Whether it was reading a Facebook comment from a former student, going to a first-person presentation of Harriet Tubman, or seeing Katori Hall’s play The Mountaintop, I have been thinking a lot recently about race and racism, specifically about what and how I came to feel about these subjects.
I realize that, as a middle-class white woman, my perspective is limited. I cannot ever know or experience the world as an African-American. Though I am limited, I think it’s important, especially for Caucasians, to think about how our attitudes about race and racism were formed, about what voices and images stayed with us, and how those voices and images became the lens through which we view the world.
|My Sunday School Class 1949|
Though I grew up in a diverse city, I lived in a white neighborhood, went to all-white elementary schools, and attended an all-white (except for dear Miss Baker) church. In school my contacts with persons of color were limited to twice a year when all public school students came together: once for field day at Forest Park and once again for a trip to the Springfield Symphony.
Still I had been taught by my parents and my Sunday School teachers that I was to love my neighbor, and that included those I only saw twice a year. I remembered their words and saw how they lived out those words in their actions. But there was something else impressing itself on my young mind. More and more every night on the news I began to see scenes of hatred for neighbors.
When I was only ten I heard about the murder of Emmett Till, only four years older than I was. At twelve I watched the angry white mobs screaming hate at the nine students who would integrate Little Rock Central High School. At fifteen I watched more angry whites attack the black college students who asked to be served at Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. I had never been to North Carolina, but I knew Woolworth’s lunch counter. That’s where my mother and I had lunch whenever we went downtown.
On the day I graduated from high school Governor George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama to block two black students from registering. The very next day Medgar Evers was assassinated in his own driveway. In September as I began college Addie Mae Collins (14), Denise McNair (12), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Wesley (14) were killed when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Street Church was bombed. At the end of my freshman year in college Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner were abducted and murdered by the Klan.
As I was learning American history in school, I was watching it unfold in front of me, and with each new incident of hate and bigotry, I grieved for what was happening to my brothers and sisters—my neighbors whom I was commanded to love. The list of hate-filled incidents goes on, and it continues to be a challenge for me not to be discouraged and to live out these core beliefs, but then I remember Dr.King’s words, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope,” and I go on.