I was born in South Carolina, in the Jim Crow South – to a father from rural Mississippi who openly disliked people of color, and to a mother who was half Lebanese.
My parents met in high school and found enough common ground to marry. But I never understood how they overlooked major differences: My mother and her family empathized with minorities, so much so that they secretly helped start three black Catholic churches in my home state in the 1950s, My father and his family, meanwhile, talked about returning black people from whence they came.
And they didn’t always say “black people.”
I remember the afternoon in my grandmother’s house when my father’s older brother said the other word.
“We just need to send them n------ back to Africa,” I heard him say plain as day, his chair rocking back and forth in the living room after Sunday fried chicken and sweet tea.
I also remember my mother later shrieking at my father.
“You and your family are never, ever to use that word around my children again!” she yelled.
I don’t know why my mother’s viewpoint is the one that stuck with me on matters of race. Maybe it’s because her voice was louder than my father’s. Maybe it’s because when they divorced, my three sisters and I went with her. Or maybe it’s because human nature wants to err on the side of kindness.
I remember vividly other moments with my mother: White people didn’t go in black people’s houses in the 1960s segregated South. But when our baby sitter, an African-American woman with several young children of her own, died, my mother filed us girls into her house to pay our respects. I can still visualize Velma’s children staring up at us as we stood in the darkened house, their small silent faces etched with a mix of emotions I still can’t name.
I remember Mama taking us some Sunday mornings to the small African-American church, something white people also didn’t do. My mother, exotic in the lily-white South with her raven-black hair, olive complexion and high cheekbones, would come to life here. The other churchgoers would stretch out their hands in greeting as if nothing separated us, after all. And when it came time for hymns, Mama would close her eyes and sing out strong and joyful, more than she ever did in the white church.
I don’t know that my mother knew she was educating me as she was making her own way.
But these simple acts became more powerful than anything I would learn in school, more lasting than heritage, stronger even, than the long-held traditions of the state that started the Civil War, where, at least for now, the Confederate flag still flies on statehouse grounds – the state known now for the Charleston Massacre, when a self-proclaimed bigot walked into a black church and began shooting.
My mother’s simple acts became her legacy, a legacy that lived on in me as I drove a car full of children every year to Martin Luther King Day events in inner-city Cleveland, one year to a Langston Hughes reading in a packed theater where we were the only white people. Uncomfortable as we were, I made us stay through the whole of the play, to feel what it’s like to be the minority, if only for 90 minutes.
My mother’s legacy passed through me to my children, too, including my grown son who lives in Baltimore and recently marched the streets on behalf of a young man named Freddie Gray. Picked up by police for carrying a switchblade, Gray is one of a long line of African-American men who have died in questionable altercations with police. My son walked in multiple protests and rallies in the aftermath, carrying a sign that said simply “Respect.”
As we struggle to understand the acts of racism and hate that seem to have crested in our nation, I find not only comfort, but empowerment, in the simple, and largely invisible, acts that are quietly taking place in families across the country.
We can, each of us on our own, turn to our children.
We can dare them, and ourselves at least, to be different.