True Story

Yesterday I started the #30DaysAntiRacism challenge sponsored by The United Methodist Church’s General Commission on Religion and Race. Yesterday was easy. I was to pray about how God is calling me to act and then commit to praying daily for God to help me become more anti-racist.

Today’s challenge is to “Draft Your Racial Autobiography,” by journaling about your racial history and responding to these questions: “When was the first time you noticed racial differences? What did your parents and grandparents model in relationships with people of other races and cultures?”

I woke up thinking about how I would respond. I’ll start with a few stories…

A photo of my brothers, mother, great-grandparents, and me

During my elementary school years, I used to spend a week each summer with my great-grandmother (Mamaw). She had what I thought was a really cool house in Springfield, Missouri that was divided into apartments. Mamaw rented the front apartment to an older woman named Mrs. Shumaker, and the house out back to another older woman named Mrs. Snyder. (Mrs. Snyder used to crochet the most beautiful doilies, and she taught me how to crochet a chain.) Mamaw occasionally rented out a room in the basement which I thought was far too scary and couldn’t imagine why someone would pay to live there. And she rented the upstairs apartment to a young, college-aged woman who I thought looked so hip and glamorous.

For several summers in a row, Mamaw and I would spend a week together, and I loved it! We would walk to the corner, take a city bus downtown, get our hair done at the beauty school, shop on the square, and eat a lunch at a lunch counter. It was a formative time. Mamaw even bought me my first bra on one of these excursions. Back at the house, Mamaw taught me life skills, like how to make pudding without a box and how to cut up a chicken. Oddly, she also taught me the definition of the term BM, and she gave me advice I’ve never forgotten. She told me, “Get yourself a nice, ugly boy. That way you’ll always know where he is at night.” (I didn’t take her advice. And I still know where my husband is at night.)

Mamaw had a rough life. She was born in 1899, and her parents died early. She and her brothers went to live with family, but they weren’t treated well, so they ran away and raised themselves. Mamaw was only in the 3rd grade, she couldn’t read, and she never went back to school. Perhaps this is why she loved dressing up and wearing mink stoles and fancy hats. Yet, she also loved going to the lake, searching for wild blackberries, and making homemade pies. She also loved me and treated me with great tenderness.

And, she was the first person I’d ever heard say the “N’ word. She said something quite awful that I won’t repeat here, and I distinctly remember wondering what in the world she was talking about. I didn’t know that word, but she seemed too upset to ask. So I carried the conversation in my mind until I got back to my mother. I told my mom what Mamaw had said and asked her what it meant. She told me, in no uncertain terms, never to repeat that word. She explained that some people use that word to describe black people but that it was wrong and that it was not a word we use in our house. I don’t know if she ever confronted Mamaw, but I do know I never said the word. I also never forgot that my beloved Mamaw used this awful word.

Another memory I have of elementary years is living in Tulsa, Oklahoma in what I now know was “the projects.” My mother had divorced my father, was attending junior college, and raising three children on her own. My friend Tina and I used to like to walk to the convenience store. We were probably eight or nine years old, and believe it or not, we would go to the store to buy cigarettes for her mom. On the way home, we would always take turns carrying them, so people would think they were ours (and not the candy kind.) One time on our way back we saw an African-American boy (probably 13 or 14), and I thought he was so cute. He spoke to us so we went over and sat on the curb with him to chat. I don’t remember any of the conversation, but I do remember Tina went on home without me. When I got home (just a few minutes later), Tina had already told our moms that I was talking to a black teenage boy. I remember my mom telling me that when I walk to the store with Tina, we should always stay together and that little girls could get hurt when they walk alone. She said nothing about the boy or anything about him being black or anything about how little girls could be hurt. In that moment, I learned less about race relations and more about how little girls were vulnerable and needed to stick together.

Later on, in my white-majority, suburban high school in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, some of my most dear friends were some the few African-American students. One friend and I were very close, and I spent the night at her house on several occasions. Her father used to love telling the story of walking into her room one morning to find us sleeping — me with my head nearly hanging off the bed with my mouth wide open. It was at her house that I learned about black Jesus. I remember seeing the image hanging on the wall and exclaiming, “Your Jesus is black?!” And my friend responding, just as surprised, “Your Jesus isn’t?!” We laughed and laughed about that one.

My high school friend and one of my college roommates at my graduation from Northeast Missouri State University, now Truman University.

Fast forward to my college years at what is now Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, where I roomed with three African-American roommates from Saint Louis, Missouri. We became the best of friends — always laughing and snacking and fighting and learning. We grew up together, and in these years, I learned a lot about race and about the African-American experience. Yet, I was still naive in so many ways. The friends I made in high school and college are still friends today, and although we’re separated by distance, I know these women would do anything for me, as would I for them.

Also during college, I dated a black man for four years. I didn’t tell my grandparents for a long time, because I knew it would not be okay. When I finally did tell them, my grandmother cried and told me when I was ready to come back to my white family, they would be there for me. We didn’t speak for at least year, and it wasn’t until my grandfather was hospitalized that I was “allowed” back in the family. Of course, my mother never disowned me. And I remember my aunt telling me that while she was worried about our future in this racist world, she didn’t care if dated someone black or white or polka dotted, I would always be her niece.

Years later, when I was doing youth ministry in a rural, mostly white community in southwest Missouri, I attended a youth ministry conference at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas and stayed with my high school friend and her family. In one of the classes, the leader (a United Methodist pastor) said, “It is incumbent upon white people to join the conversation on race.” I don’t know what he said after that, because those words became one of those life-changing moments of discovery for me. I couldn’t stop thinking about them, and I remember going home that evening and telling my friend that it was the first time I’d ever realized my presence at the table was not only welcome but also necessary. I never knew I had something to offer and that coming to terms with my whiteness would be part of that process.

My husband in I in Kelibia, Tunisia last December.

Today, I’m married to a brown, immigrant, Muslim man, and I worry about how he might be hurt in this country. I hear stories about the hatred spewed at Asian-American friends in grocery stores, about acts of violence toward Muslim families in their homes, and of course about the risks of jogging, driving, and being in your own home while black. I’ve received xenophobic, racist comments on social media. And I’ve experienced friends reaching out in support, friends marching in airports and in places where my husband and I didn’t feel free to march, and friends gently and courageously helping me to see my own biases. For that, I’m grateful.

So is this blog my racial autobiography? Maybe not, but is a start. Today, more than a decade since learning “it’s incumbent upon white people to join the conversation on race,” I’ve entered a #30DaysAntiRacism challenge. Perhaps through this experience I will intentionally, thoughtfully, and courageously enter the conversation more fully.

A photo I purchased at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in the 90s. I wondered then, and I wonder now, if I’ll ever have the kind of courage these young people had in 60s. This image still hangs in my office today.

Tomorrow’s challenge: “Participate in intercultural conversations. Find a discussion group or book club where inter-cultural or anti-racism conversations are happening and ask to join. Or start your own group.” Stay with me.

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