Personal History and Racism

25 09 2008

I spoke a few weeks ago about my journey to North Carolina on the train.  One or two things happened which really brought to my mind and heart the effects of racism in this country.

The train ride back from North Carolina back to New York was quite an eye-opener.  To give a bit of background, the train started its journey in Miami, Florida, wound its way up through Georgia and South Carolina, and picked me up in North Carolina before winding its way up the eastern seaboard and terminating in New york.

Here I was, enjoying my time in a modest sleeper car.  Everyone else in the sleeper car sections of the train were white.  Everyone who was sitting in coach, at least those who I saw, was black.  Separating the sleeper cars from coach was the dining car and the cafe car.  The dining car was where we took our meals.  Those of us in the sleeper cars took our meals for free as they were included as part of the fare while those in coach paid.  Those who chose lighter fare ate in the cafe car and paid for their meals regardless of class, and sleeper car passengers got free non-alcoholic drinks.

I went to cafe car once or twice during the trip for a snack or a drink and every time my eyes were opened to the stark reality of how different my life was compared to the others.  While I am not rich by any standards, the distance in income level between myself and the African-Americans in coach was very stark. This was the vacation of a life-time, to ride the rails from the Deep South to the Northeast, gladly spending 10 – 18 hours in crowded cars and seats, while I lazed about in much greater comfort than those who were around me.

For the very first time, it was brought home to me in a very real way the damage my ancestors did to those people they brought to the United States in chains.  Even after almost 150 years of emancipation, the reality of the bondage of an entire people hit home.  My mother’s family were colonials, and they had one or two small families of slaves.  These days, when this period of our history is spoken about, we refer to them as “servants.”  What I came to realize in a very concrete fashion was that no matter how humane or cruel my ancestors treated their “servants,” it contributed to a system of subjugation which still remains to this day.  Even with the passage of the 13th 14th and 15th amendments of the Constitution, it wasn’t until the 1960s that black folks could vote or start to voice their real opinion about things without seeming “uppity” at best or getting lynched or killed at worst.  Even today, the word “uppity” has been used in the news, and that word resonates deeply within the Southern United States to describe someone who doesn’t know their rightful place in society.  Don’t let anyone tell you different, that so-called rightful place is beneath the heels of white men.

While I had no direct responsibility in the condition of the people in the coach car, i still felt responsible in some way, because my family had slaves.   Regardless of how they were treated, the institution of slavery and its descendant, segregation or Jim Crow, took away their humanity in some way and  today the descendants of those servants still suffer if not physically than mentally and emotionally for what my ancestors did … the buying and selling of human beings as property, cattle, tools to be used.

Such a system is perpetuated based on fear and greed.  We Southerners did not want the African-American educated for fear of a rebellion.  We did not want them to read or know the Bible except for a few choice phrases which we used to perpetuate their less-than-human state.  We are culpable in perverting the Scriptures from a text of the story of how God liberates everyone into a dogma which subjugates the weak to the strong. Those that lived in the Northern USA are just as responsible, in my opinion, for they kept settling for compromise upon compromise until some greater consensus would emerge (does this sound familiar to anyone?) and their racism played out in much more subtle ways.

Slavery?  Horrible.  The Right to Vote and own property?  That’s another story …. I don’t know if we’re ready for that yet …

But as I stood there in line at the cafe bar, I wondered, what could I do to help them?  What could I do to lift them up and show them that regardless of what my ancestors did, I believe in something bigger?  I cannot undo the damage that was done.

All I can do with any shred of dignity, is to lean on the words of Jesus, who said to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  I can accept that this point in our history happened, tell the truth as I have learned it, ask for forbearance as I unlearn everything about class and race that I have been taught consciously or subconsciously.

All I can do with any sense of honesty or integrity is to treat everyone how I would like to be treated, and to ask the Lord to call to mind the things which I’ve done and ought not to have done to perpuate the plight of those who still suffer under the heels of a horrible, horrible system.

Make no mistake, as far as we have come, racism is very much present here within the United States.  It has just become more inclusive, for we white folks have our preconceived notions about hispanics, asians and arabs to name a few.  This racism helps to continue a culture of fear that “someone is out to get us and overturn our way of life.”  Our fear and hatred of who is not like us is not just limited to African-Americans … it includes everyone who we perceive to be not like us.

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5 responses

25 09 2008
Larry Shell

I would recommend Slavery By Another Name by Douglas Blackmon. I read a great review in one of the mags I subscribe to. The book has it’s own web site: http://www.slaverybyanothername.com. I’m waiting for it to come out in paperback, but plan on reading it. As educated as I am, I was unaware of the continuation of slavery in another form (i.e., the passage of vagrancy laws in which men of color were arrested if they could not prove employment and then sold by the local sheriff within days to coal companies, etc. as chain gang labor. This practice continued until well into the 20th century.

And on a related note, the recent survey that finally attempted to address the race issue in this election season was very disheartening. The racism that continues to permeate our culture…not just the loud mouth and proud folks who proudly brandish their hate, but the more subtle bigotry that is revealed in the survey in the rankings of various adjectives chosen to describe racial groups – an inordinate number of white Americans ranked adjectives like “violent” and “lazy” in describing African Americans.

When a family member was working on her PsyD – she had a professor who taught about race issues in counseling – she said she would take a full fledged bigot any day over a self-proclaimed “I’m not a racist” liberal any day because at least with the bigot you knew for certain where you stood.

26 09 2008
Doorman-Priest

When you come to visit I’ll take you to Bradford.

27 09 2008
Grandmère Mimi

RB, I was brought up in a racist environment. Not until I went to Loyola University were my eyes opened to the reality of the vileness of racism. There began my journey to rid myself of the attitudes that were planted and nurtured throughout my childhood and adolescence. I’m still trying. To my shame, certain knee-jerk reactions still rear their ugly heads. I believe that those attitudes will never be fully gone, this side of the kingdom.

I agree with the professor who said, …she would take a full fledged bigot any day over a self-proclaimed “I’m not a racist” liberal any day because at least with the bigot you knew for certain where you stood. I believe that I can never say with full honesty, “I’m not a racist”, but, at least, I know it.

27 09 2008
Yard{D]og

Allot of my Black friends in ministry tell similar stories from a different point of view. and more than one has repeated the story as Grandmere has … of dealing with a full fledged racist, but here in So Cal, the tag line is “instead of one that keeps his mouth shut because of political correctness.” I do think it is important to listen to those voices and lately I have been reading about role of economics in race relations … seems as if you have discovered it first hand …

29 09 2008
TELP

I was recently informed that the term for it is “micro oppression”. It’s those small ways that we shrug off a situation like the one you encountered by saying, “Well, you get what you pay for” without coming to the understanding, as you did, that there is a deeper story which begins by asking, ‘Why?” The folks on the train know why. That’s micro oppression.

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