On Martin Luther King Jr. Day I couldn’t help but think of Rod, my first black friend whom I met during my freshman year at USC.
We had nothing in common. He was raised in Riverside County by an uncle in order to get away from the bad vibes of his south Los Angeles neighborhood. I was a Trojan scion, with well-heeled relatives, friends, neighbors and even a dentist who once strolled across the wide expanse of Trousdale Parkway on the way to class.
Rod and I lived in an eight-person suite in Fluor Tower, the second floor of which was made up entirely of freshmen. Our residential advisor – a grad student barely older than us – hosted a chips-and-soda soiree one night during our first week on campus. As all of the freshmen introduced themselves, Rod twirled his dreadlocks and stared straight ahead while shifting uncomfortably in his Public Enemy T-shirt. Months later, he told me he was trying to size everyone up – sort of like a higher-learning version of a prison yard.
That Rod and I became fast friends shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone who lived on campus during college. First, I had a car – an instant key to attracting many enthusiastic companions. Second, I had a regulation NBA basketball – and the rec center was right next door.
Tsk-tsk, careful of those stereotypes, the critic says.
Hogwash, Chairman replies. Basketball broke the ice between us, and I think this world could use a little more honest dialogue than politically correct bullshit.
So Rod became a “real” friend – not just someone I passed in the hallway and greeted with a “what up” nod. We hung out almost daily, ate meals together, played hoops at the rec center and set each other up on dates that suffered Fukushima-like meltdowns. We were different people with vastly different life experiences, but we acknowledged our differences, moved past them, found common ground and learned a little bit from each other.
With A Tribe Called Quest playing in the background, we had some deep conversations that stretched into the wee hours. “There’s always going to be some racism somewhere,” Rod once said. “Not unless the world had a big orgy” to create a muddled species barely distinguishable from each other.
That was an interesting deduction from the sociology major, but one that continues to resonate with me today. We all carry a little baggage about people who are different than ourselves. That’s human nature. The willingness to act or say something hurtful based on these prejudices is a different matter entirely, one that I imagine MLK Jr. would be glad to see has gotten better (for the most part).
During those late night talks, Rod and I often mentioned how unlikely our friendship was – and how unlikely it would be for our friendship to endure. The last time I spoke with him was my sophomore year.