Growing up black in the South, I understood a few things: Watermelon was meant to be eaten with salt; fish was eaten every Friday night; and race was not discussed, especially not in public.
Well, at least that was how it went in my house.
As a child, I was very interested in history, particularly the history of black Americans and the civil rights movement. I vividly remember asking my mother millions of questions about how she felt growing up in a segregated society. How did she feel when Martin Luther King Jr. and President Kennedy were killed? Did she ever participate in a march or sit-in?
Her answer was usually boring, what I have come to call “a good Negro answer.” That means she answered diplomatically, making sure not to show she had an opinion about race or felt anything about the race-related changes happening nationally, regionally and in her own neighborhood. She made sure I understood there were some things you just didn’t talk about, and race was one of them.
Well, times are changing – or so it seems. Recently, I have had the opportunity to speak about race and culture quite a bit.
About two weeks ago, I facilitated a discussion on race, culture and nationality for Crossroads Charlotte at the Common Market on South Tryon Street. The program was in response to what some felt was a culturally insensitive move by Common Market to have a white man dress up as Snoop Dogg at a karaoke party and paint his face black. The program, About Face: About Blackface, gave people a chance to freely discuss issues of race, culture and nationality.
That same week, I viewed and discussed the movie The Help with a diverse group of women of faith from several prominent Charlotte churches, including The Park Church, Friendship Missionary Baptist Church and Forest Hill Church.
It was so refreshing to have an open and honest dialogue about race with individuals outside my circle of influence. The conversations gave everyone in attendance an opportunity to hear perspectives of those who didn’t look like them. If we are real with ourselves and each other, we know we often seek reaffirmation of what we already believe from people of our own races, classes and cultural backgrounds through closed-door “amen” conversations. It is not often that any of us allow ourselves to be vulnerable and share our innermost thoughts on race with people of other races. But that is what happened at both of these programs.
Two things, one from each program, resonated with me.
At “About Face: About Blackface,” a young white man said, “I feel like I have to constantly live down the transgressions of my father and grandfather, and it’s not fair.” That was an interesting perspective for me because it was honest. It showed a bit of frustration I believe many white people feel, especially when they don’t share the archaic views of their ancestors.
During the discussion that followed The Help, several women of different races bonded through the viewing experience. After the formal discussion was over, the group continued to talk about race, and it was interesting to hear the questions the white women had for the black women. Questions like, “Did the movie make you angry at us?” “Do you prefer to be called black or African American?” “Does the n-word sting?”
These experiences stood out to me because they signaled a changing of the guard in the South. Not long ago, we wouldn’t talk about race in closed circles, and we definitely wouldn’t talk about them in public. I am happy that we are moving toward a community where we feel free and comfortable enough to share our thoughts and ask tough questions with the common goal of making cross-cultural understanding and respect the norm. It gives me hope that the fist-in-the-air social activist that lives inside of me will not perish, but will have an impact on this community today and for years to come.
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