By that, I’m not saying I will have arrived, become perfect, and thus will deserve to get into Heaven—not even after a thousand years. But apparently, God thinks it’s good for us to come smack up against our ignorance, stupidity, and foulness for a while in this life so we we’ll appreciate His perfection all the more in the life to come.
I have a friend of the New Age persuasion who does believe in the perfectibility of human beings. We had a conversation a while back about racism, in which I said everyone’s prejudiced to one degree or another. He got quite irate and said, “Hey, speak for yourself!” He claimed to be completely free of this fault.
But I know I’m right. No one reaches perfection in any aspect of his being. Not in this life. Whether I like it or not, I’m a racist to one degree or another. But I have come a long way through the years as God continues to work on me.
My first teacher on the subject of race was a relative (God rest her soul). The lesson came when I was five or six and as a treat, she took me to shop at the Ben Franklin store. When we got out of the car, she called my attention to some people standing on the sidewalk across the street. “See those niggers over there,” she whispered. “Watch out. They’ll cut your ears off if they ever hear you call them nigger.” The sad thing is, I think my aunt was really trying to help me.
It was the first time I’d heard the “N” word, and taking her teaching as Gospel truth, I solemnly promised never to use that word. For so many years I took it as the literal truth. My aunt’s anxiety was transmitted to me, but here’s the funny part: I couldn’t distinguish those people on the sidewalk from anyone else. I remember being so confused.
My racist education continued in the small rural town where I grew up. I don’t remember anyone slinging racial slurs in the elementary school, but maybe the subject of race never came up because the school was completely 100% bona fide white. My first experience meeting and speaking to a minority came when I reached high school in the late 1960s and was surprised to find four or five African-American students there. During that time, the news on TV was filled with stories about race riots in cities across the country, including nearby East St. Louis. I wondered (a bit indignantly) why those Negroes were so angry. After all, Lincoln had emancipated them, hadn’t he? The Negroes in our school seemed happy. Of course some of them seemed overly anxious to please and the rest just kept their heads down and mouths shut and worked on being invisible.
The African-American students at my high school never mentioned any reasons for discontent, and our teachers were completely silent about race issues. The rumor that Dr. Martin Luther King was a Communist made its way into discussions among students and around the family dinner table. And when he was assassinated, while we didn’t rejoice, we were relieved he wouldn’t be able to spread violence and his evil doctrines any more. I managed to graduate from high school and get on with adult life without ever once hearing anything about Jim Crow, disenfranchisement, “separate, but equal” or any of the other abominations the black community suffered through.
It wasn’t until I went to college that my ignorance began to be chipped away by the power of the written word. I learned a valuable lesson about the importance of using primary sources when I read Martin Luther King’s “Letters from a Birmingham Jail.” With no trumped up rumors and slanted newscasts between the writer and the reader, the truth came shining through on the page. I was astounded by his logic and moved to tears by his eloquence and gentleness. I decided that if he was a Communist, then I was an astronaut.
Listen to a dramatic reading of Letters from a Birmingham Jail.
Later my brain was exercised with the biographies of Frederick Douglas, George Washington Carver, and Booker T. Washington. Other books in the curriculum for this white woman’s continuing education were To Kill a Mockingbird and Black Like Me and Growing up Black and The Emancipation of Robert Sadler and Dick Gregory’s autobiography Nigger and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
The written word had made a powerful impact on my thinking, and I took that lesson into the classroom when I became an English teacher at other small rural, all white schools. I wish I could report that my students were much more sophisticated in their thinking than I had been at that age. The majority of them probably were, but I’m sad to say that in virtually every class that I taught To Kill a Mockingbird and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, (much less mentioned Black History Month) two questions inevitably would be raised by students:
1. Why do we have to learn this? After all we don’t have any African-American students at our school.
2. Aren’t we the ones being discriminated against now, and isn’t everything hunky dory for Blacks now?
Their attitude caused me to shed a tear or two, but also to be reminded of how much my own sinfulness causes God to sorrow. But like Martin Luther King,
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
In other words, I long for the day when all God’s children will be freed from the bondage of ignorance and sin. On that day, we’ll be past all the striving and--with equal access—turn our attention to where it should have been all along, on God’s glory.