I was not born by the river in a little tent, but I was raised in the Jim Crow South. I was never the object of taunts and racial epithets, but I did drink out of the water fountain marked “Colored” and I did see food handed out to my grandparents from the side window of a “Whites Only” cafe. We had no buses in which we had to sit in the back, but I do remember road trips with my parents where the bathroom was the side of the road because we could not use the restrooms at the gas stations from which my father purchased gas for the car. Our teachers taught us well in our segregated schools, but I often wondered who were those kids whose names were written above mine in my text books. My baptist church was all Negro and His race was never an issue, just the condition of my heart. I learned to be my best, to do my best in that marginalized community because everyone from the maintenance man in the school to the preacher in the pulpit and, all others in between, expected nothing less. I was not taught to hate people but I despised the system that tried to force their definition of me on me. No, I was not taught to hate, but I learned to be discerning. I learned to be twice as prepared and to speak up when I had something to say. I learned to pay attention and when the time came, to apply what I had observed. I learned never to blink, especially in those moments when it was expected that I would. I learned to never let them see me sweat even when all I wanted to do was scream out my frustration.
I remember my first experience in an integrated restaurant. The woman/mentor who took us there noted my folded arms and told me to unfold them because I had a right to be there. I never folded my arms again in a new experience again, no matter how different the experience was to me. I always looked like I belonged, which was unsettling to some but it worked for me, always. I have had conversations with people who truly wanted to know, not for curiosity’s sake but because they wanted to do better, be better. I’ve had a jr. college civics professor (my first integrated experience), who pronounced “Negro” “Nigra,” apologize in front of the class to the three Negro girls in the class and then ask us for the correct pronunciation. I’ve had a California colleague exclaim over my natural hair, “Oh, I just want to touch it,” but quickly thought better of the idea when she caught the look in my eyes.
I haven’t seen it all but I’ve seen enough to know that all this back and forth will accomplish nothing. Until genuine courageous conversations begin to take place, we will all find ourselves waving our banners at one another while the beat goes on!