Thursday, September 21, 2006

Beyond FACTS: FLYING OVER 96th STREET by Tom Webber

While researching Tom Webber’s memoir Flying Over 96th Street: Memoir of an East Harlem White Boy, I had the pleasure of stumbling across the Jerry Jazz Musician site. Check out the wonderful Jerry Jazz interview with Webber; it features photos from Harlem as well as excerpts from jazz classics by the likes of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday that celebrate the diverse moods of life north of 96th Street. What I love most, though, are the school photos of Tommy Webber and his best friend, Danny, also featured on the interview page. I had grown fond of both boys while reading Flying Over 96th Street, and to find their smiling faces on a web site was a real treat.

At age nine, blonde and blue-eyed and hailing from the comforts of the Upper West Side, Tommy Webber moved with his family into an East Harlem housing project. Webber’s father, a Protestant minister, had decided he’d do much more good living among his parishioners. Nearly fifty years later, Webber lives in East Harlem again, this time with his wife and their family. As Webber notes, “I carry East Harlem within me wherever I go just as surely as I carry my likes and dislikes, my beliefs and values.” His story of his childhood growing up on the streets of East Harlem, also known as El Barrio or Spanish Harlem due to the large numbers of its Puerto Ricans residents in the ’50s and ’60s, includes many examples of reverse discrimination, but offers the willing reader much more. “One thing I've learned for sure growing up in East Harlem is the wisdom of letting each person define for himself what he is.” This is Tom Webber’s message, and it rings out from every page of Flying Over 96th Street. From forays into Manhattan to run-ins with police officers who weren’t sure they liked to see a white boy playing with a black boy, from tough lessons on neighborhood basketball courts to fun lessons in diddy-bopping and Spanish lingo, Webber’s memoir provides a wealth of details and an appreciation for the extent to which the human spirit can soar once barriers are removed, once fear is replaced with a willingness to share what’s real between races, once friendships are allowed to take root and blossom despite the differences we’re all so quick to see.


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