Growing up in the coastal South, blacks lived in pockets around town that centered in the city but stretched and weaved through suburbia. Driving through, you’d lock your doors. And God forbid your car break down when going through one of “those” neighborhoods.
My grandmother had a woman named “Mammy” who helped her around the house. My grandmother died when I was four, but Mammy still came to help my Granddaddy Joe. Growing up, I remember my mom gathering our old clothes and taking them to Mammy for her to use or distribute among her family.
I always loved Mammy, but the love was different. Not like one person loving another because they equally value and respect the other. It’s just the way it was.
And I didn’t question it. Not until I went to college and began to work in the Youth Department at the YMCA with a man named Skip. He was my boss and he was amazing. He was great with the kids, but even more than that, he was a great leader and a good friend.
It wasn’t that I stopped seeing that he was black, but his blackness wasn’t a focal point. He was black, and he was my friend, and I respected him.
When I started having babies, one after another, after another, my sister-in-law was trying to have babies too. Most of the time, the span of my pregnancies meant two miscarriages for Sue. It was painful, and hard, but Sue and her husband, Steve, ended up adopting five kids – three of them African American. And you can believe that we welcomed those babies with as much delight as each one of my kids.
And up in D.C., two hours north of our town where a legacy of “all people are created equal” coexisted with slave ownership, we arrived with our young church. I am pretty sure we were 100% white, not by choice, but because we were white. And we stayed with our African American brothers and Filipino brothers in their homes. We spread out across the city sharing meals and sleeping on couches. And the next day we gathered together in a tent under the clear blue sky. We were the body of Christ, worshipping, praying, and then breaking bread together. We were brothers, sisters, friends. And still are.
And my sister and her husband, down in my hometown, welcomed a young black man into their home and into their family. They treated him as one of their own, for a time. And though his story is still being written, he’s not in this current chapter of their lives because of his choice. Not because he’s black.
I wasn’t yet born when the “Clinton 12″walked together down Broad Street from Foley Hill to Clinton High. Or when Ezell A. Blair, Jr., Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil, and David L. Richmond sat down at the Woolworth Counter in Greensboro. And I was just a baby when police and National Guard fired on civil rights demonstrators at N. C. A&T.
I lived in the segregated South, but it wasn’t something I thought about. It just was.
This past summer I spoke at a gathering in which I was the only white woman in the room. I had been asked to speak on the subject, “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along.” In the wake of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middle-Doctor, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson in the Charleston church shooting, this topic was incredibly heavy.
That morning I walked into the church – a city church with stained glass windows, a dark paneled fellowship hall, and a spread of muffins, fruit, and coffee. Reggie Edwards, a dear friend and sister greeted me with warmth and I spoke with several women who I had come to know through Reggie. We sang awhile with passion and longing, and then it was my turn.
I had a text …
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” James 4:1
… but I didn’t really have a message. I shared that while I know why we can’t all get along, I don’t understand these warring passions. I don’t understand racial profiling, and segregation, and why my sister-in-law has to have different conversations with her teenage black sons than I have with my white boys.
And over the next hour, these precious women, these sisters, these friends told me story after story of their own experiences. And they even argued some about how they cope. Some choose to send their children to “white” schools for the opportunities they might have, while others choose “black” schools for their children so that they don’t feel inferior. Many of the women spoke of being pulled for a broken tail light, and the fear they have driving through a certain county and having a red truck pull up behind them. They spoke of strategies for survival and strategies for letting loved ones know their last location, should they be shot, or worse.
Hearing these beautiful women talk made me sad, but it made me angry as well. “It’s just the way it is” is not okay. How can we sit silent when our sisters are targeted for their ethnicity and have to teach their sons to keep their hands visible, not wear a hoodie, and if the police start swinging, to drop to the ground, protect their head, and curl up in a ball on their knees. How can we?
While some say advances have been made, the advances are not enough. Maybe you look at racism and think, “It’s just too big,” or “It’s not my problem.” Or maybe you think “I’m not a racist. So isn’t that enough?” And I think not. I think that you and me need to use every sphere of influence we have to advance racial equality.
So, what is your sphere of influence? Are you a writer, teacher, manager? Are you a mom in the carpool line? A cashier at Starbucks? A receptionist at a dentist office, or a hotel, or a business office? A musician, an artist, a speaker? Maybe you’re hiring manager, or an account executive, or a pastor. How can you leverage your platform? Whether your platform is in your family, your neighborhood, your church, your community … what choices can you make to move the needle, even just a little? Because “just the way it is” is not okay. Happy birthday, Dr. King.
“If you can’t fly, run.
If you can’t run, walk.
If you can’t walk, crawl.
But by all means keep moving.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., Granville High School, April 26, 1967