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 Mary Clark.
Sixth grade. 1960s. Freedom of Choice. And two black girls joined our all-white classroom.
I was afraid of them. Fear produced by ignorance.
Growing up in rural Virginia meant we had white schools, churches, restaurants, stores. It meant I rarely saw black people, except for Lou Gene who lived in the farm house way back in the woods, across the road from our house.
My uncles, living on a nearby farm, used the N word and seemed to hate all black people.
I didn’t hate them. I was scared of them.
One day at school, I had to stay in during recess because I’d been sick, Mama had sent the teacher a note. I sat at my desk, watching my classmates file out, and was terrified to see that one of the black students also remained in her desk. I was going to be stuck, alone, in a classroom for thirty minutes with a black person. And I couldn’t run and get Mama.
After a few minutes of listening to the wall clock tick the terrifying seconds, Jewel left her desk and headed toward me. I looked at the door and wondered how I could escape but she was already right in front of me. She sat down in an empty desk.
“Hi, do you like math?” she asked. I shook my head no, heart racing, pounding in my ears.
“Me neither,” she said, smiling. “Do you have any brothers and sisters?”
I nodded yes.
She sighed and looked down. “I have a brother and he’s in Vietnam, fighting in this awful war.”
My eyes opened wide as my heart slowed.
“So do I,” I finally found my voice.
She continued, “I’m so scared. I think about him all the time. Mama and Daddy are afraid, too!”
Our family was experiencing the same terror, day and night, fear of what was happening to a beloved family member on the other side of the world. I’d never talked to anyone about my fear because my parents were so wrapped up in their own, I knew they couldn’t help me.
But there was Jewel. Sitting right in front of me. Feeling exactly what I was feeling, going through what I was going through.
We talked some more about our brothers, how much we missed them, and then moved on to ordinary sixth-grade girl topics.
When our classmates streamed back into the classroom, Jewel rose and smiled at me; a smile of bonding, understanding, and caring.
I’m thankful that Jewel approached my desk that day. She certainly had to overcome her fear of rejection in order to do that. In doing so, she taught me a lesson that has served me well all my life.
All people are the same, experience the same joys and fears. Skin color has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with the heart of a person.