Gentry with kids from the youth group at First Presbyterian Church of Benton Harbor on a visit to the monument at Silver Beach in St. Joseph, Mich.
Finally, I’d get the chance to know Gentry better. As one of the youth leaders of our church at the time, Gentry told Bible stories with
I also knew this black man in his 40s had grown up in the nearly all-black Benton Harbor, Michigan, where my racially integrated church is located, and that after college he worked for social service agencies and schools in Benton Harbor. Although he wasn’t a member of our church, that didn’t matter: We wanted his expertise. We especially wanted him because we knew he could connect with the black teenagers at our church. And he did.
“We especially wanted him because we knew he could connect with the black teenagers at our church. And he did.”
I’m a white man, a good two decades older than Gentry. I’m always curious about people — what makes them tick? It’s a personal habit reinforced by more than 40 years in journalism.
Last summer, on a Saturday night when Gentry was still working with our youth group, it seemed I was about to satisfy my curiosity. Our youth group was having an overnighter at the church, and there was another much larger, all-white, group of adults and teenagers from another state. Benton Harbor is a destination for many white church groups seeking, in the code language, “urban” work experiences. Our church is often the stopping place.
Many people in the two groups were settling in and preparing to sleep on the old linoleum floor of the big room where we eat church suppers. The teenagers from both groups were playing a game of Sardines, hiding out in our little building.
“The big room was dark. Gentry and I sat on folding chairs near a window, illuminated by lights from the parking lot. We talked quietly so as not to wake up any of the people already in sleeping blankets.”
The big room was dark. Gentry and I sat on folding chairs near a window, illuminated by lights from the parking lot. We talked quietly so as not to wake up any of the people already in sleeping blankets. He opened up to me about going away to Virginia to attend Liberty University, the Baptist institution founded by evangelist Jerry Falwell, and being one of the few African Americans on campus. He talked about being followed a lot by the cops in that town, and other towns between Virginia and Michigan when he’d travel back and forth from home to college. He told me about an incident at a Texas hotel with white cops — again, suspicious of him for no good reason — while he was on a trip in behalf of the Benton Harbor Boys & Girls Club teen program.
I don’t remember many of the details of our conversation, but I definitely recall Gentry saying with utter certainty that every black man in his 40s could tell many similar stories.
“I don’t remember many of the details of our conversation, but I definitely recall Gentry saying with utter certainty that every black man in his 40s could tell many similar stories. “
What struck me at the time, and still strikes me, is how amiable Gentry is: If anyone could disarm a cop with charm, surely it would be Gentry. But I gathered that, like many of us, Gentry had a bit sharper edge as a college student than he does now.
The dark room, the little bit of light, the long-awaited insights into this man’s growing-up years — and the honor I felt of his sharing it candidly with me, a white guy — all made this a special time.
“And then a white guy, one of the sleeping bag people, intruded and broke the spell.”
And then a white guy, one of the sleeping bag people, intruded and broke the spell. I suppose he was in his early 30s. He was one of the adult leaders of the out-of-state youth group. He barged in on our conversation, sitting on the floor at our feet and saying he had been listening and found the talk fascinating. He was irritatingly effusive. Chirping away, he said he loved talking about such subjects. He immediately tried to establish his street cred for a conversation about race by saying he had served time in prison. That felt like his trump card.
The intimate give-and-take between Gentry and me had been shattered. The intruder was steering our time into a manufactured, stagey, self-conscious conversation about RACE, in all capital letters. It seemed he wanted to prettify and minimize the pain Gentry was revealing. I pushed back, and the intruder bent a little. As I recall, Gentry didn’t outwardly show any resistance. He rolled with it. He seemed unruffled.
Still, the moment was lost. This guy had taken our conversation hostage. I resented his very presence. I certainly resented his words. He seemed intent, probably unconsciously, on wanting to paper over — or maybe the word is
“He seemed intent, probably unconsciously, on wanting to paper over — or maybe the word is
whitewash — the different experiences of black and white people in America.”
If my first lesson from Gentry that evening was about the sheer universality of black men getting followed and stopped by cops, Lesson No. 2 came as Gentry was leaving. He was not going to be spending the night with the youth, and so I approached him, out of earshot of the ex-inmate white guy, and said I urgently wanted to talk with him before he left the church.
I was incensed by what had happened, and felt embarrassed — for my race, I guess, but also for the sheer rudeness of the man. This was bad stuff. Gentry smiled and laughed. He assured me that what happened to our conversation was nothing new. White people have been telling him for a long time that they know his story better than he does.