The idea for “Going There” came about as a result of the 31 Days In My Brown Skin series I wrote in October, 2012. (You can read those posts here.) The series generated a lot of valuable dialogue, and when the thirty-one days were over, it felt as if the conversation wasn’t done. So, I invite you to share your story as it relates to issues of race, ethnicity, and culture in your every day life.
The goal of “Going There” is to encourage ongoing dialogue about topics of race, ethnicity, and culture in a way that is thoughtful and that shows respect, with the goal of advancing our understanding of the beautiful diversity in the humanity that surrounds us. Interested in sharing your story? Start here. Today’s post is written by Marilyn Yocum.
One day I had a pen pal, the next I didn’t.
I was 10 years old. So was she.
I lived in New Jersey. She was in South Carolina.
A monthly children’s magazine featured a column with names and addresses of willing pen pals. I was too shy to send in my name, but I studied the list each issue to see if there might be a good match for me.
I can almost still see the page with her information on it, the greenish background and there, 2/3’s the way down the column, the name of a girl whose age matched mine. South Carolina sounded pretty exotic to me!
I wrote to her and she wrote back, and that’s how we got started.
We wrote about our schools, our favorite subjects, our families and friends, the foods we loved, the books we enjoyed, television shows. We both hated our hair and wanted to do something different but we didn’t know what.
My birthday rolled around and I got a card all the way from South Carolina. She remembered! I was careful to remember hers, too.
How I loved seeing the envelopes arrive with her handwriting, all my siblings so curious! I took each one to my room, to read in private. I carefully addressed my responses to her before asking my mother for a stamp.
We were writing close to a year when things changed. I got a letter saying her family was moving from South Carolina to Newburgh, NY, only 1-1/2 hours away.
“”Wouldn’t it be great if we could meet somewhere?”” she wrote.
“”Yes!”” I wrote back.
We decided to ask our parents.
It never went any further than that. Her next letter contained an even bigger surprise, her school picture. I never imagined she was black. Had she imagined I wasn’t?
If I had kept writing to her, I would remember her name today, and I wish I did because I would like to talk with her about this. But I was 11 and didn’t know what to do and didn’t know who to ask.
You see, in my house, the N-word was used pretty liberally by some.
“”I’ve told you boys, I don’t want to hear that coming out of your mouth!”” my mother would threaten, but they just took it outside and kept right on.
Truth was, I was too embarrassed to have my friend come to my house and too ashamed to tell her, so I just stopped writing.
I never want to feel so paralyzed again.
These events planted a seed and stirred my thoughts long. As those turbulent times – the 1960s – rolled on and racial injustice dominated the headlines, I often thought how my brothers only did what our father did, and our father only did what his father did, etc. WHEN, I began to wonder, do we stop doing what our parents have done when it is not a good thing? The answer: Right now.
A half-century has passed. A lot of times I still don’t know what to do or who to ask, but I know this, to keep the conversation going.
A former corporate trainer and business writer, Marilyn now writes from her studio in the Appalachian foothills of Southern Ohio. She produces feature articles on leadership, technology, faith, grief, food, parenting and more. She is occasionally lured out of seclusion to speak and teach. Sometimes she brings cookies. Connect with Marilyn at marilynyocum.com and on Twitter.