Tuesday, December 9, 2008

my sincere apologies

Growing up, I was naïve. The knowledge of some things came too early, but on most issues, I was ignorantly blissful. Even now, my husband has the role of explaining things to me (like why I can’t wear that borrowed maternity MILF shirt out in public). Racism was one of those issues in which my perceived reality was not at all connected with the world’s reality.

I was born and raised in southern California, self-proclaimed capital of tolerance. In school, when we studied this country’s sordid history it was assumed that everyone felt the same way—racism was ignorant, unacceptable, and what’s more—sooo old-school. I sincerely believed that racism was a thing of the past.

Until I moved to Florida. Perhaps the geography, just being south of “the South,” has influenced the culture more than most will admit. Whatever the reason, racism is alive and well in this lovely sunshine state. I was appalled by remarks I heard fellow students make in the halls of my high school. Disappointed when friends of parents cracked race jokes. Disillusioned when I finally accepted that 50 years of time between the Civil Rights era and today were simply not enough.

Since I first learned of white people enslaving black people in this country, I’ve been grappling with what I’ll call “white guilt.” In fifth grade, I wrote a story about a privileged white girl, Victoria, who helped a black girl, Tawny, escape her father’s plantation. I vicariously lived through Victoria and her valiant efforts. All five foot 4 of me would yell at the hicks in my high school whenever I heard them use the “n” word. To this day, when I met a black person and her accent reveals that she is from “the Islands,” I feel a sense of relief. “Good,” I think, “you probably don’t hate me. My ancestors didn’t mistreat your ancestors. You might have beef with the French, Spanish, or the Dutch, but not me.”

During my freshman year of college at Florida State in Tallahassee, I got to know the city by running it. From my dorm, I would run east to the downtown government buildings, west to Jim N Milt’s, north to Lake Ella, but rarely south. On one run in particular, I was tracking the south side of downtown and was bored with the sights already seen. So, I turned right, excited to spot a bridge ahead. I kept to the sidewalk and soon realized that the bridge crossed railroad tracks, not water. It was dusk and I knew I shouldn’t stray that far from familiar territory, but my curiosity spurred me on. The phrase flashed through my mind “crossing the tracks,” words I had heard in reference to the separation of the black and white sides of town. I figured that Tallahassee was an old town and that it was possible for those words to apply here. The bridge had now spilled me out onto the road and I became aware of the signs and shops I ran by. Sure enough, the complexions of passengers in cars passing by started darkening and restaurant signs changed to more “soul-ish” foods.

I kept my pace up and then I passed a brick entrance to FAMU—a traditional black college I knew existed in town, but had never seen. I turned right and guessed my way towards the center of campus. It was an uphill jaunt, but I flew. The campus was situated on a hill, giving it a unique vantage point of the city. Dusk had been faithful with its promise, and it was now nearly dark. The darkness brought attention to the light of a burning torch, situated on the greens in the center of campus.

I can’t exactly tell you why, but in that moment, the cloud of my white guilt seemed to lift just a little. I hadn’t spoken to a soul, made eye contact with another student, or even whispered a prayer for reconciliation between the races. But right there, in the center of FAMU’s campus, without breaking pace, my conscience was relieved and I breathed freely. I was an unannounced visitor in a center of black culture and it was okay that I was there. No one welcomed and no one protested. No one even noticed. And I guess that’s what I needed.

I wish I could stand on the top of the world and apologize to African Americans on behalf of European Americans. I wish I could witness reconciliation, forgiveness and healing between both peoples. I wish every expression of culture could be honored and celebrated together. Scripture speaks of a day when every tribe, tongue and nation will worship together on equal footing before the throne of God, and I earnestly long for that day.

For now, though, I’ll have to wait. I’ll write fiction books, I’ll run through black campuses and I’ll pray. I’ll speak with sensitivity, I’ll teach my students our history, and I’ll forgive and accept forgiveness. And maybe, between today and peace consummated, I’ll be surprised. Maybe curiosity, or a misstep or two, will find me standing before a burning torch, breathless. Maybe there is some peace to be had here on earth.

*I'm really nervous in posting this, so please receive it with sensitivity and, if needed, grant me the benefit of a doubt. I recognize that race is a highly controversial subject. This is just my personal expression of my experiences.

**Also, I intentionally did not use the term "African Americans" for most of the post. When totally honest, not many differentiate between the origin of one's ancestors. My feelings, and I believe this topic as a whole, revolve around the color of skin, so that's why I chose to use the words "black" and "white." It's unfair to make such generalizations, but for the sake of simplicity, I did. Please tell me if there's offense to be taken, so I can learn how to proceed in future writings.