Back home to Brad
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...
one ever sat me down when I was a kid, to explain which races, ethnicities,
nationalities and religions I was automatically better than.
along the way, of course, we all receive our informal, continuing
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
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
It was my introduction
to The South.
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
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.
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.
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."
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
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
It was anticipated that
the experience would teach me a lot about race relations. It never
What it did do was the
last thing I might have expected; it taught me a lot about myself.
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.
My thin, straight hair wouldn't do. A hairpiece imported from France
My upper lip was judged to be too much of a clue and had to be somewhat
Mr. Fausone chose to utilize Pancake brand stage makeup in the shade
Negro #2. The beard was real.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.