking out; there's nothing said, nothing spoken, but there's a nod of recognition. Especially in the corporate world, the downtown world. Just that shared experience that gives us power and strength, that says 'we're making it through.'"
And how do you hope things will change? I asked.
“'Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will,'" Joe replied, quoting Frederick Douglass.