[Woolworth’s Sit In, Jackson, Mississippi, May, 1963]
Some years ago I began to wonder: Whatever happened to those two African-Americans who desegregated E.C. Glass High School in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1962? So I found Dr. Lynda Woodruff and Reverend Owen Cardwell, Jr.—and wrote a book about what unfolded because I’d wondered.
These days? Now I am moved to wonder: What would happen if I found one of those despicable young men abusing the Jackson, MS sit-inners? (Surely some are still alive?) Could I possibly sit down with one of them; could I ever listen with an open heart? Face to face with a white supremacist, could I remember to seek “that of God” in the old man seated across from me? Not try to “fix” what I’d hear; offer neither advice nor comments but merely ask questions? (Why do you suppose X happened? How do you make meaning of that? Why do you think Y said that? How did you feel when Z happened? Tell me about how you learned about X? etc. ) And then write a book about what I heard? And learned? Could I?
Not lacking in (compelling, passionately engaged-in) writing projects, I am nevertheless tugged at, nudged to wonder: Where does hate come from? What, in all my studies, all my close attention to race and class and gender and education and all the other variables that make each of us who we are; what have I missed, what have I never understood? What do I need to know?
My dear friend Delia sent me a New York Times op-ed piece by Charles M. Blow re Attorney Eric Holder’s comment that we’re a “nation of cowards” because we don’t have frank conversations about race.
“I take exception to Holder’s language,” Blow says, “but not his line of reasoning. Calling people cowards is counterproductive. it turns the conversation into confrontation—moving it beyond the breach of true dialogue and the pale of real understanding.”
For what it’s worth: This week, I bumped into a bi-racial Somerville couple I’ve known for many years. We’re not close friends, but our lives overlap in several ways so we keep in touch. After we’d brought each other up to date—I’d asked about their daughter; they’d asked me how book sales were going—this husband-wife duo proceeded to tell stories about race and passing. Words we’d never spoken in each other’s presence before, words like “colored” and “Negro” and “prejudice” were said aloud.
Now I’ve known this couple for twenty years, I think, but this was the first time our “racial difference” (to quote a study mentioned in the Charles Blow piece.) was discussed.
Why now? First of all, because they’d initiated it. (Honestly? Even now, right this minute, looking back. I have no idea how I could have brought up the subject of race. No idea.) So why did they initiate this conversation? I think because they’d hoped that the woman they know slightly who’d written Way Opens might be open to—and fascinated by—their stories. And they were right.
So, yeah, I’m perfectly willing to label myself a coward. But, I’d also like to humbly (Really!) suggest that some relationships, like the breezy, Hi-how-are-ya? interactions with a neighbor (who just might be a person of color), or the friendship/acquaintanceship I’ve had with this biracial couple, don’t offer much in the way of openings to begin “true dialogue.”
Or am I just being cowardly?