‘You don’t need a weatherman’
The phrase in Bob Dylan’s song “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” resonates with me. You see, I am a weatherman. Weather fascinated me growing up on a farm in Albemarle County. Although I was opposed to a military confrontation, I joined the Navy in 1980 at the onset of the U.S. Embassy takeover in Iran. I trained to observe, analyze and forecast weather. I was taught to recognize the systemic nature of meteorology.
Everyday, we’re all impacted by the weather. It doesn’t matter whether it’s because we walk our dog or we cut grass to survive. But it affects each of us differently. The farmer sees the effect of weather differently than the software programmer. Our direct interactions with the weather often determine how much it matters to us. If we’re inside most of the time, it’s something we see out the window. If we’re homeless, it’s hard to escape. When our roof leaks, we hope it doesn’t rain. To a large extent, what matters the most is how vulnerable we think we are.
To fully understand weather, one must consider climate. Climate is the usual conditions based on historical records. People rely on empirical data to determine climate. That data comes from observations made of weather observed in the past. To determine climate, one must analyze the data collected and recognize patterns. These patterns are what becomes known as the climate of an area. The key to understanding climate is access to accurate local historical conditions.
Fortunately, the world has come together to agree upon a standardized set of criteria to record weather observations. The World Meteorological Organization stipulates what is significant enough to be recorded. Based on these standards, we can compare data from all over the world. In the past 40 years we’ve made great progress in our understanding of climate and climate change. But what about race?
For me, racism has been as much a part of my life as the weather. As a light-skinned Black male, I could never escape the ever-present winds of racism. Fortunately, my parents never tried to shelter me from the reality of racism that I saw everywhere. Instead, they exposed me to many different sides of it by traveling extensively. In 1962, we traveled across Canada by train to the World’s Fair in Seattle. I was 4 years old. I still have vivid memories of that trip. One is how differently we were treated in Canada than in Charlottesville.
A year later, in 1963, we drove through the Deep South to New Orleans. On the way, we stopped at Tuskegee Institute. I can still see us pulling into service stations and white attendants walking out and shaking their heads to indicate they wouldn’t sell gas to us. I knew it was because we were Black. In New Orleans, we boarded a plane and flew to Merida, Mexico. My dad had somehow heard of a place named Cancun. We rode a bus for hours to reach the tiny fishing village. We traveled mostly by train to places such as Acapulco and Mexico City. Eventually we made it back to Texas where we had to sit in the back of the bus for the ride to New Orleans.
I was born a twin, but my sister died at birth. I have a brother who was almost five years older than I. His skin color is dark enough that he’s perceived as Black at first glance. We were inseparable, my parents usually referred to us as, “the boys.” They felt we were safer together. In the summer of ’64, we went to the New York World’s Fair. I was very familiar with New York because my grandmother lived in Brooklyn and my father grew up there. We visited my grandmother at least once a month until she was murdered in the early ’70s.
That fall, I entered first grade at Rose Hill, a segregated Albemarle County elementary school. It was my first time venturing out alone in public. Needless to say, it was hard to tell my classmates about what I had experienced. I pretty much continued to observe and remain quiet. Ironically, I hardly have any memories of my first year of school. Second grade was more difficult. Kids become more vocal as they develop, and a lot was happening in the country.
In 1965, Malcolm X was shot and killed in New York. Martin Luther King led the Selma to Montgomery March. The Watts Riots occurred in Los Angeles, the city where my grandfather had become a prominent black physician before he died in 1960. W.E.B. Du Bois sent my step-grandmother a letter of condolence at his passing. Although I was young, these events were etched in my consciousness. My parents made no attempt to hide the harsh realities of racial conflict that was occurring all over the country. Instead they talked to us about the events of the day.
Some of my classmates started to mistreat me. Being small, I became the target of bullying. At the time, I didn’t understand why it was happening. There was no school counselor. Teachers didn’t talk about interpersonal relationships and students were left to work it out as best they could. I decided I wanted to flee by asking my parents to go to a different school. At that time, Rose Hill was the only lack elementary school for Albemarle County, but there were several white elementary schools. Because the school system was technically integrated, parents could request to send their kids to any school. My parents decided on McIntire Elementary School. The district it covered was the somewhat affluent urban ring surrounding Charlottesville. Many of the parents of my classmates probably considered themselves to be progressive whites.
I had a new cohort to observe. In the third, fourth and fifth grade, I was the only Black in my class and entire grade. There were only a handful of Blacks in the school. The kids for the most part did not mistreat me. Those that did, made it clear it was because they didn’t like Blacks. The first time a classmate invited me to his home was in fourth grade. Nandi was from India.
Due to the compartmentalized nature of my life, it was ideally suited for observing. Home was on the largest Black-owned farm in the county. All my neighbors were related to me. There were kids to play with and adults to look after us. I could spend all day exploring and never leave our family land. But I seldom saw any of those people away from the farm.
My parents would take us to work with them, which was unusual at that time. My father was a respiratory therapist at [what’s now the University of Virginia Medical Center]. When we went to work with him, we spent our days in the gardens around the Lawn. My mother was a seamstress at a shop downtown. Days with her were different. We went to the library and had lunch in the shadow of Lee in the park. We received unwelcome stares and insulting comments, but we knew we had a right to be there. Most of all, we had been taught to believe we were equal. If anyone thought otherwise, it was their problem.
I attended my first concert in the mid ’60s at U-Hall, it was Louis Armstrong. Before the concert, my family along with my father’s supervisor, Randolph White, who was Black, had dinner at the Boar’s Head Inn. Imagine the tension.
When Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, the country erupted into riots and Charlottesville had its own unrest. The anger that was being displayed was defined in a book my uncle, Price Cobbs, coauthored entitled “Black Rage.” The cover reads, “Two black psychiatrists tell it as it is — in the first book to reveal the full dimensions of the inner conflicts and desperation of the black man’s life in America.” My parents were deeply hurt by his death and we joined the Poor People’s March in Washington that summer. I heard many civil rights leaders speak on the National Mall.
We continued to travel. There was a cross-country road trip where I saw the dismal conditions on Native American reservations and the natural grandeur of the Grand Canyon and Yosemite. We went to the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal. We drove around the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec. That was in the height of the French Canadian separatist movement. We met Black Canadians in Nova Scotia whose ancestors had escaped from slavery in the U.S. In 1969, we traveled to Europe. Using Eurorail passes, we took a whirlwind tour of the continent. We visited 20 countries in 21 days. Landing in Luxembourg, we headed north to Scandinavia, south to Spain and, on the way, we went through East Germany. Then we crossed the strait to Morocco. We continued east as far as Austria and ended in the Netherlands. I observed a lot in my first 11 years.