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I lived as a black man during a period in 1970. These are my rough notes about several parts of that experience. I seem to never get around to working on this long-latent project but have very, very good intentions...

Brad 2007

 

 

 

 

N
o one ever sat me down when I was a kid, to explain which races, ethnicities, nationalities and religions I was automatically better than.
But along the way, of course, we all receive our informal, continuing education.
Brad Messer
 
 

 

 
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Somewhere in Alabama or Georgia


When I was 12 my divorced parents lived about as far apart as they could get. I lived with Mom in Idaho: Dad was in Florida. It was decided that I would go live with him, and that I would ride the Greyhound from Boise to Tallahassee.

Only one thing about that unaccompanied 2400-mile trip in 1952 survives in my memory.

Somewhere in Alabama or Georgia, the bus stopped at a dinky little cafe-slash-bus station and the driver said we had enough time to eat.

I went in and sat at the counter, but no one would wait on me. After maybe ten minutes of everyone very obviously ignoring me, a waitress finally leaned over the counter and said, "Honey, we can't serve you here. You have to go over to the white side."

The white side?

I went back out the front door, turned left past the White and Colored water fountains, and entered the Whites Only door. They waited on me almost immediately. It was my first-ever encounter with actual physical separation of the races.

It was my introduction to The South.

 

 

   
 
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A u s t i n


To say that the Civil Rights Act of 1963 was less than enthusiastically received in parts of Texas would be to put it very charitably. When African-American activists realized that every legal barrier had been blown away by LBJ's new law, they began trying out their finally-codified legal equality.

I was working in the Texas capital at KNOW, under news director Herb Humphries (who subsequently became news director of the legendary Los Angeles all-news station KFWB). A friend of ours, an Austin preacher, wondered aloud whether the town's most famous downtown cafeteria would finally begin allowing black people such as him through the door. I said, "Why don't we go find out?"

He and I had to be the two most-nervous guys on Congress Avenue that day, wondering whether we would be roughed up, ignored, escorted out, slapped into jail... we had lots of speculation going as we went through the front door of the cafeteria where no black person had ever been allowed. (Back door, certainly; front door, never.) As we crossed the floor toward the fountain's barstools, heads turned. No one said anything.

We sat.

A waitress came and took our order for coffee. It was served promptly. We drank, paid, exited, and looked at one another in wonderment and disbelief as we reached the sidewalk. And so it was, with not even a raised eyebrow, that Austin's best-known downtown eatery accomodated racial integration.

 

 

 

 

 
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D a l l a s



In Dallas in 1968, as news director of the city's dominant radio station, I could see that there was still an overwhelming amount of illegal racial discrimination.

After reading John Howard Griffin's 1961 masterpiece "Black Like Me" I was inspired to repeat what he had done. I wanted to disguise myself as a black man and circulate in several particularly-repressed Dallas neighborhoods to report on the state of things.

The impact might have been tremendous, because in those days my station had an astonishing 60% share of the Dallas-area audience. Anything reported on KLIF was heard by just about everyone.

I told station owner Gordon McLendon what I wanted to do.

"No," he said. "We might have riots."

Oh well.


John Howard Griffin assumed the identity of an itinerant black man by chemically altering his skin color and shaving his head, and visited several racially segregated states during a six-week period of 1959.

 

 

 
 
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San Francisco


 

 

 

 

 

 



A year after having my black disguise scheme turned down in Dallas, I moved to San Francisco as news director of the Avco stations KOIT-FM, and KYA, which reached #1 in the 12+ ratings while I was there— another huge platform from which to engage a community in dialogue.

Although The City is probably one of the most harmonious, accepting and tolerant places on earth - light years ahead of Dallas in that regard - I was still interested in exploring race relations.

General manager Howard Kester approved a project to be called Operation Undercover, in which I would be disguised as a black person for several weeks, the goal being to utilize Avco attorneys to file suits against people or firms caught engaging in prosecutable, illegal racial discrimination.

It was anticipated that the experience would teach me a lot about race relations. It never did.

What it did do was the last thing I might have expected; it taught me a lot about myself.

 

Getting Made Up

From the radio station at #1 Nob Hill Circle, off I went to a studio a couple of miles away, to be disguised by veteran Hollywood makeup pro Guy Fausone.

Before he began with the makeup, he remarked that he had been doing homework by studying tones, shading, feathering and other aspects of skin color. The first thing I remember him telling me was, "Do you realize that just about every black person's skin gradation is different where it goes from the back and side of the hand to the palm?" I'd never given it a thought.

The first makeup session took several hours.

Afro wig
My thin, straight hair wouldn't do. A hairpiece imported from France would.

Fake mustache
My upper lip was judged to be too much of a clue and had to be somewhat hidden.

Pancake makeup
Mr. Fausone chose to utilize Pancake brand stage makeup in the shade Negro #2. The beard was real.

 

Eye problem

Have you ever seen a black person with green or hazel eyes?

My makeup expert said my eye color would give me away in a second, so something would have to be done.

This was before colored contact lenses, so requirement number one was that I would have to hide my eyes behind sunglasses at all times.

Does a person who wears dark glasses (even at night!) project a slightly different persona? Do the shades give him a subtle aura of having an oh-so-slightly offbeat attitude? Yep.

Negro #2 Limitation

After a time, makeup will build up in facial lines and wrinkles.

Smile too much and you'll form parenthesis of makeup on either side of your mouth.

Frown too often and your forehead wrinkles will be emphasized by accumulated makeup.

"Don't smile at all if you can help it," Fausone advised.

Does a person who hardly ever smiles give off a certain vibe? Yep. Another aspect of my adopted persona that was different from the real me.

Hands, arms, face, ears, neck... it takes a while to get the makeup on properly.

The Pancake was applied only to the parts of me that showed. The neck was a problem area because the stuff could rub off on my collar. I was instructed to wear dark shirts at all times.

I didn't really have any long-sleeve dark shirts, so the first stop after leaving the studio would have to be a clothing store. I do love expense accounts.

Shirt Shop Man

Walking away from the studio I felt as though everyone everywhere would take one look at me and know I was goobered up with makeup and wearing a bushy wig.

It probably isn't possible to feel more fake.

Amazing! People didn't seem to be giving me a second glance!

I went to a clothing shop. I was glad that no one else was inside. The clerk approached. A black man. He didn't look at me funny. So far so good.

I told him that I would be needing several shirts, and explained my situation.

The gist of what I told him was, "I am not really black. I'm white. This is a disguise. This is all makeup. So when I take off this shirt don't be surprised that my chest is white."

He nodded his understanding and gathered a few shirts to try on.

I took mine off.

He instantly put on a very sympathetic tone, kind of the way people talk at funerals, and said what sounded like, "Oh, do you have a lie go?"

What? It took a few seconds to realize that he was saying vitiligo. That's the pigmentation disorder which Michael Jackson claims turned his skin white. A black person with vitiligo will develop light patches of skin on different parts of the body.

It was my first example of people unquestioningly accepting what they see. Shirt Shop Guy simply ignored what I had told him about being a white man disguised as a black man. Instead, he believed his lying eyes.

NEXT: I COMMANDEER MY OWN RADIO STATION