It was in the 1950s. I was attending a public junior high public school in Mt. Vernon, New York. There were two high schools in town, Edison and Davis. Edison focused on vocational training and Davis focused on getting kids into college. Most blacks went to Edison and most whites to Davis. But it was a time of civil unrest throughout the United States, and there was a drive to create one large Mt. Vernon high school that would be more fully integrated. Nationally, there was a movement to change the stereotypical view of blacks as low achievers and encourage more blacks to attend university.
My junior high was predominantly black. My childhood neighborhood changed once low income housing for the area was built. Whites moved away in droves and I was the only white kid on my block. My parents could not afford to move even if they wanted to, so I developed friendships with the black kids in my school. Many had exotic names and I was fascinated by their distinct personalities. I remember with fondness Linwood Lee, gentle and soft spoken, Wendell Tyree, strong and boisterous, and Quentin Pair, a thoughtful and brainy young man.
It is with this background that I watched Remember the Titans, a rousing and inspirational sports film with a subtext of racial tension, a tension that influenced what happened on the football field in Alexandria, Virginia in 1971. T. C. Williams High School has just been integrated and the favorite to become the new coach of the team, Bill Yoast, is passed over to allow Herman Boone, a successful black coach, to take charge of the football program. In spite of his initial disappointment, Yoast stays on to become Boone’s assistant so that the boys he worked with for so long can fulfill their athletic and scholastic potential.
During training camp and the football season, the players work with one another, get to know one another, and, in most cases, finally accept one another for who they are, not for what they may or may not represent. What matters is performance, not race, and the boys bond during a challenging season in which they are tested both on and off the field. Ultimately they understand that welcoming the stranger, the one who looks different, into your midst brings godliness into the community, for all men are images of the Divine.
The Bible is filled with references encouraging us, and even mandating us, to be kind to the stranger, to the outsider who is different. It is connected to the Jewish experience in Egypt, about which Exodus states: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Moreover, there is a classic adage in the Talmud that “we are all responsible for one another.” This emerges from the basic notion that we all are created in God’s image and we are all part of one cosmic family. We are all brothers regardless of the color of our skin.
The Kabbalists write that the commandment ‘love your neighbor as yourself” has mystical meaning numerically. The phrase “as yourself” in Hebrew is the numerical equivalent of the word Elohim, one of the names of God. This numerical equivalency indicates that when you love your neighbor, you are in essence manifesting your love of God.
Interestingly, we see that the Biblical story of Abraham stresses the priority of being nice to the stranger over praying to God. Abraham interrupts his prayers when three strangers come to the door of his tent, for welcoming the stranger takes precedence over conversing with God.
Remember the Titans, based on a true story, reminds us that great things can happen when we approach a situation without the baggage of prejudice and old memory tapes, when we welcome the stranger in our midst to the family of man.