Saturday, December 8, 2007

Mary 1

Dear Kaitlin, When I was a child, I lived in a world where the black part of the population was treated unjustly, and shut away from any sort of normal existence. Evidence was all around me, "Whites Only" signs were posted in the windows of some of my favorite stores. No black people lived near me, no black children attended my elementary school. Blacks sat in the back of busses.

I was carefully taught things of lesser importance like how proper girls were expected to behave, but no one ever explained to me why this strange situation existed. Our family had been Presbyterians for centuries, so I attended church twice every Sunday with my sister and parents. I had mastered the Shorter Catachism, though not without some difficulty. So I understood how Jesus expected us to behave. He loved all His people, and expected His followers, currently inhabiting the earth, to do the same. Clearly, this meant that racism was wrong. How then could so many practicing Christians be perfectly comfortable with racism and its obvious injustice? I found no answer.

As I grew as bit older, I learned more about the issue from actual experience. I had never actually met a black person until one Monday morning when Mary came to our house. My mother explained that Mary was our "colored girl." She would come once of week to clean and iron. Mary was not too much taller than I was. She had very dark skin, and beautiful brown eyes. Still, her warm smile couldn't overcome the fear I felt being so close to a black person for the first time. As I was a very shy child, I ran from almost everyone. So at first opportunity, I ran away from this frightening newcomer into my life.

My favorite hiding place was in the dark space between a large honeysuckle bush and the back wall of my piano room. Few people could find me there, but I couldn't fool Mary. For some reason, she seemed to want to be my friend and followed me, uncovering my hiding place in no time. Then patiently she coaxed me out and began to ease my fear.

In no time, the Mondays that Mary came to our house became the highlight of my week. She allowed me to follow her about as she worked, and tirelessly answered all my questions. Her patience was a great gift, as my mother sent me to my room if I pestered her too much. Before I recognized what was happening, Mary had become my special friend.

Knowing Mary changed everything. I hated to think that Mary would be subject to the cruelties of racism. I wanted the government and the ministers of all the churches to make sure that racism would end and that Mary would be safe and happy.

I hated being too young and too insignificant to help make life better for Mary. However much I might want to do something important, I couldn't figure out anything one small, timid little girl could do.

I thought about this a lot, and finally came to understand that there was something that I could do for Mary, and all the Marys that I didn't know. I could speak up against racism whenever I came upon it.

My opportunity came all too soon. One day I was walking home from school and noticed several neighborhood boys clustered on the sidewalk ahead of me. They were taunting another for being a "Nigger lover." This was not the first time I had heard those horrid words, it was a common schoolyard taunt. But it was the first time, since I had come to know Mary. I knew exactly what I needed to do. I needed to step in and tell them that saying those words was wrong. As I narrowed the gap between us, I formed the words I wanted to say in my mind.

The boys turned their angry faces from their victim toward me, as I came near. I knew that the next time they repeated the epithet, it would be directed toward me. Fear swept over me, courage and resolution imploded. I turned quickly and ran up the hill toward home and safety.

I have never forgotten the sting of failure though it occurred many years ago. I had been too cowardly to stand against racism, to act as duty and religious beliefs demanded. But worst of all, I had failed my friend.

During the intervening years, racism has diminished. Blacks can now vote, and hold positions of authority and influence. And now miracle of miracles, a inspiring black leader is seeking to become President of the United States. I hope that Mary has lived to see this day.
Love, Gram

1 comment:

Bill Harshaw said...

In the 1940's and 50's I lived in a world where blacks were almost non-existent. It was before we had TV (not that there were any blacks on TV, except a few rabble rousers in the South in the late 50's). In the movies the first black I remember seeing was Uncle Remus in Disney's Song of the South. That gave a mixed message--he was the wise old man teaching the young boy the stratagems of B'rer Rabbit, but he also talked funny and cackled. I think the message I took away was that brains outdid brawn, but that may be liberal correctness.

In real life there was the occasional black on the streets of Binghamton, NY (probably about 2 percent black). But we only went to town every few months.

I did learn, somewhere, not to use either the "n" word, or the "c" word--"Negro" was the appropriate term.