My father was a gentle, kind, funny, and generous man. He was also a racist. Not the white-hooded, burning cross, fly a Dixie flag racist. He was the insidious kind; the person whose company everyone enjoyed, who would be shocked and offended to be considered a racist.
My grandmother and I would ride the public bus into New Orleans. I remember rows of empty front seats while, behind the partitions that separated us, black men, women, and children would fill the back of the bus. I remember water fountains and bathrooms labeled “Whites only.”
I attended an all-girls, all-white Catholic high school. Then, in my junior year, one black student enrolled. At first, Karen’s presence was alarming, then curious. By senior year, we thought Karen was one of us. Stupid. Karen was never one of us because I doubt if any of us had her courage.
My children, I vowed, would not be raised hearing racial slur words and offensive jokes about people based on their color or religion. Was I perfect in my attempts to purge my home of discrimination? No. Sadly, I can’t say that at the time my desire to rid myself of prejudice was on my strong Christian values. For years, I treated God as a chotchke, a decorative trinket I’d dust off when I needed Him. [Fortunately, God dusted off my brain and my heart some years later.] So……fast forward……My oldest daughter introduces me to the love of her life. Andrae’s handsome, well-spoken, respectful, and kind. And black.I learned very quickly you can’t teach your children values and then not expect them to live up to them. Years later, I hold my first grandchild, Bailey, their son, in my arms. Bailey died thirty days later. He was the color of love.
Last week, I showed my juniors a film about racial discrimination produced by Teaching for Tolerance. My students are reading “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” written in 1963 by Martin Luther King Jr.
In his words:AUTHOR’S NOTE: This response to a published statement by eight fellow clergymen from Alabama (Bishop C. C. J. Carpenter, Bishop Joseph A. Durick, Rabbi Hilton L. Grafman, Bishop Paul Hardin, Bishop Holan B. Harmon, the Reverend George M. Murray. the Reverend Edward V. Ramage and the Reverend Earl Stallings) was composed under somewhat constricting circumstance. Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly Negro trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me. Although the text remains in substance unaltered, I have indulged in the author’s prerogative of polishing it for publication.
The community in which we live is mostly the color of money and is 90% white.The documentary graphically depicted young and old black men, women, and children being brutally attacked as they peacefully marched through streets, sat in diners, rode on buses. I thought of Andrae as I watched a well-dressed, attractive young black man curled in a fetal position being kicked by several men while others beat him with clubs. I saw Bailey’s face in smile of a four-year-old jailed during the Children’s March in Alabama. The stillness in my classroom that day was palpable.
Today, I don’t blame my father. I’ve learned what we don’t give back, we pass on. Today, I’m giving that back to him. Today, I am inspired by, grateful for, and in awe of Dr. Martin Luther King’s courage and conviction. I pray with a fierceness I never knew I had, that truly, one day, Dr. King’s dream of a nation that judges others by the content of their character, not the color of their skin will be realized.