Racism. It is such a hot topic that as soon as we hear it, it elicits visions of punk neo-Nazis and red-neck Dixie flag wavers. It makes us think of police brutality, and social injustice.
When you think of racist, when you think of what a Racist looks like, who do you envision?
Is it a balding, middle-aged white man driving a hemi diesel 2 ton pick-up truck?
Okay, I have no idea if that last statement regarding pick-up truck tonnage is valid. But did it invoke the right image?
Let me tell you of my image, well one of them. Because, the image in my head varies across a long spectrum of social, economic, and yes, racial demographics. And every time I experienced it, it broke my heart a little bit more.
In my late teen years, I returned to the southern town where I was born, with every intention of going to college there. It was the place my mother had returned to after my parents divorced.
I was working as a waitress. I had my regulars that came in every day for lunch. A fair share of those regulars were my favorites and they felt like adopted family. Especially my sweet little old southern belle.
The sweetest ever. She was seventy-something. Giving. Loving. An all-around good, southern, Christian woman. If you were down and out, even if it was your own damn fault, this woman would offer you her wrinkled little hand and lift you up. She would feed you, clothe you, and send you back out into the world to try again.
My sweet little old southern lady was coming up to the register. The air was pleasant, the sun streamed through the window blinds. The ring of her southern belle accent always had a soothing effect on me. We were having our usual, post-lunch chat about the weather, or her grandchildren, or perhaps it was an upcoming church social. I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about, but as she stood there, a nice young black family came in the door and was seated over in a section to my right.
What I do remember is the tension in her frail little shawled shoulders as they passed behind her with the hostess. What I do remember is the conspiratorial squint she gave as she leaned in and interjected what was part of a long line of heart-breaking moments for me.
“Those people ove’ theh’”, she whispered in that sweetest of southern drawls that always made me feel at home. “Can you bahleev? They le’ them move down the street fum me?” She huffed and handed me her money, tucking her wallet back into her purse.
I could tell that she had not seen the look of shock on my face. I could tell that she was oblivious to the tears welling behind my eyelids. The anger that I felt, at that moment… was incomprehensible. My southern training was in direct conflict with my ideological concepts of right, and wrong. My mind did what it always does, and I thank God for it. It channeled that anger… it made it into words.
“Well, it is about damn time…” I began.
“Excuse me!?” She flustered, her cheeks reddening a bit. She clutched her purse to her chest like a shield.
“I said, it is about damn time that they moved out of those shotgun shacks at the edge of town.” I slammed the register shut for effect. I glared at the sweet little southern woman before me. Still all the appearance of what she was before… but now… more like a demon in my midst.
She harrumphed and stomped out of the restaurant. I never saw my sweet little old southern belle again.
She was one of the many reasons that I left and never looked back.
I went back to visit my town many years later, and it was a very different experience. I took my daughters to visit my mother, their grandmother, for the first time.
I remember writing about how the air was a warm thick blanket that welcomed me back.
I remember going into Walmart (of all places) and being greeted by a sweet old southern gentleman. The ones that are of that breed that always look, to me, just a little bit like Jimmy Carter.
In every aisle were families, single people, young and old. White, black, and mixed race. Some of the mixed children were third generation. Had I been gone that long?
Curly, light brown and blonde hair framed sweet little cherub faces of varying shades. There was no tension here. Even among what most consider ‘redneck’ culture. They smiled, white, black, and mixed. They stopped their carts long enough to greet a familiar face and ask how their day was going. Some stopped longer to discuss what was happening that weekend.
In a small town. In one of the most deeply racist, both historically and socially, states in the Union, somehow… they had found peace.