Of all the years of my childhood, some of the most vivid memories are from my third year of life. My little sister was born, I ate a lot of ham and cheese, I fell in love with country music, and my grandpa taught me how to be afraid of black men.
I remember prancing in Grandpa’s yard on a sunny day, but I can’t recall what I did to aggravate him. Whatever it was, he had a “cure” for my antics.
“If you don’t behave, I’m going to take you to town and give you to that black man that eats little girls. He puts them in cages and then eats them when he gets hungry. You don’t want me to give you to the black man do you?”
No, indeed. I did not.
I grew up in rural Kentucky, and the black population in our county was small. The only black people I had ever seen up to this point were on T.V. Before this episode with my grandpa I had no reason to notice or fear someone because they had a different color skin than me. For days I thought about what my grandpa had said. I had no reason not to believe him and it gave me nightmares. I don’t think my parents were aware of what he had said, nor the ensuing turmoil in my mind.
My parents ran a small general store during this time, and my mom would often take me to town when supplies began running low. She shopped at an old-fashioned grocery store that had raw tongue-and-groove floors, a rickety screen door that sounded like a pop gun when folks came and went, and a huge pot-bellied stove in the back aisle. One chilly day I toddled behind my mom as she loaded her shopping cart (buggy, for southern folks) full of potato chips and Little Debbies. All was well until…cue the horror music…we rounded the corner of the last aisle. I looked up to see a black man on the opposite end and he was heading our way. I was terrified! My grandpa must’ve told him about me and he’d come to carry me away! I could already picture the cage sitting in the back of a pickup truck. I looked up at my mom to see what she was going to do. Would she grab me and run away? Would she try to fight him? She did neither. In fact, she really didn’t even seem to notice he was there. I tugged on her pants leg and whimpered. She looked down to see what I wanted, but I was too petrified to talk. I guess she was so preoccupied that she didn’t pick up on my alarm; that…and the fact that toddlers are subject to strange behavior anyway.
As Mom continued down the aisle I panicked when I realized she wasn’t going to do anything to protect me. I was in a desperate situation. We pulled up even with the pot-bellied stove and…horror music crescendos to a fevered pitch…I dashed behind it as fast as my chubby legs could carry me. I squatted down to make myself as inconspicuous as possible. And do you know what? My mom didn’t even miss me! She kept maneuvering that cart closer to the black man, and further away from me. I couldn’t believe the betrayal. In addition to being scared to death, I was heartsick at her lack of concern.
That stove was hot. My face was already wet from silent tears of fright, and I became drenched with perspiration. It didn’t matter. I would endure the misery of the heat if it kept me from being eaten. Mom disappeared around the corner to go checkout, and I was now left completely defenseless. The horror music stops and a pregnant silence fills the screen. As the black man strolled ever closer, I shut my eyes tight, hoping he wouldn’t see me. I could hear footsteps right next to me. Suddenly I felt a firm grip on my arm. BLOODY SCREAM! I began flailing against my attacker and shrieked with everything in me!
“Little girl, your mama is looking for you,” said the kindly store owner. I looked up with astonishment, realizing it wasn’t the black man that had hold of me. Mr. Keith picked me up in his arms and marched me right past the clueless man who was smiling at me. They exchanged polite nods and Mr. Keith carried me to the front counter.
None of the grown-ups were aware of the terror I had just endured. My mom scolded me for not staying with her. Mr. Keith marveled that I hadn’t been burned. I’m not certain how toddlers process things, but I learned a lesson that day. I didn’t get eaten, there was no pickup truck with a cage, and I was never in any danger. My grandpa had been bent on scaring me, and he hadn’t told the truth. I was now wise to him. He had been wrong.
Prejudices surrounded me growing up, but in spite of that I began to understand that skin color didn’t matter one whipstitch. There were little things along the way that convinced me. My uncle married a Korean, and she was fascinating. She made egg rolls and daisy chains. She had beautiful babies with slanted eyes and shocks of black hair…and they were my blood relatives. I made friends with a black kid at piano camp one year. I developed a crush on a half-black/half-Asian guy another year at the same camp. A white girl in my high school dated a black guy. I think she received a lot of flak for it, but she did it anyway. My parents hung out with a black guy that trained horses. These things all helped me see truth.
I don’t know when it happened, but eventually I stopped noticing skin color. I mean, of course I noticed in the same way you notice whether someone is bald, skinny, or short. It was simply an identifier, and not a divider.
I moved to New Mexico, where there were a whole lot of middle-brown people. I was a minority and I thought it was great! Then I moved to central California, where there are as many colors of skin as there are shades of brown. Unlike the big cities where there are racial gang divisions, in our area people didn’t really pay much attention to skin color. I loved it.
I adopted a bunch of kids who were various shades of brown. It didn’t matter that my skin was lighter than theirs; they were one hundred percent mine, and we were family.
Eventually through studying the Bible and listening to lectures on genetics, I confirmed what I inherently knew: there’s only one race. We are all brothers and sisters, fifty shades of brown. I believe we are born with this knowledge, just like we are born with the knowledge of an Almighty God. Somewhere along the way, some of us get “untaught” what we know to be true, and some of us keep believing the lies of racism.
To look at someone as inferior because of their skin color or eye shape is as lame as thinking someone is inferior because they have large earlobes or tiny nostrils. It doesn’t make sense. To look at oneself as superior because of skin color is as ridiculous as believing we can be superior by having bushy eyebrows or chubby cheeks.
I can’t personally eradicate racism, but I’m going to do what I can to encourage folks to see all of mankind through the same lense. Christ created us all, loves us all, and died for us all. Isn’t it time we all learn that truth?