I did not go to school with black kids until I was in high school. All of my elementary years and middle school years were spent surrounded by “Anglo-Americans”, with the exception of a couple of years spent going to school in Hawaii, where oddly enough, I was the minority kid.
I had to learn to overcome my own cultural racism. My racism was most evident in my fears, not my words. It was in what I thought in my heart, not about the words I hurled at people.
I was taught to be afraid of black people, particularly black men. So I feared black men for much of my growing up years, and I stayed afraid of black men until I was forced by federal law to attend school with blacks during my sophomore year of high school. Prior to that, I had little to no contact with black people, other than Thelma, our maid and babysitter. (Yes, even those of us living in trailers had hired help).
At Columbus High I had my very first male black teacher. Mr. Dozier taught art. A man of imposing size, like a former defensive lineman, Mr. Dozier had a charming sense of humor, a keen eye, and a completely non-threatening manner about him, unless you got on his bad side, which I never did. I was nowhere near his favorite student but he was kind to me. He treated me with dignity and demanded I treat him that way, too. He never preached at us or railed at us, even though those were perilous days, indeed.
White parents were storming the school board meetings, angrily protesting the “mixing of the races.” Fist-fights were not uncommon among black and white students. Knives were pulled and used to threaten one another. The student parking lot was a danger zone. One of those fights involved me and a classmate, a black boy who threatened to throw me out of the 2nd floor window and terrified Ms. Patch so badly she literally froze, unsure of how to stop it. That moment got us sent to the principal’s office. Mr. Dollar spoke to us alone. I have no idea what he said to the boy, but Mr. Dollar made noises about suspending me.
It would not be the last time I got in trouble at CHS, but it was the moment I made a decision that changed the way I thought about the cultural war. Mama had not wanted me to attend an “integrated” school. She wanted to send me off to a private girls school in Virginia, the way she had done with my brother when she sent him off to Lyman Ward Military Academy in Alabama. I knew if Mr. Dollar made that call to my mother, I would be yanked from CHS and sent off to that private girls school.
So I told Mr. Dollar I was the one who instigated the fight. I begged him not to suspend me and not to call my mother. I don’t think he really wanted to call her, so he pretended that it was my decision. He gave me detention, instead. After the “talk”, I was allowed to go to the girls bathroom to wash my face and calm down. A black girl, probably a senior, was running a pick through her fro. I leaned over the sink and splashed cold water on my face, my neck, where there was a smarting redness, left by the classmate who had grabbed me by the neck and dragged me across the room, after I had slapped him for touching my hair.
What happened to you? the girl inquired.
So I told her.
She did not laugh. In all seriousness, she admonished me, “Girl, don’t you know to never slap a black man?”
If I didn’t know it prior, I certainly learned it.
It’s odd, isn’t it? You would think I would become more fearful of black males after that encounter. Instead, it was just the opposite. I didn’t fear black people of any gender any more after that. I was more afraid of my mother finding out, and terrified that I would be forced to live in a lily-white world behind some gilded-gate.
I have girlfriends who have never overcome their fear of black men. It saddens me that they have spent their entire lives embedded in a racist culture that they can’t, or don’t even try to extricate themselves from. And they don’t all live in the South. Many of them live in an all-white Evangelical culture in the Pacific Northwest. A culture in which they never learned to claim their own voice. A culture in which they have handed over their power to their fears. A culture in which they are taught that their rightful role is to be subjugated to a system of patriarchal rule.
Driving home from Sisters Movie House last night, I was weeping so hard I had a difficult time breathing. The floodgates broke open earlier during a scene in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman when Harry Belafonte’s character recounts the true story of 17-year old Jesse Washington’s brutal lynching.
Some years ago, while visiting the King Center in Atlanta, I took my kids to see an exhibit of lynching photographs. Having grown up in Oregon, they were far removed from a racist history that had been the backdrop of my youth. The images we saw that day, some of them postcards sold to proud whites, haunt me yet. So Belafonte’s recounting of the lynching revived those images once more.
Tim and I sat in dark silence long after the movie ended. Nearly everyone walked out as if in a funeral procession.
It feels like that nearly daily to me, that I am observing the funeral procession of democratic ideas, the death of all that is moral and humane and good about America.
For many years, I had thought that all that ugly racism that was so common in the Georgia of my youth had been overcome. I thought we had all become a better people than that. But Spike Lee’s film makes it clear, as my historian husband remarked, “We have been deluding ourselves.”
We would be fools to continue to deny the truth that BlacKkKlansman makes so evident: A legion of racist demons are now running this country.
We can no longer afford to delude ourselves.
If we are to fear anyone, it should be the racists who cloak themselves in the robes of Jesus while waving the American Flag, and declaring themselves “True Patriots.”
Karen Spears Zacharias is a Gold Star daughter and author of After the Flag has been Folded, (HarperCollins).
Survey sent out by GOP this week to constituents.