(Again, Margaret provides this week’s E-pistle, a reflection on some of the ways that race came into and has stayed, even grown in her awareness. Thanks for sharing this part of your journey with us!)
“What is your earliest memory of an awareness of race?” This question in the prep material for our Sacred Conversation on Race caught my eye.
When did my journey to the Sacred Conversation on Race begin? No one would be surprised that it was with a book. Bright April, by Marguerite DeAngeli is the story of April, an African- American Brownie Scout in Philadelpia and her experience of racism. Of course, the novel has a happy ending. Later, I learned that Bright April, despite its flaws — the idea that skin color doesn’t matter, and that difficult problems are easily solved — is a landmark in children’s literature, because an African-American child is both a main character and a positive role model. Decades after reading it, I remember Bright April, and see the book as confirmation of what my parents taught me about race — that we are all equal, and that prejudice is wrong. These are kind-hearted and simple beliefs, but I as I grew up, I learned that nothing about them is simple.
I grew up in rural Iowa in the 1950s. In our town of about 1000 people, there was one African American family. You would think they stood out; but in fact, they were pretty much invisible. Their youngest daughter was my cousin’s classmate and friend. One day after school, we were at my cousin’s house, and Mrs. Dawson called. “How will Marcene get home?” Aunt Marg said, “She can walk. It’s not that far.” Mrs. Dawson objected. “Oh my no! She would be too exposed. I’ll come pick her up.” I remember that we were surprised, and also that we drove Marcene home in the car. Many years later, I learned about sundown towns, where Negroes were not allowed after sunset, sometimes by custom and sometimes by law. Was my hometown one of them?
The annual Minstrel Show was a tradition. White people, in black-face, sang songs, danced, and did funny skits, usually based on stereotypical views of black people. At some point in the 1960s, the NAACP in a larger town nearby requested firmly that the show be stopped, and it was. I remember both resentment about “interference”, and embarrassment. Cleaning out dad’s house in 2013, we found a Minstrel program. Ashamed, we agreed not to show it to anyone.
On a trip to North Carolina in 1962, I saw “Colored” and “White” restrooms and water fountains. I felt sad and horrified and uneasy. I didn’t know what to do.
Our family became multi-racial when my sister married an African-American man. It was a challenge to “Iowa nice.” Aunt Ruth had to have a talk with several people to put a stop to their “nonsense.” Acceptance without really understanding, maybe, but as several more people of color came into the family, there is a delight in our diversity.
More than I could have imagined as a child in 1950s Iowa, issues of race and racism have come to permeate our lives and our communities. Segregation and desegregation, Brown vs. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, John Lewis, the Voting Rights Act, Equal Housing, Equal Employment, Affirmative Action. A never-ending struggle between great achievements and violent opposition to our progress toward a more just society. We elected an African-American president. A new word, “haters” entered our language. “White privilege” is either invisible or obvious, and frank discussion is a struggle, if it takes place at all.
So, I come to the Sacred Conversation, bringing my experiences and some small understanding of race in my life and the life of our community, expecting challenges, and hoping for a greater knowledge and understanding as my journey continues.
See you in church,