When Deidra opened up this space for conversations about race, ethnicity and culture, I thought perhaps I should tell my story. I hesitated for a long time however because, in order to tell my story, I would have to begin like this:
Nearly every Sunday, my grandfather presided over dinner at the farmhouse table. His children, their spouses and his grandchildren waited until he had changed out of his suit and back into his familiar overalls before taking his seat at the head of the table. Grandpa was a hard-working, God-fearing, Bible-believing farmer, and I respected him.
Grandpa was also a member of the Klan.
My mother remembers when she and her siblings used to play dress-up in his robe.
Most of those dinners at the farm took place during the sixties as news of race riots and integration continued to dominate headlines and television broadcasts. The conversation around the table was often heated and filled with words I grew to understand to be epithets and slurs. I didn’t know them to be so at the time. I just thought the people to whom I was related and with whom I was breaking bread were using actual names for people and things.
There is a scene in the movie 42 which, as I watched, nearly undid me. A father and son are seated together in a baseball stadium waiting to see their hero take the field, and wondering aloud about the spectacular plays they might witness. As player Jackie Robinson enters the ballpark, spectators begin to boo and shout racial epithets at him. The son looks toward his dad as if to make sense of what is happening all around him. As the father adds his voice to the chorus of hatred, his son does likewise.
I wept while watching that scene, because I was that son. As a child, I watched and listened to those around me whom I respected and admired. I echoed their speech. I mimicked their hate.
An older cousin of mine once opened her King James, red-letter edition Bible and showed me these words:
His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire . . . Revelation 1:14, KJV
She told me, “See. That proves it. Jesus was white.”
Because she was older, I assumed she was also wiser and more knowledgeable about all things biblical. So I believed her and copied the verse inside the cover of my Bible, together with her commentary.
I wrote those hate-filled words onto the pages of the book of living words.
As a child, I attended a Baptist church in my hometown but was always curious about why there was another one just on the outskirts of my community. I learned that mine was the white church while Mount Olive, the other, was the black church. Sometimes, however, children from the other church came and participated in Vacation Bible School programs at mine. We sat together in classrooms, shared snacks, and held hands as we played games like Red Rover. I wondered why these children couldn’t come to my church all the time and be my friends.
At the end of one of the morning sessions, after having sung songs about the B-I-B-L-E and Jesus’ love for all the little children, I turned and saw one of the boys from the Mount Olive church. His eyes had fallen upon the page on which I’d written in my open Bible.
I will never forget the look on his face, the look of hurt my words had caused him.
My brother told me he remembers that, occasionally, an older woman from Mount Olive would attend evening services at our church. She was the aunt of the boy who had sat behind me in Bible School. My brother remembers her saying that, when she visited, our mother was the only person who would sit with her.
My mother, the daughter of the Klansman, who used to dress up in his robes.
My brother also tells me he had a conversation with Grandpa about his membership in the Klan. He said that, when he returned from World War I, he joined the group because all the other local men returning from war had done so. He thought the meetings were boring, however. All they ever did was dress up in white sheets and burn crosses.
I make no excuses for my grandfather and his involvement with the Klan, nor for my mother’s generation, or my own actions. They were wrong. They also reflected the times through which we lived.
My son, great-grandson of the Klansman, is of Asian descent. I fear he would not have fared well around that farmhouse dinner table some fifty years ago. Several members of my family had gone to war in the Pacific and in Vietnam and had fought against soldiers who looked an awful lot like him.
Not long ago I overheard a conversation between my son and a friend. They were classifying women according to what ethnicities they considered hottest. Setting aside for a moment the baseness with which these two boys were objectifying women based on appearance, I was fascinated by their conversation. It was evident that neither boy considered race a barrier in forming a friendship with, dating, or potentially marrying a woman of another race. All they saw was beauty.
Too much in this country remains divided along lines of color. Yet I have seen much change over the course of four generations, change toward reconciliation and wholeness.
I still hear echoes of racism among some from my mother’s generation, and it saddens me. I continue to grieve things I once said and did. I am encouraged, however, by the movement I’ve seen just throughout the course of my lifetime. My son and his peers find it unimaginable that the language from the Jackie Robinson movie could possibly have been routinely uttered in ballparks and around dinner tables.
It seems to me that kind of rhetoric is impossible to sustain once you’ve held hands while playing Red Rover, looked into a grandson’s Asian eyes, or sat next to a living, breathing image-bearer of God Almighty within the walls of His church.
written by: Anonymous
Note from Deidra: 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. Now, 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.
Together Through Lent
My friend Lyla helped me put together a newsletter I’m calling “Together Through Lent.” If you complete the form below, you’ll receive a copy in your inbox. It will arrive quietly; only once each week. And only through Lent.
I hope this newsletter serves as a gentle companion on your own Lenten journey. The truth is, I’ve got questions. Maybe my questions sound something like yours.
I’ll keep writing the regular stuff here on the blog. The newsletter is strictly for Lent, in a quiet space, with a community of people drawing wide arcs through the sky.