(For George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, and the countless others.) I want to tell their stories, remind the world how they were murdered by the system, but when I try, all I can think of is Ruth. The whitest white and the blackest black are found in churches and their affiliated colleges. I remember three Black people in the entire school my freshman year, and one was my assigned roommate, Ruth. I was 18. Twelve hundred miles from home. Everything seemed strange, but Ruth seemed strangest of all. I was homesick. I was sheltered. I was incapable of seeing beyond a self I barely knew, and I devised a way (it wasn’t hard) to get reassigned, moved away from Ruth. Every justification I can offer (and I’ve made a long list over the years) drips with privilege. Poor white girl far from home, feels uncomfortable, and every administrative cog in a great machine lurches into action to set things right for her. I was unawake, but aware enough to be embarrassed. Every time I saw Ruth, she gave a sincere smile, and she waved and she said hi, and she acted like nothing had happened, and I would feel the disgrace anew. I silently bore the shame of my inadequacy. It was my secret. Years later, I finished two degrees at an HBCU across town, “the Black school.” I learned the greater part of all I know from Black scholars. I got smart enough to shut up and listen, to observe, and to learn. Then I began teaching at my alma mater, and to my knowledge, not one of the Black students in my classes ever asked to be reassigned, moved away from me. In order to share the Story of Tamir and Alton and Ahmaud, I have to start with Ruth, and I have to understand that the same system that killed them is the one that found a new roommate for me. If I could find Ruth, I would fall to my knees and beg her forgiveness. And the Ruth I remember would give it, I have no doubt. I have looked for her and I have hoped for a chance to be absolved. It has not arrived, and I’m glad it hasn’t, for I need to stay unpardoned, unacquitted. That is the energy that fuels me now. Ruth owes me nothing. I owe her a lifetime of fighting the unpardonable. I don’t equate my actions with a boot in the neck, but I have come to accept they are siblings. Were they not, Eric and Philando and Michael would not have told me from the grave that I have to start with the story of Ruth. © 2020 Deb Moore, All Rights Reserved
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine and I were having a chat when she asked me a question I had some difficulty answering. We were discussing race relations/equality/justice and so forth, all issues about which I am infinitely passionate. My friend asked, “Where did you get your intense devotion to issues of racial equality?”
Hmmm. . . where did I get it? I can think of oodles of examples that nurtured it along the way, but the initial springboard seemed a bit of a mystery.
My friend asked, “Did you come from a liberal family that cared deeply about social justice?”
After L-ing a bit too OL (thanks for the line, Modern Family writers), I said, “No, that would not have been it.” My family was about as equality minded as any other conservative white family in the 60s and 70s.
“Do you think it has something to do with being a lesbian? You know, your own experiences with inequality naturally transferring to other minority experiences?”
I think that certainly has an impact on my ability to understand the pain of being on the shorter end of the “equality” stick, but still not the source.
I pondered this question further on my own over the next few weeks. I wondered if, in the words of the sage philosopher Lady Gaga, I was simply “born this way?” I’m sad to say that probably wasn’t the case either. So, what was it? Could I go back and discover the seed? I pondered this question in depth, as I am wont to do with just about any single thing one can imagine.
Then I thought of Mrs. Soper.
Mrs. Soper was my first grade Sunday school teacher. If you had told me then that she was 112 years old, I would have accepted that without reservation. I’m pretty certain she had taught the first grade Sunday school class for 86 years already by the time I arrived.
One Sunday morning, Mrs. Soper was asking for a volunteer, probably to lead the prayer. No one jumped at this golden opportunity, so I started pointing my pudgy six-year-old fingers at each member of the class and reciting, “Eeny-meeny-miny-mo, catch a nigger by the toe . . . ”
Mrs. Soper pointed her gnarled, 112-year-old finger at me and snapped, “We don’t say that word.”
I slunk back into my chair, cowed and embarrassed. There is no greater humiliation for a budding comedian than to learn that an attempt to be funny is not only not funny but horribly inappropriate. Besides, I had enjoyed the protected status of preacher’s kid my entire life. It was the rare and courageous adult who dared chastise me publicly. Well, Mrs. Soper was both rare and courageous (in addition to being the mother of the church treasurer, the woman who wrote my father’s paycheck).
Until that time, the little engine in my spirit that could contemplate issues of social justice had only followed the track laid by my family. In an instant, Mrs. Soper threw the switch and sent me in a new direction.
I have no idea if I ever said that word again in my childhood (I know that I haven’t as an adult, with the rare exception caused by academic or narrative necessity, as evidenced above, and usually not even then). I would not be surprised if I did, but I can tell you one thing with certainty: I never said it again without thinking how disappointed Mrs. Soper would be with me. In fact, every time I hear that word to this day, whether coming from the mouth of one of my students or in a rap song, I think of Mrs. Soper.
It’s not an easy responsibility for an adult to undertake, to transform a child’s ignorance into a choice they can never make again without knowing it is a poor one. I have done it in the past when my nieces were younger, and let me be the first to tell you, I didn’t enjoy it. It was embarrassing for them and unpleasant for me. But, I also know they remember those instances as clearly as I remember Mrs. Soper.
The writer of the Proverbs said, “Train a child in the way (s)he should go, and (s)he will not depart from it.” I think the part of the verse that gets most overlooked is the concept of the true way to go. I learned lots of stuff in church that I have long since abandoned, but I have never departed from the track Mrs. Soper switched me to.
From now on, if anyone should ask where I get my passion for social justice and equality, I know exactly what to say — “Mrs. Soper.” She planted the seed which my life experiences have watered and nurtured. But, she planted the seed. Would that we all contributed to the gardens of the young people in our lives in such a profound way.
The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.
— W.E.B. Du Bois
Well, Mr. Du Bois — oh, pardon me, Dr. Du Bois — it seems the problem you defined was too big for just the 20th century; we’ve carried it into the 21st. For you and so many others who devoted lives of study and advocacy, who marched in protest, who lobbied politicians, who gave their lives, we offer our most shame-faced apology for not addressing your problem as fully as we should have.
From the outside, it might look like we’ve made progress, Dr. Du Bois. We have an African-American President, what would seem like the ultimate final hurdle. But, his ascendancy has, unfortunately, brought once-silent voices to society’s microphone. It’s not just that there are white supremacist groups and hate-directed organizations of misfits; we have always had those and, sadly, probably always will. But, as long as it was just the KKK and the Aryan Brotherhood and isolated pockets of inbreds, we knew what we were dealing with and felt protection under the law for our brothers and sisters of color. No, the ones that scare us now are the ones we never would have suspected.
When suburban white boys brutally beat and kill an African-American man simply because of his race, when elected officials advocate books and ideas which promote the pro-slavery confederacy, when a politician refers to the President of the United States as a “tar baby,” when a major news organization refers to a gathering at the White House as a “hip-hop barbecue,” then we definitely have not appropriately addressed the problem you prophetically outlined.
The sad part, Dr. Du Bois, is that the stories mentioned above all took place and hit the news within the last two months. I so very much wish that I had to dig deep for these examples, but they were at my fingertips.
I recall stories within days of President Obama’s election in 2008 of flags flown at half-mast or upside down (the international signal for distress), of children on a schoolbus in Idaho chanting “Assassinate Obama,” of a black church in Springfield, MA, being burned to the ground within hours of the election, of students spray-painting racist statements against the President-Elect on a sidewalk at North Carolina State University, and of the nooses that showed up in many places, one of which was Baylor University.
On one hand, Dr. Du Bois, I’d rather the racists come out of the closet so we can see them. A visible enemy is always less dangerous. But, on the other, far larger hand, I feel saddened and embarrassed that elements in this nation have seemed to remain so doggedly attached to our racist roots.
Saddest of all, where is the public outcry? Michele Bachmann’s political days should be so clearly numbered that the tick of the countdown clock is almost deafening. Instead, she leads rallies attended by thousands. Fox News should be required by the FCC to take the word “news” out of its name. Instead they continue to be the frontrunner in cable news ratings. People who hang nooses in reaction to the election of an African-American president should be charged with inciting hate and investigated by the Secret Service. Instead they receive diplomas from a Southern Baptist University.
So, you see, Dr. Du Bois, it is not the Michele Bachmanns or the Doug Lamborns or the Roger Ailes who have so clearly let you down. It is us. It is the collective American spirit that is capable of watching these news stories without taking to the streets. It is the parents and ministers who have somehow managed to make racism and religion compatible in their pea brains and then pass that warped vision of Christianity to children like a perpetual motion machine of bigotry. It is the masses who choose to live in isolated fear rather than risk the horrible chance they might actually feel love for all humanity.
We are the reason why the problem of the 21st century is still the problem of the color line. The only way I know to apologize to you, sir, is to ask myself, “What can I do to address this problem? What part can I play in a solution?” And hope beyond hope that others will ask the same.