When they see me, most people see an older white woman and assume they know I'm a racist. However, I knew nothing of racism until I graduated – from kindergarten.
My academic career began in racially integrated Colorado. One grandmother freaked out when she saw my Edgewater Elementary kindergarten class picture. Pointing to Black and Latino children also in the picture, she said, “Why does she have to go to school with them?”
Imagine my culture shock and confusion when we moved to Virginia a few years later, and I entered a segregated third grade class.
– Dad’s church met in the historical Ketoctin Church, the oldest Baptist church in Virginia. A balcony around 75% of the sanctuary was accessed only by exterior doors. Adults said, “The Negroes and slaves sat there.” Why? No answer.
– Two black families lived on our road, but the children took different buses from the same bus stop. Theirs drove ten miles south to the Leesburg School; ours drove two miles north to Hillsboro Elementary School. Why? No answer.
– They were also Baptists. “Why don’t those Baptists go to our school?” Again no answer.
– The whole prejudice thing confused me, especially when my teacher informed me that my birth in “one of those rectangular states out west”, not Virginia, like my sister, Anne, made me less acceptable to her. I could redeem myself by growing up and “marrying a good Virginia boy and rearing good Virginian children”. I didn’t ask but I’m pretty sure the unspoken word “white” was inserted in that sentence.
This summer, Dear Hugsband, Dude and I hiked Kennesaw Mountain while Hugsband worked on the Freestyle machine for the Coca-Cola Company. The mountain is the site of next year’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the last battle tactically lost by William Tecumseh Sherman in the Civil War.
We also observed artifacts in the amazingly complex Atlanta History Museum from the war that cost our country 16% of its population, and enduring unresolved issues.
Dude earned his Boy Scout Lifesaving badge at Camp Allatoona Aquatics Base one Saturday. Dads stood on the fancy new dock generously donated by the Atlanta Falcons (Losers of SuperBowl XXXIII in 1998 to the Denver Broncos, but I didn’t mention that!). The boys jumped, swam and rescued each other.
What else could the moms do than find out what we had in common?
A Black lady named Bridgette and I discovered we shared a few 1960’s years in Virginia. Our family lived in a rural area on the smaller bump at the top of the state’s map; hers roughly 160 miles straight south outside Petersburg. But both our parents overprotected us from awareness of that momentous decade, including, but not limited to, her dad making a quick turn to avoid driving by a burning cross on another family’s lawn.
Sitting on wooden bleachers, we compared life experiences without accusations, angry words or racial slurs. We acknowledged many societal changes we'd seen in our lives, but many more we wished to see before our sons were grown.The experience brought me understanding I hadn't experienced since I worked in Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association's computer room.
In 1995 I went to Manhattan, NY for the first time. I worked a technical onsite on the 34th floor of a building taller than anything in Denver at the time. The manager introduced me in the windowless computer center and closed the door on me and my coworkers for those weeks, five huge black men. They looked at me like I was a zoo exhibit, the white girl from fly-over country who actually talked to them. When one told me he'd “never met someone like you," I concurred.
Between installing, configuring and training with our company’s software, I learned so much:
– I admitted to a genealogy nut that I, in fact, could qualify for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution. The ancestral record he found prior to his grandparents’ generation listed “African Male” and “African Female” on a solitary Caribbean colony document.
– Another told me about the Negro Baseball League not long after the newly-formed Colorado Rockies entered my radar.
– My heart was broken when the man born in Guyana told me he abandoned Christianity and chose Islam after family members died drinking Jim Jones’ Kool-Aid in 1978.
– You would have enjoyed being a bug on the wall at the discussion that followed when he told me “our beliefs are basically the same because I respect women."
– I enjoyed stories of their lives, and they laughed uproariously every morning when I told them of my previous evening’s events doing things in the city they’d never consider:
o Stood in line for the David Letterman show.
o Watched a Broadway play.
o Rode the elevator to the top of the Empire State Building (I was too wimpy to do the WTC.)
o Toured museums.
o Rode the double-decker tour bus.
o Attended the Times Square Church, heard David Wilkerson preach, and joined a portion of the 24/7 prayer. (I've wondered since how much worse 9/11 could have been without their years of prayer.)
The conversation with Bridgette, broadened my perspective as much as the computer room in NYC. But I doubt those experiences qualify me as a non-racist in the eyes of those who lived in their skin.
In eight years when Dude and Bridgette's son, Kimani, graduate from college with their wished-for engineering degrees, I hope they will be as color-blind as they were saving each other’s’ lives in the muddy Georgia lake near many Civil War battlefields.
If you and I took more opportunities to visit with those different from us instead of believing what is said about them — wouldn’t we eliminate racism and other ugly words from our vocabulary?
What a tribute that would be to the more than half-a-million soldiers who gave their lives in the Civil War!