While I was on my cruise, I continued reflecting and writing every day of the cruise. For those interested, I will be posting two entries per day for the next five days to include these thoughts here on my blog.
We had to get up at 5:45 this morning in order to make it to New Orleans in time to board our cruise ship. I, thankfully, woke up at 5:40, with my alarm set for 5:45. I say “thankfully” because my alarm was about as silent as, well, silence. It would not have awoken us, and we would have not made it to the boat before it embarked. And that would have been a colossal waste of money.
As we drove from West Memphis, Arkansas to New Orleans, we stopped for gas somewhere in northeast Mississippi. History is thick in the southeastern states. It fills the air. There are stories here that are like dark whispers floating by your ear, about as silent as my alarm this morning. The whispers show up in towns named after the indigenous people who inhabited this country before they were slaughtered and/or moved west by the pioneers.
There was a whisper this morning at the gas station, too. As I was leaving the gas station, there was a woman also planning to leave that I noticed and awkwardly held the door for. As I stood there holding open the door, a black man with a yellow South Pole t-shirt tucked into his khaki pants was walking towards the door to enter the gas station. When the woman exited, she walked past me with a scowl on her face. I took the scowl personally and stood there staring at her as she walked past me. I got so distracted by her ungratefulness towards my chivalry, that I didn’t notice that I let the door close on the man who was trying to enter the gas station.
“Thank you, suh”.
I snapped out of my judgment of the woman to notice I had let the door shut on the black man. I apologized to him for my actions, and explained that I was so caught off guard by the ungrateful woman that I didn’t know that I had let the door shut on him. I touched his shoulder. I said, “I’m so sorry.” He said something like, “No, I get it,” and walked into the gas station. The whisper of racism swept by.
See, this man, the one in the South Pole t-shirt, perceived something was happening that was not indeed happening. He perceived that I had held the door for the white lady but let it shut on him, the black man. He perceived that I was treating him as less than equal. Less than human. This whisper, of slavery and inequality and civil rights and everything that paints the culture of Mississippi, was screaming in this man’s ear. Maybe it does every day. But one thing I know for sure, he was judging me to be as racist as he is towards me.
So, I was being judged by the black man while I was judging a white woman simultaneously. And neither of us were/are justified. We are just a couple of Pharisees, shocked at the behavior of others. And our shock was unfounded (I am confident there was something else going on for the woman other than sheer awfulness of nature).
I hope that my apology had some sort of healing effect on the man who thought I was being racist in my actions. That whisper of violence, bigotry, and oppression is so thick in the south that it becomes an unfortunate framework for relationships. I saw that as an outsider this morning. And I can’t imagine it being an everyday battle, at least of perception. I feel bad that I may have reinforced some bad anthropology for this man today. But I know its not the only truth. I know that there is still hope for reconciliation. I know that the truth is told more in the apology than in my unfortunate actions. And I suspect that, if more of us acted more human-ly towards one another, some real healing and reconciliation might occur, however small.