Monday, October 17, 2005

A Mind Can Be a Difficult Thing to Change

Some things stand out vividly in my mind as I traverse the decade between the events of my last post and my high school graduation (my senior picture is included here). By the time I was actually forming the barest beginnings of relationships with black kids, I was in High School.

I didn't play with black kids. I didn't visit their homes. My parents didn't talk to their parents on a social basis as far as I ever knew. I had no black teachers or black doctors. The black guys I saw most often were the ones that jogged behind the garbage truck as it made its rounds in our neighborhood. As the truck rolled slowly along, they had to run to keep up, grab full cans, and toss the contents into the hopper. They were very sweaty and very dirty and it seemed to confirm what I had been told about black people. Somehow it never occurred to me that the way they had to run and work contradicted the idea that they were lazy. I just thought they had to run or get left behind. Besides, maybe if they were smarter they could get a better job. Then they could be clean and have nice clothes.

Just a note here: I am writing about what I thought. I am not writing what I wish I had thought. I am not writing what I want anyone else to ever think about black people. I want to tell the truth. I have been told that the truth will set me free. I pray that God will use the truth to set me free. He has made a lot of great changes in me already. I am eager for more!

So I remember the guys who had to run to empty garbage cans for a living. Once in a while we left the suburbs and there were black people all around, but they seemed sort of like a backdrop. You don't think about being friends with the scenery in a play. The stage is set and you just walk across it and say your lines and talk to the other actors, who just happened to be all white people.

However, around age 10 or 11, I was involved in a rare outing through downtown New Orleans.
A sporting goods store had helped to sponsor our little league baseball uniforms. The coaches piled us into the back of a pick up truck or two and slowly drove us from the suburbs to the shop to show our appreciation for the spiffy uniforms we were wearing (a cheap T-shirt with our team name and matching ball cap). As we got closer to the store, we passed through a black neighborhood. I remember wondering why they didn't take more time to fix up their houses. And then I saw several black kids standing on a corner, watching us roll by. One little boy was dressed so wretchedly that I looked him in the eyes and felt very sorry for him. I had just opened a pack of gum. I only had moments to think. Maybe he would like some gum! That would surely make him happier. I hurled the open pack and the sticks of gum scattered at his feet. He hopped back a little, and I could tell that he just thought I was throwing my trash at him. He didn't even look down at the gum that was scattered on the ground. He didn't yell or seem to get mad. He just seemed very, very sad. I wanted to be able to let him know that I was trying to be nice. But the truck rolled on and he faded into the distance. I didn't want to talk about it with my teammates in the truck. I didn't even want to remember what happened. But here I am, more than four decades later and the scene and the feelings are burned into my brain.

Here is another place where I would like to lie. Gosh, I could say, how my heart was changed. I saw everything differently from that day on. But that is not what happened. I didn't forget. But I did ignore how I felt. It was pretty easy. I was busy being a kid. And no one ever asked me how I felt about poor black kids. They told me how to feel. To look down on them. To feel sort of disgusted by all their bad traits as detailed to me by friends, family, and media.

Another incident pierced my racist armor briefly a few years later. I was with my family visiting the Fort Worth, Texas zoo. I have always liked going to zoos. Yes I feel sorry for the caged up animals, but they are just so impressive. I want to drink it all in. As my parents and two brothers and I walked along we saw the result of a huge change that was happening by that time. Someone had decided that it should be o.k. for black families to visit the zoo, not just white families. And suddenly, there they were a black mom and dad and two little black kids. I remember that one of the kids was a little girl about 4. They were all dressed very nicely. It was a lot nicer than I ever dressed because we weren't a church going family. The little girl had one of those frilly white little girl dresses on and her hair was in little braids.

My father saw the black family too. "Why do they let those ______s come here", he said. Most of my friend's dads would have said "damned ______s". But my dad had been raised in a higher class home were it was considered rude to curse! Then my mother did something she rarely did, she openly disagreed with my dad. "Oh Charles", she exclaimed, "Look how nice they are dressed. Look how happy it makes the little children. They aren't hurting anything!".
My dad became silent as he often did when he was very, very angry. I felt confused. What was going on? But it was clearly not a time to ask questions. It was just about never time to ask questions on this topic. And this memory, too, has haunted me for decades. Even so, I continued to use the same word for black people that my Dad and all my buddies used.

When I was in the last year of Junior High School, I knew exactly what the High School principal meant when he gave a talk to all us 9th graders. I already knew why our classes had been split into all boy and all girl classes. I already knew why I would have to go to a public high school that had been changed to be all boys. One high school of 1000 white boys and all the way on the other side of the parish, one high school for the 1000 white girls. The principal said, "As you all know, next year the dark clouds will be rolling into our schools. None of us is happy about it, but we can't stop it! I expect all of you to ignore them, and we will do our best to get on with your schooling." He said a bunch more, but I remember wondering why he said "dark clouds" when we all knew that he meant '______s". And I remember being really mad at this group of black boys that were going to go to my high school. They were only 50 boys. And I had never met any of them, although they lived in a neighborhood even closer to the high school than my own.
I was mad because I had to go to an all boys high school, just when I starting to learn how to talk to girls and even have a "girlfriend". And it had to become an all boys school, because if a black boy ever even talked to or accidentally touched a white girl, we all knew that that boy would be beaten to death. I didn't think I would do that myself, but I knew for sure it would happen. So just because they wouldn't stay put in their own school, those black boys were ruining the one thing about high school that I was looking forward to, being around hundreds and hundreds of teenage girls. I was mad. My friends were mad. Our parents were mad. And if that many people get mad, madness is the inevitable result. Madness prevailed the next year when I started high school. But that is a story for another post.

May God deliver us from the madness that comes when we are so sure that we are better than others.

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