After months of COVID-19 all day every day, the murder of George Floyd has eclipsed my thoughts about where I should wear a mask or when I think I’ll feel comfortable going back to work with underlying health conditions.
The masks have come off, figuratively at least, as voices are being heard all over, too many for me to keep straight, yet with urgent tones, calling for change.
And it’s time. Finally. But I have no pat answers of how that change will happen.
The causes are easier. As an old song by The Waiting says, “It’s just as simple as sin.” And the blame falls on all of us.
Who will speak?
I don’t mean which local or national celebrity, which expert on race relations.
I mean you and me.
And when we speak, who will listen?
Listening takes time, and often only comes after earning the trust of the one speaking. Because we don’t often speak from the depths.
I want to speak of some of the impressions and experiences I have had living in the US, in and near a medium-sized city in the North, raised by parents from the South.
My first memories of people whose skin looked different from mine came as a very young child visiting Cherokee, NC. It was close to the town where almost all my relatives lived and we visited every summer.
I loved going to Cherokee, and I was fascinated by the touristy stuff. Giant wooden statues, feathered headpieces, jewelry. I still have moccasins I got there as a young teen.
My dad and both of his parents had darker skin than I did, especially in the summer when they were all deeply tanned, and I always felt that somewhere in our background there was Cherokee blood in us.
I was thrilled with this idea. I had no negative feelings about the possibility.
It sparked in me a desire to get to know more about them.
But at that time, in the 1960’s, when I would ask my Mamaw if she was part Cherokee, she would say no. And have a distasteful look on her face.
She also held some racist views that I could never understand. I remember as a teen having a discussion one summer where she matter-of-factly stated the Bible said black people were meant to be inferior to white people.
I’ve read and studied the Bible from cover to cover many times, and I haven’t yet found this in there. And believe me, I had more respect for my Mamaw than about any other person on earth.
So her words troubled me. And while I didn’t see the same message she did, they did make me wonder how she could be such a godly woman and believe what I felt was a lie.
Back at home, when we lived in the city, I walked seven blocks each way to school. Our neighborhood was a long football bounded by our busy street, the school, train tracks behind everything, and a street that ran under the viaduct and crossed our street.
It wasn’t until summers in the late 60’s that I realized there was another neighborhood on the other side of the tracks. Because there were curfews set in place to discourage race riots.
Our city was segregated by neighborhoods. So even though there was a black neighborhood on the other side of the tracks, my school didn’t have much variety in our skintones.
I remember the race riots. I was walking on the sidewalk with my dad in the evening, and he said we needed to get inside as there was a curfew. When I asked why he said there might be people from “back over there” causing trouble, and he pointed in the direction of the tracks.
My dad definitely had strong opinions about people of color. I’ve never liked the different terms society has found acceptable, and also the purposely derogatory ones said with hatred and disgust.
I heard some of those terms in my house growing up.
Though my dad definitely had some strong prejudices, he also was changed by the one on one interactions he had with black preachers and people he counseled with.
I can remember going to church with him at a black church where he was speaking, and I loved it! For the first time I realized what it felt like to be greatly in the minority, but I also was able to drink in the differences between this skinny little white girl and these new and fascinating faces of all shades of brown.
I don’t like the terms black and white. Shades of brown from dark to light is how I see us all.
I also don’t like the word race. We are all people, all the same inside with different coverings. As DC Talk’s song “Colored People” says, “This thing of beauty is the passion of an artist’s heart. By God’s design we are a skin kaleidoscope…”
But my dad wasn’t as appreciative as I was of the similarities I saw between me and all those darker skinned worshipers.
On another outing he went to counsel a young couple who wanted him to marry them. She was white, he was black. It was probably the early 70’s by then. And they were determined to get married. He got back in the car with me and I think more to himself said, “They can do this, but it’s going to be a very hard road for them.”
If there was a song that has the feel of what it was like for me to live in a definitely segregated neighborhood of a city in the 1960’s it would be “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix, written by Bob Dylan.
In fact, every time I see the movie “Forest Gump” I feel like I’m reliving the pivotal times in my own life through all the songs.
During the race riots and curfews of the late 60’s my dad tried to explain to me how people were angry about lots of things, about civil rights and people getting killed. There was a feeling in the air that “Watchtower” brings right back to me. Tension and vigilance and fear of what might happen.
We moved to the country in the summer of ’68, though we were in the city several times a week at church.
And the atmosphere was so different.
The fear was missing.
I have never forgotten those days, the sense that lots of people were talking, but not many were listening.
Because it’s hard to listen when you know what you want to believe about someone else before they ever get a chance to speak.
So I want to change that. And I can’t decide that for anyone else, but for me, I’m still the same little girl who looks with wonder at people, whatever shade of brown they are, and tries to see in them the same hopes and dreams and passions I hold deep inside myself.
I want to earn the right to listen to their stories.
So we can all speak for ourselves.