There is so much unsettling stuff going on in the world right now — including in the orbiting disc called sports — that I’ll start with a simple tale.
When I was a boy, I spent much of my summers with my grandparents in Brunswick, Georgia. Often, my whole family came. Sometimes, as I got older, I went by myself.
My grandparents lived on Jekyll Island, just across the causeway — over the Marshes of Glynn — from Brunswick. But the island was still developing, amenities were missing, and often I’d accompany my grandfather or grandmother in their big, smoke-filled Cadillac when they went into Brunswick to shop.
Back then, in Brunswick, black people were called Negroes. There were “whites only” fountains in the gas stations. The deference that black people showed to my grandparents — to any white person — struck me, even as a child, as odd.
As we drove back after shopping onto the island, the road split abruptly at the beach. To the left was for whites. To the right was for blacks.
I can’t remember if it was marked with a sign that way, but the racial divide was so well known that no one, surely no blacks, breached it. Both sides had their own motels, though the black motels were mostly empty.
There were golf courses on the white end. There was scrub pine on the black end.
Whites, of course, could go to the black end of the island if so inclined. I remember that’s where the best conch shells and sand dollars were — even though it was a spooky experience to wander that beach, since it was vast and empty, nearly apocalyptic.
But blacks come to the white side?
Me, I was oblivious to everything around except the sand and sea and the lizards I caught and kept as pets, to my grandma’s chagrin.
At times, she would drive me, after much begging, south over the marshes to Jacksonville, Florida, where, at seedy roadside places with names like Crazy Joe’s or Nutty Ned’s, I would buy cherry bombs and Silver Salutes and M-80s with my lawn-mowing allowance.
That should give you an idea of the times. A pre-teen boy was allowed to possess what were essentially legal hand grenades. My God, the things I blew up.
I felt as if I were in a fantasy world, an alternate reality where magical realism had replaced the humdrum of Central Illinois.
I was called “Yank” by the kids I played with. Their drawls amazed me.
There were old white men on Jekyll Island whose fathers had fought in the Civil War.
Think about that for a moment. Fathers. In the Civil War. The War Between the States. They were my pals’ great-grandfathers.
Every now and then, the idea of being black would come into my child’s mind, creep through the salt air like a phantom. I would reject it quickly, subconsciously, because it was terrifying and had no bottom to it.
I have thought about Brunswick often through the years. Memories popped up when Michael Jordan, then the president of basketball operations for the Wizards, took Kwame Brown with the No. 1 pick in the 2001 NBA draft. Brown was from Brunswick.
It came up again recently when former Brunswick High School football star Ahmaud Arbery, who was black, was chased and shot by two white locals, who, after many weeks, were finally charged with murder.
Right now I see Brunswick as a slow-moving, pretty little town that belonged to another world, another dimension.
I loved it as a kid. It was so exotic and peaceful — for me.
This is what the Black Lives Matter and civil-rights protests and re-examination of our increasingly unprepared and dangerous police forces is all about. It’s what Spurs coach Greg Popovich is passionately talking about. It’s what the Bears’ Mitch Trubisky and teammates have talked about. It’s what even long-silent Michael Jordan himself is talking about.
It’s why so many NFL players attacked Saints quarterback Drew Brees, a decent, courteous family man and leader, for what was his honest belief about kneeling and the American flag. It’s why he apologized, admitting he needed to learn more about the black struggle.
Tension is high, everywhere. Change is being demanded. Anger bubbles. Reverse censorship lurks. No more, people are saying.
The United States is evolving. Its shell is cracking.
The new beast that emerges will be some-thing to behold. Sports have taken notice.