Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Still Standing Openly and Genuinely Proclaiming Truth

Being authentic, open, and genuine has a price.

I've paid that price more times than I can count.

When I was younger, I witnessed my father try to work with and make sense of the black intelligentsia of our new town after a number of racial incidents that threatened our family.  I was eight or nine when the cross was burned in our yard at 311 Gordon Street.  My father and grandfather kept watch with their Arkansas shotguns and protected the family when the police, local black university "muckety mucks" and otherwise power brokers in town were cowering in silence on the "black middle class" side of town.

 My father was not silent.  He spoke up and out and promised them that he would protect his family even if they would not stand with him and help.  He, alone, stood up to the racist power brokers in our capital city, he stood against the white doctor's son who was behind the tire slashing and epithets written on the shed in the back of our property - him descending on our land in the dead of night while everyone was asleep and my step-mother was at her night job as a ward clerk at the local hospital.  Imagine how it must have been for my parents to know that one of the doctors that worked at one of the two hospitals in town had a rogue son who was an entitled bully.

I learned from my father to stand strong in the face of these things, even when those who look like him wanted him to sit in a corner and be silent, to not dwell on "racial matters" too much and just go along to get along.

My father also taught me not to be an okey-doke, to not compromise on those things that are truth, and to be prepared to accept the outcome.

We lived on the east side of town on a street where we were the only black family and the only one with kids.  I joke with my white friends now that I grew up around a lot of "old white ladies who made cookies" because that was my street.  These old white people next door looked out for us, watched us grow up, and eventually, watched some of us become parents before life's end took them from this earth.  They saw us ride our bikes and watched the comings and goings of our home.  It was one of those old white people who helped my father in reporting what happened and eventually getting something resolved to protect our family.  We did not get such help from the people like us in our town.

Daddy told me it was because we weren't from there, we had moved just a year before from the bigger city to the east and daddy had a position that was higher up in state government.  He did not attend the local black university, he added university in Chicago and St. Louis.  He had a law degree, it was from a segregated school, but still, a law degree, and he was making important moves on the hill.  He wanted his children to have a full education and all the promise available to them.

And that was the problem that got the cross burned in our yard.

Daddy wanted my older step-brother to take algebra and the school rulers wanted to keep him and all the rest of the black kids either in the black lab school (but desegregation ended that) or in general math, not the higher order Algebra I and II classes.  I never understood then nor now why they were so afraid of an educated black man.

In watching and remembering my daddy's often lonely quest for truth and opportunity, I learned the importance of being authentic in one self and not trying to fit in for the sake of fitting in if it never delivered results.  Today, in my hometown, still, there is no longer the "black middle class" side of town, there are more people there from other places, and the doctor's kids still seem to be the ones in control of the culture of the public school, there are those who sit in silence, relegating themselves to "that's just the way things are."  I simply refuse that mantra.

Growing up, there were things my father never allowed us to do.  Perhaps he was a bit classist or protectionist of us since we were not from there and didn't know who was related to whom.  He never wanted us to lower our standards and to strive for the best, we spent summers in the library and reading and in churches in nearby towns that seemed to have more progressive people trying to make a difference.  I learned there was a price to be paid with standing true to one's principles, and that often that price meant walking alone, but in the end, that price being worth it.

It took well over twenty-five years before my father was fully welcomed in that town.  I think that is true of a lot of hometown places, certainly true about where I live now.  We, as humans, sometimes fall back on those we know and not always those with the bigger vision.

As a girl, my daddy was the most important man I ever knew and loved.  He and my uncles, his brothers, as well as the eventual small circle of friends he gained, were towers of possibility, truth, and pride.  He showed me perseverance and honor in the face of standing alone, at times, and in pain, often.  I miss him more than I have the words to understand, and I honor his quest.

Writing, speaking, and shining a light are not actions of the faint of heart.  Someone once told me I was an "incredibly brave woman" because I speak up and out, never hiding behind my commentary, essays, poems, or narratives.  I am an oracle and understand that I may risk losing friends and family by speaking up about things like discrimination and social injustice, but at almost fifty, I have earned the right to be true.

It has it's price and sometimes it is painful, but one day, someone is going to look back at it all and do as some of my white and black friends have said, and comment that I made them think.  Then in thinking, take action, and in taking action, make a change.  Because we need to make a change, we can not go back to those dark, dark, dark days of fear and intimidation because we are different.  We must continue to shine a light on it and speak on it, otherwise fear and hatred, bigotry and racism will win, and that would invalidate everything my father and his generation fought so hard to achieve.

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