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A Good Neighbor

Articles Inspirational articles from Hay House authors

A Good Neighbor

Kindness has power to heal.
Cornel  West
Cornel West More by this author
Oct 28, 2009 at 10:00 AM

In 1967, when I was fourteen, Mom and Dad made a big decision. They saw a house that they liked in South Land Park, an all-white middle-class suburb, and decided to buy it. We would be the first blacks in the neighborhood. The home represented an upgrade. It gave us more space and was located on a quiet street. My brother Cliff, my sisters, and I were excited—though we hated to leave Glen Elder. It was something nicer than what we were used to, and we were up for the adventurous move.

When the white neighbors heard that we were coming, they panicked. They decided to stop us, as in Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play, A Raisin in the Sun. They had a series of meetings in which they concluded that the only way to keep us away was to pool their money and buy the house out from under us. But Mom and Dad were organized and efficient professionals. They had made certain that the mortgage papers were in order, the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed. The house was ours. When the neighbors saw that the financial tactics wouldn’t work, they got down and dirty. They went to threats. Nasty notes in the mailbox. Ugly phone calls.

Dad reacted in typical Dad fashion. He didn’t answer their name-calling with names of his own. He didn’t threaten them back. He didn’t get a gang of his friends together and come back with a show of force. He simply put on his coat and tie and began going door to door to all our neighbors. He’d knock politely and when the resident responded, he said, “Just want to introduce myself. I’m Cliff West, and my wife and I, along with our four kids, have moved into that house just down the street. We’re hardworking folks and are pleased to be able to live in such a nice part of town. We intend to be good neighbors, and I want you to know if there’s anything that we can do for you, all you have to do is ask. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

The neighbors were disarmed. Dad’s kindness would unnerve the unkindest person around. The threats and the ugly calls stopped, but that didn’t mean that we were given welcome baskets and warm apple pies. We hardly heard a “good morning.” Rarely did we see a friendly smile. The vibe was cold as ice.

“Don’t matter,” said Dad. “We’re here to stay. Let the people react however they react.”

One man, though, reacted with love. His name was Tom Hobday. He was a white brother—I call him the John Brown of our neighborhood—who immediately saw that the West family was up to good. He befriended Dad. When it was time for the Golden West Track Meet, Mr. Hobday extended us a personal invitation.

“I wasn’t good enough to enter,” my brother Cliff recently remembered. “In my junior year, my best time in the mile was only 4.37. But not only did Hobday insist that you and I go to the meet, Corn, he used his position as head of the sponsoring organization to introduce us to the Grand Marshal, Jesse Owens. After the meet, Jesse came to our house for dinner. Man, that was the thrill of thrills! When he asked me about my time in the mile and I told him, he said, ‘Son, I see something in you that makes me think next year you’ll be in this meet and win it. I see a champion in you.’ His words were so strong and his heart so sincere I couldn’t help but believe him. And sure enough, next year I won the national and state championship. I ran a 4.09.” It is still a Kennedy High School record forty-two years later.

Having Jesse at our dining room table was really something. I asked him about Germany in 1936. That’s when he won four gold medals at the Summer Olympics and, in the process, undercut Hitler’s hateful nonsense about a superior Aryan race. In the course of our conversation, though, I learned something else: It wasn’t the fact that Hitler didn’t shake his hand that bothered Jesse. It was how he had been ignored once he got back home. For all his record-breaking honors, for all the glory he brought to the United States, Jesse Owens was not acknowledged by the president or invited to the White House. Roosevelt ignored him, and so did Truman. “I never even got a congratulatory telegram,” he said.

About Author
Cornel  West
Educator and philosopher Dr. Cornel West is the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University. Known as one of America’s most gifted, provocative, and important public intellectuals, Dr. We Continue reading