(Originally published in the Edge of Faith‘s premiere issue, February 2017)
The path to reconciliation must begin with the act of confession.—Soon-Chan Rah1
In the summer of 1960 I was eight years old and lived in Little Rock, Arkansas. Most summers I would spend a month or more at my grandparents’ house in Wilmar, a small, south Arkansas town in Drew County known as “The Home of Tall Pines and Pink Tomatoes.” The soil was red and sandy, and we were near enough to the Louisiana border to have Spanish Moss lend its distinctive grayish-green mystery as it lurked, hanging from the branches of large, live oak trees. The humidity was always on the edge of bursting into rain; the water was so soft you could never quite dry off or feel clean after a bath. I can still taste the faint combination of salt and pine sap in the air.
Each day I woke to the sound of multiple roosters crowing. I got out of bed to help my grandmother and great-grandmother feed the chickens; collect the eggs; dust the house; make biscuits, cakes and pies; and look forward to having a Pepsi-and-vanilla-ice-cream-float every day at 10:00 am and again at 3:00 pm. They called it a Tea Party. Sometimes I would roam the gravel pits and the pine woods with my cousins, playing cowboys and Indians or re-enacting famous battles from the Civil War, especially those few battles that the Confederate Rebels actually won. At night I slept in the same lumpy bed in the same room that my father and his two brothers grew up in. I read Tom Swift novels and Hardy Boys mysteries by flashlight under the covers.
Around 5:00 pm every day I would climb in the old Ford pickup truck and ride with my grandfather a couple of miles to the farm so we could feed the cattle. I always took my treasured pocket knife. Cutting the twine on bales of hay stored in the loft and tossing it down to the cattle feeders made me feel like a real ranch-hand, maybe even a real cowboy. Once in a while I would accompany him to the “bank” he owned, although I never felt like a real banker. The word “bank” is in quotes because it wasn’t a real bank. The technical name was “exchange and trust,” a forerunner of the modern savings and loan. He couldn’t loan money, but he could keep it for people in his cavernous, walk-in safe. I guess he was pretty good at double-entry bookkeeping.
Nonetheless, he was known as the town’s banker, and the water commissioner, and the school superintendent, and I think he was even mayor for a time. Everyone called him Mr. Dick. When he died they found a little pocket ledger with a list of initials and dollar amounts next to them. The best guess is that he did loan money—his own. A stern father to his sons, he must have been generous to a fault with everyone else.
The town was built alongside a single highway that ran east and west. Railroad tracks ran parallel to the highway about fifty yards to the south. They had a Methodist, Baptist and a Presbyterian Church and my grandfather attended all three. They had the “bank,” two general/feed stores, a gas station, a school, a flour mill with a couple of grain silos, a sawmill with endless mountains of pine wood chips, and a United States Post Office.
My grandfather’s brother was postmaster. In a town of 500 people our family was about as privileged as you could get.
There was also the Star Café, one of my grandfather’s less than successful entrepreneurial ventures, which may have been a less than transparent attempt to get my great-grandmother out of the house and keep her busy. A little mother-in-law drama was about all the drama they had. Except for the night when the flour mill burned down there wasn’t a lot of excitement. Idyllic.
500 people. As near as I can tell, about 300 of them were black. Sixty percent. You can do the math. You already know where the black people lived—south of the railroad tracks in little shacks and pre-fabricated houses. Some of the white folks had pre-fab homes as well, and some lived on the other side of the tracks, but they also tended to have acreage around their houses where they could grow tomatoes to sell to the grocery chains and the Campbell Soup folks in the county seat, and pine trees they could harvest every 15 or 20 years for big money. That kind of real estate was rare for black residents, if it existed at all.
One very slow moving afternoon I was hanging out with a couple of the local kids when one of them suggested we play “Chuck Rocks at the N–––––s.” Yes, this was Arkansas, 1960. He used the word.
We gathered our ammunition—small, round, gravel rocks from the driveway. Hiding behind the two-story mother-in-law house in the back of my grandparent’s home, we would quickly sneak out and launch a volley across the railroad tracks onto the roof of the small, pink, pre-fab house on the other side. Quickly retreating to our hiding place we would peek around the corner to check the results. The first couple of times, nothing happened. The rocks all fell short or on the roof and it seemed that nobody noticed.
So we did it again. After a couple of volleys a Very Large Black Man came out on the stoop and looked around. Seeing nothing he went back in. Still, the fact that we had elicited that reaction was success to us. Congratulating ourselves on a mission accomplished we wandered off to other adventures.
The thrill of doing something we knew to be completely wrong was more enticing than eight-year-old boys could stand. Even more thrilling was the fact that we seemed to have gotten away with it. So naturally we did it again. And again. For several days
in a row we played our new game, waiting for the increasingly puzzled (we thought), Very Large Black Man to come out on the stoop, look around and go back inside.
Then we would quit. We never considered what would happen if we broke a window. The possibility that someone might get hurt didn’t enter our minds.
Of course, nobody was fooled. The people in the house figured out what was going on almost immediately. The deep tragedy is that it took several days for them to do something about it. Mr. Dick was known to be “good to the black folks,” but to directly challenge him regarding the behavior of his grandson and two other white kids was a violation of the deeply embedded but unwritten protocols of the existing social order. When white people of the time thought about it—something they seldom did—they merely understood those protocols as the way the world is supposed to be. God’s Good Order. Today we call it systemic racism and that is not too harsh a label.
One afternoon, sitting in the breezeway, likely enjoying a round of Pepsi floats, we saw the Very Large Black Man walking across the railroad tracks into my grandparents back yard, seeming to grow Larger with every step. The game was over. We were busted. Before he reached the back door to ask if he could speak with Mr. Dick, my two co-conspirators made a quick exit out the front door. Hiding, I watched from a distance as the two men talked though I could not hear what they were saying. I didn’t really need to know; even an eight-year-old has a conscience. I braced myself for the consequences.
Aside from a stern lecture from my grandfather, repeated in a slightly gentler fashion by my grandmother, and then repeated again a couple of weeks later when my parents showed up to take me back home to Little Rock, there were no real consequences beyond being “grounded” for a few days. I have searched my memory to see if, at the very least, they made me go apologize to the Very Large Black Man and his family, but I don’t think so.
Later that year, in December, about a week away from my ninth birthday, my mother, my younger sister, and I were getting gasoline at a little filling station on the southeast side of downtown Little Rock. Southeast Little Rock was “colored,” as they called it in those days, perhaps even intending politeness. The morning was overcast but the haze was beginning to break up. We were only three years removed from the day when nine frightened but courageous black students attempted to integrate Central High School just a few blocks away. The “Little Rock Nine,” as they came to be called, faced an angry mob barring their entrance. They also faced the Arkansas National Guard, which had been called out by Governor Orval Faubus, to “keep the peace.” The Guard was clearly there to support the mob and bar the door to the schoolhouse. The nine black students were turned away. Two weeks later they were admitted, but only after President Eisenhower federalized the Guard and sent 1,200 paratroopers to the campus to escort them up the steps of the school. Paratroopers sounds a little theatrical. I’m pretty sure they showed up in Jeeps and trucks. Either way, Eisenhower made his point.
Sheltered in the growing suburbs of northwest Little Rock—read: white flight—the only knowledge I had of the standoff was overhearing my father on the phone telling my out-of-state uncle that we didn’t really know anything more about it than he did. We got our news from the paper and the Huntley-Brinkley Report just like everyone else in America.
Aside from housekeepers, gardeners and the occasional “lawn-jockey” statue—yes, it was that kind of neighborhood—African-Americans did not exist in my world. The whole environment was a study in Jim Crow reality. Even the more liberal members of the community believed separate-but-equal was an honorable, even Christian, position—reflective of divine intentionality. This filling station was run, and likely owned, by a white man. Black neighborhood. White-owned business. God’s Good Order.
Mom (we called her Nana) pulled up next to the gas pump. The car was a 1955 Pontiac Star Chief, a chrome appointed behemoth with enough presence to herald my father’s arrival into middle management, yet not so garish as to outshine the Rocket 88 Oldsmobile driven by his boss. Status was a finely tuned machine in those days.
Nana and I climbed out of the car while my sister sat in the back seat fascinated with her Chatty Cathy talking doll. Even today Chatty Cathy is described on Wikipedia as a “fanciful depiction of a human being…a five-year-old Caucasian girl…blonde hair in a short bobbed style and blue eyes.” [Italics added.] It was not until 1962 that Mattel discovered there were people of other colors. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that it was not until 1962 that Mattel discovered that there were markets made up of people of other colors ready to part with their hard-earned money. I wonder that rarity does not explain why collectible Chatty Cathy dolls on eBay tend to be perceived as more valuable if they have the “ghostly white” color found on some models from 1964 bearing a “Patented in Canada” marking.
Nana went inside the station and waited to pay while I watched the attendant fill the tank. This was long before the days of self-service at the “convenience” store. Fascinated with the mechanics of fueling the car and secretly enjoying the mysterious fumes of the gasoline, I watched the friendly, grease-covered, Andy Griffith look-alike perform his liturgy. While the gasoline pumped and I tasted the air, he lifted the hood, pulled out the dipstick, wiped off the end, reinserted it into the pipe, pulled it out again, and inspected the now, oil-covered tip. With a knowing nod of the head and a wink in my general direction, he returned the dipstick for a second time to its proper place in the natural order of auto-mechanical physics and lowered the hood. Then he topped off the air-pressure in the tires and cleaned the windshield.
What happened next was completely outside the realm of the natural order for a nine-year-old white kid from Little Rock, Arkansas in 1960. A boy from the neighborhood, about my age, walked up to me and tried to strike up a conversation. It seems it was his birthday. He was nine years old, very proud of that fact, and he asked me if I knew anyone else who was nine years old. I backed away from him in silence trying to avert my eyes, just wishing he would go away. Something about being the same age as this kid was disturbing. I was not usually that shy, but I didn’t respond to his questions.
He was black. The only black people I knew about (aside from the aforementioned service class) were the people from the other side of the tracks in my grandparents’ south Arkansas town. My recent, narrow escape from justice was fresh on my mind. What I did know of black people I knew only from a distance. I had heard stories—stories in which men regularly referred to dark-skinned human beings by using the “N-word” and otherwise genteel women referred to them using the condescendingly polite but equally profane term, “Nigra.” “Don’t let them fool you,” I was told, “they are not the same as us. They’re okay as long as they stay in their own place, on their own side of the tracks, but you definitely don’t want one marrying your sister.”
He persisted. Like a black Chatty Cathy doll that could pull its own string, he continued to pepper me with questions, which I continued not to answer. “What’s your name? How old are you? I’m nine years old. Do you know anyone who is nine years old? Is that your sister in the car? How old is she? Is she nine years old.”
I was pretty certain that the only appropriate response for a child of my “station” was to ignore him. So I did. Nervously and completely unsure of what he might do. You just never know.
Nana watched the whole encounter from the station window.
My mother was raised in east Texas. The word “hardscrabble” was invented to describe her Depression-era childhood. In her poverty she always felt “less than.” She spoke often of the rare treat of going to see a motion-picture with her father. Admission was nine cents. She would pray that her dad did not need to keep the extra penny so she could buy a Tootsie Roll. I was always reminded of that story when I took my sons to see the latest superhero movie and I had to spend over $20 for two drinks and a popcorn. While some poverty is real, some is just a first-world problem.
The outsider mindset solidified when she was fourteen. Her parents divorced and she had to quit school to help support the family. Ironically she took a job in a movie theater. At the time, divorce carried an unredeemable social stigma, not merely for the divorced couple, but also for their children. There were no mommy blogs or support groups for single mothers or classes to help the newly-divorced find their way back to normalcy. Normalcy was for other people. To be touched by divorce in those days was to be diminished as a human being, to be not quite a whole person. She could genuinely empathize with someone who, by popular opinion, political compromise and Constitutional provision, was considered to be only 3/5th of a human person—at least until the chicanery of the 13th Amendment. Besides, she was, or so she believed, part Native American, another aggrieved group. That turns out to be mostly true, but not Cherokee as she hoped. A test of my DNA reveals that she was descended from Mexican ancestry and from Cree Indians—darker-skinned Canadians.
As I backed away from the frightening specter of a smiling, friendly, nine-year old black child, Nana walked up behind me. Bumping into her I suddenly felt trapped. With the Pontiac Star Chief on one side and the gasoline pump on the other, she had cut off my only avenue of escape. Putting her hand firmly on my shoulder, she asked, “Are you going to answer his question?”
I couldn’t get words out of my mouth. I stammered and stuttered in pretty much the same way I had when a few years earlier I had a face-to-face encounter with a garden snake on my grandmother’s front porch. Once my grandmother decrypted my message she took a well-sharpened hoe from the shed out back and summarily dispatched the poor snake.
But my mother was not carrying a garden hoe and this black kid, whatever my misgivings, was no snake. Nana was not coming to my rescue, at least not in the way I hoped. Instead, she struck up a surprisingly genial conversation with this dark, mysterious, and intimidating (at least to me) stranger, this pre-adolescent representative of a tribe that the author of my family genealogy (circa 1952, Blue Mountain, Mississippi) described as the “people of Ham.” It must be true; it’s in a professionaly printed, hardback book with gold foil embossing on the cover and coated stock on the interior. Although, to be honest, the foil has pretty much worn off now.
That genealogy miraculously manages to trace our family origins all the way back to one of Noah’s sons. Impressive, given the fact that the riches of Internet research did not exist in 1952, much less Ancestry.com. Yet he was sufficiently persuaded of our roots to write, “When Japheth stepped out of the Ark and his father delivered that prophecy [Cursed be Canaan…God shall enlarge Japheth…and Canaan will be his servant… Genesis 9:24-29], there rose a kind of Gulf stream of history carrying the promise of the gospel, numerical enlargement and superiority over the people of Ham. These latter are the Egyptians, Ethiopians, colored races, etc.”
Don’t be overly troubled by that “superiority over the…colored races, etc.” thing. According to the author, himself a well-educated Presbyterian pastor, at least one prominent member of our lineage “led family worship in his home” and “had a sense of responsibility that extended to his family and slaves alike.” So I guess that makes it all okay, right? God’s Good Order.
Of course, as a nine-year-old I knew nothing of family history and it was not until many years later that my mother discovered a copy of the will of the first member of my lineage to settle in America in a dusty county courthouse in South Carolina. It is dated February 2, 1837. In the inventory of his property (pictured above) you will find:
1 Negro man, Lewis$1,000.00
Beck & 2 Children$1,506.00
Right there, categorically, yet almost casually listed among the farm implements, the household items, the cows and horses and chickens, the jugs of cider and vinegar, and the lard, are five people. Five human beings. And those dollar values? That is what they sold for at auction. Their original valuation was less than $1100.00 all together. When the folks in the HR department talk about the importance of investing in “human capital” it sends a shiver down my spine.
What I did know at the age of nine was entitlement. Not consciously, it was merely something I inherited from my ancestors and absorbed from the culture of the 1950s in these United States of America, the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave,” and the southern state of Arkansas, the “Land of Opportunity” for some folks—those fortunate enough to suffer from a modest level of melanin deficiency. Somehow, without even realizing it I had fallen prey, as had much of white America, to the “curse of Ham” myth. There is no truth to, and certainly no Biblical support for, the idea that dark-skinned human beings are that way due to a so-called “curse of Ham.” Yet, thanks to a lot of bad teaching and the endorsement of the once nearly ubiquitous Scofield Bible, this false belief dominated much of American theology of the past two centuries and even persists in a few places today. As Dr. Tony Evans puts it, “Myths don’t need facts, they just need supporters.”2
I didn’t need facts. I didn’t even need conscious awareness of my inherited prejudice.
I just knew there was something unusual about my mother talking with this boy.
Nana smiled at him and offered that I was almost nine years old. Vigorously prompting me at the elbow, she told me to shake his hand, which I did very cautiously. It was no fist bump or interlocking thumbs, “bring-it-in,” kind of “bro-hug.” Instead it was typical of what two nine-year-old boys almost always do—a weak, tentative grip, shy and uncertain. What my father would have called “a limp fish.” It ended as quickly as it began.
But as our hands touched I discovered something I had not known before. Black skin feels like white skin. It’s the same thing. Who knew? Epiphany! Somehow that was comforting to me and although I still couldn’t quite hold up my end of the conversation, I did stammer something about my birthday as we got in the car to leave.
My new-found, black best friend looked at me with warranted suspicion and probably wondered why I had been so distant. We waved at each other as the car pulled out of the gas station and I felt different—somehow forgiven even for the egregious sin of rock-chucking the previous summer. My nearly nine-year-old self knew intuitively that my mother had just given me a gift—a gift that I must pass on to my own children and they in turn, to their children—a legacy of infinitely more value than that cloth-covered family geneaology with the faded gold foil. I felt like I had entered a new world—one in which God’s Truly Good Order was being restored.
1 Soon-Chan Rah, (2009) p. 71, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press
2 Evans, Tony (2015-09-24). Oneness Embraced: Reconciliation, the Kingdom, and How We are Stronger Together Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.