by Christina Carson
My strongest emotions have always arisen around the topic of racism. I grew up north of the Mason-Dixon Line, but my small town had an unusually large Black population as it was one of the ends of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. One day, a friend of my mother’s took us into the basement of the only hotel in our town at that time and showed us a two foot square iron door, much like you’d see on a wood cook stove or steel boiler, set into the wall about five feet up from the floor. She lifted the latch and the youthful eyes of this unseasoned pre-teen peered into a pitch dark squared-up tunnel big enough only to crawl through. I shuddered, my claustrophobic tendencies filling my mind with a sense of horror. It was the fifties and innocence was still one of the options offered on life’s multiple choice test of reality, but as I became increasingly aware of the nature of racism, that option was soon lost to me.
My formal introduction to racism occurred one typical Sunday morning at the Westminster Presbyterian Church. It was the late ‘50’s, and we were all waiting for the service to begin. In the pre-service quiet, a knock at the main door caught the attention of most of the congregation. An usher hastened across the room to answer it. His voice was that of a loud stage whisper, so the back half of the church for sure overhead the conversation. It was the usher suggesting to the Black woman outside she might be more comfortable at the Second Presbyterian Church on the other side of town. I looked up at the adults surrounding me. Not one returned my questioning stare. I told friends years later that only thing I remembered learning at church was the meaning of hypocrisy, and after that I wasn't much interested in anything else they had to say.
When I was sixteen, I had another experience unique to me, not in a church but in our county hospital awaiting surgery. Two Black orderlies, a middle aged woman every morning and an older gentleman each evening spoke to me in a way that offered me kindness of a sort I’d never experienced. It sheltered me like the wing of a mother hen tucking her chicks tight up under her, and for the first time in my life I felt the wonder of what is was like to have someone care about me for no reason other than they did. That was as profound an experience as the one in my church except this one was all about love.
It wasn't until grade 12 that I realized my parents were racists. Growing up, I heard from them that Blacks were fine in their place, yet no one under questioning would commit to what or where their place was. So I kept pushing. They stood revealed the day the first Black family moved into our neighborhood. An open house was held to welcome them to the community, put on by the local Quakers, only no one came. Shaming is a mean-spirited act, but I shamed my parents that day and I meant to. I felt, in my seventeen-year-old view of the world I had been betrayed. The fact that I lived among racists appalled me. The fact that I had been so blind to it appalled me as well.
What washed up all these memories was an article written by Jesse Kornbluth, a blogger I enjoy reading (The Head Butler). His entry of 11/12/14 contained a piece of journalism he’d written in 1987, an article on Michael Donald, the last Black man to be hanged in Alabama and Donald’s mother’s work to bring the murderers to justice (The Woman Who Beat the Klan).
I've grown to understand a lot over the years, and it is now clear to me where the meanness of human beings comes from and why. I also know it will not change unless we get curious enough to understand and adopt our true nature as our way of being in this world rather than this egoic presentation we’re been conditioned to believe is us. Until that time, fear in all its hundreds of forms will continue to own us, control us, and direct our choices, with racism being one of its ugliest. But I’m here to tell you, we have a race of people among us who still model to a great degree what it looks like when you live from respect and love without conditions. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., suggested that his people could work actively in their endeavors toward freedom, but equally powerful was the more passive route of seducing through kindness. I have known that sweet seduction, and my life has been enriched and ennobled by it. Why not yours too?
RACISM: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior.