Race: An Unwelcome Guest in the Room

In his thoughtful article, “Can My Children Be Friends with White People?” in the New York Times recently, Ekow N. Yankah, with Yeshiva Law School, wrote poignantly of his heartbreak and loss of trust in this fractured political climate. I, too, am concerned that we tell our children – and grandchildren – that the world is broken beyond repair and then say we expect them to fix everything when they take over one day, but with no roadmap because we have lost our way.

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The intimate dinner party was one of those well-intended affairs peculiar to the getting-to-know-you or let’s-reconnect phase in a relationship. The conversation, like the meal, was designed to be spicy but easily digestible.  Later we all moved from the round glass table to our living room with drinks, curled up on the sofa and floor cushions, and took turns strategically trolling through our catalog of experiences hunting for stories and observations that would resonate without rubbing anyone the wrong way.

The final sign of a successful evening was coming soon. There would be a tinge of regret underscoring the start of the long goodbye. An inner nod confirmed that simpatico had been achieved at the gathering.  Then suddenly, something surfaced, and flitted by.

You know the feeling.

I tried not to react or change my tone of voice when I detected the first sense of it, like a wayward lash in the corner of the eye. But it was there all right, inching across the coffee table, weaving through the carpet, boldly crawling into our midst like it couldn’t be caught.

A guest started screaming, scrambled to her feet in distress, threatened to leave. But, I’d encountered this type of intruder many times over the years. This one was formidable, admittedly, and so obvious that it was do-or-die time to spring into action.  Instinctively I reached for a shoe to hit it hard – then reconsidered. Would that just further rattle the guests and ruin any hope of gathering together again?  If I did, would I be accused of overreacting? If I didn’t, would it seem like I wasn’t aware, or didn’t care?

Such are the dilemmas in today’s uneasy times.

This was a scene where the varmint was real and identifiable, but interracial relations are also a lot like that.

Daily, we are hit with examples of racism and bigotry. They are intruders that creep into our awareness and assault our consciousness. No thinking person would not be outraged. No feeling person would not be discouraged. No disparaged minority would not be saddened, fearful and dismayed.

In his thoughtful article, “Can My Children Be Friends with White People?” in the New York Times recently, Ekow N. Yankah, with Yeshiva Law School, wrote poignantly of his heartbreak and loss of trust in this fractured political climate. I am concerned that we tell our children – and grandchildren – that the world is broken beyond repair and then say we expect them to fix everything when they take over one day, but with no roadmap because we have lost our way.

Challenging racism is difficult. Historically, it adapts to the era, taking on multiple, often conflictive forms. Language and images. Class inequalities. Claims of being color blind and suffering reverse discrimination. When bigotry periodically appears to slink underground, seems to dissipate, then rebounds with ferocity like we’re seeing now, we start to believe that no progress has been made. Scholars, however, will tell you that’s the cyclical process.   

Living in the South, I’ve had personal encounters with this type of intruder in various ways over the years – the crawling and the walking kind. With race, it was a climate of apartheid and physical danger in segregation; a struggle with the gap in communicating our experiences that emerged with integration; then research, interviews and books about the topic, academic study, media productions, and public dialogues. People would complain about suffering from racial fatigue then demand that I tell them why the problem wasn’t fixed.

That’s why I was reminded of the dinner party hosted so long ago and how we are social animals. When we sense something encroaching on us that doesn’t belong, the survival instinct kicks in.

I had to think quickly, otherwise the gathering would end.

Growing up, we lived in an aging apartment with sketchy neighbors where you could never be completely safe from an infestation and we lived in a climate where heat was more of the villain than our cleanliness. So, I learned that there is a hierarchy to these trespassers. You can rank them by size. The smaller ones are pesky, always darting around and in the way, and you need to spray often or else they get out of hand and spread. The larger ones are slower but relentless, and often harder to catch out in the open. You can set traps and call in professionals, but the truth is that these are ancient, primordial creatures, around as long as humankind. They are survivors, too.

So we have to keep coming up with new strategies that evolve over time, in addition to the direct attacks.   

If you have some strongly held beliefs that serve humanity, now is the time to act on them. If you are inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision, work towards it. His metaphoric “dream” was not some nirvana: it was a glimpse of hope and possibility in the aftermath of a battle – a breather before the next mountain climb. No one stays effective in the long run who is always operating in the fight-and-die mode.    

For some in my generation advancing age has become a softener of the hardened places, pulling us away from the headlines to re-access. The loss of a loved one or a career. Financial crisis or divorce. Severe health challenges. They all tend to awaken us to the commonalities of our human frailties.

I’d love to have some intimate dinner parties these days with people on the other side of the table where we could share some of our truths, even when they differ – as long as the essence of those truths did not wish others harm. I know these types of conversations about race are possible. In my Race and Change presentations we come together in dialogues like well-prepared meals and a guest list that continues to grow.

My personal life has become simple. The Southern background has prepared me well.

We were schooled from childhood to stay alert to the “us” or “them” nature of these intruders. They thrive on fear and revulsion. They test you, coming out when you least expect it, flying across the room as you chase them, and scurrying away to the corners of life until the light is turned on. Heck, they’ll run you crazy if you don’t watch out! To combat racism and bigotry you have to do the same – make them unwelcome in the room. Smart folks know to keep a can of spray nearby.

A Writer’s Therapy for the Racial Heart

Massage is a favorite pastime of mine, something I discovered well into my 40’s while wallowing in the discomfort of divorce, teenage childrearing, career changes and personal demons.  A friend took control one afternoon, roused me from under the covers pulled over my head, and deposited us both in separate rooms on therapists’ tables.  

When I am asked about the Race and Change presentations I do around the country today, sharing stories and encouraging dialogue across cultures and maintaining pragmatic optimism in discomforting, troubled times, I tell folks it can be a lot like my introductory massage experience.

I lay there, at first, full of tensions but wary, fearing an onslaught of pain.  Instead, I felt the slow stages of release urged on by the kneading of healing hands. When the mind won’t stop spinning and the spirit is low, sometimes you’re willing to try something new just to step away for awhile and escape – in a healthy way.

Over the decades some of my best thinking – and creating – have emerged in moments of submission and retreat, even as aging takes a toll.

“Clear the knots in my thighs and legs with extra elbow and forearm pressure.”

“My tight shoulders need some deep tissue work.”  

Now, before I undress for a massage I dole out directions.  During the intimacy of these encounters, conversations may drift into sensitive areas not usually traversed between strangers.  One massage therapist confides that she wants to write her story to help others, but never felt smart enough in that area.  Another ponders the messiness of life and why God allows so much trouble in the world.  Another likes my smile and asks my age, and is surprised at the answer.  I tip her well.  But most times I prefer exchanges of the silent kind.  

With eyes closed, I am no longer concerned about superficialities. The wing-flapping upper arms fold in softly; the annoying pouch of stomach disappears.   And in this state, as the body submits, the senses communicate differently. Random imaginings slip in and out of my mind. An old smell will rise up, perhaps, conjured from a long ago memory.

Researchers on aging say that is one sense that decreases steadily after the age of 45, so I feel lucky that I’ve held onto a few: Witch hazel, strong as sour oranges, doused on my scraped and bruised skin as a child.  The sickly-sweet Apple Jack tobacco my grandfather chewed. My ex-husband’s Brut cologne lingering heavy in the room the morning after.  Sounds vacillate more with age, however.

I used to savor the murmurings of my son and daughter having sibling fun on the living room floor at my feet tuning into the whispered conspiracies and deciphering the rise and fall of contentment in their tones. Now, forget it. The volume on my televisions and phones must be set on high just to hear them and I still don’t get every word. As we age, our conversations become repetitive out of necessity. We start listening for the gist of things in life and accept that we may not ever discern it all.  
My taste buds, however, have rarely failed me – being a southerner, and all.

We’ve certainly have had to bite off some unsavory chunks of life, and swallow – hard historically, and we continue to be the symbolic epicenter of struggles against the country’s injustices today. But whatever doesn’t kill you can make you stronger, they say.  The trick is not to choke, and die.  

I grew up seeing boys flirt and moan over a “tasty dish” of a girl and grownups sashay around a room offering “a taste” with a bottle of booze in hand.  Every cooking woman has at least one recipe with a taste of some secret ingredient thrown in.  And in southern-speak, “a little taste” of something doesn’t ever mean just a little bit.  As we get older, however, those darn researchers on the brain have also found that we start to lose some of our taste sensations as well.  

I can accept that a slight decrease in taste buds comes with maturity.  We’re losing hair, bones, and bodily fluids in large quantities.  The tongue registers only four main tastes, anyway, and over time, maybe we need less of some of them, anyway.

Salty tears.

Bitter words.  

Sour  attitudes.  

The sweet memories, however, we might want to hold onto as long as we can.  

Other physical changes start showing up as well that seem to parallel our emotional journey.  Digestion becomes more difficult, perhaps making it harder for us to keep shoving some things down.  There may be a loss of teeth – so we don’t always get a good grip on things we love or things that need.  We have dryness in the mouth – from anxiety at times – and difficulty swallowing some of the repercussions of our actions.  But none of that should stop us from nurturing a hardy overall appetite for life.
In the massage room, a flute melody syncopated with raindrops, comes on in the background – or maybe I just become aware of it there.  I try to stay still but my foot flexes to the rhythm as the therapist’s fingers rub tenderness into a new group of muscles.

 I am reminded of a palm reader I met long ago who surveyed my hand with a similar insistent imprint.  I have a long lifeline, she said, starting high between the thumb and forefinger, arching downward, and disappearing just short of the wrist.  It lies just below the head and the heart lines in everyone’s hand.  She traced my deep brown crease like a trail in the sand.  But there are two lifelines, she said – not identical and not mirror opposites of each other, either.

 The left hand has the marks of the destiny we are born with; the right hand has the destiny we create.

After that, I started examining both of them closely when I thought about it, looking for the differences.  The line on my left was strong and steady and wide, a broad Master’s stroke. Years of lifting and carrying and clench-fisted blunders had not altered it at all, or not so that I could tell.  The right one seemed more delicately fashioned by comparison, although still well-defined.  In a couple of spots near the beginning, tinier lines appear like sharp branches or offshoots that surface briefly and then fade.  Another crosses much lower – a fine, distinct impression made just past the midway point.  Thin threads intersect and cross the head and heart, but the ones on the lifeline seem to be the most indelible.  They represent milestones, the palm reader said – turning points, shifts and changes that come with time.  
A shift in perspective.

That happens on the massage table and, hopefully, in the Race and Change presentations, too. After every session I know I feel a little lighter – in body and psyche – if just for a few hours.  

Back at home I may put on some jazz, or Brazilian music I can pat my foot to, or more likely, an inspirational CD. And, from time to time I’ll half-listen because my mind may wander.

But you can be sure the volume will be turned up loud so I can hear – and my neighbors may have to hear, too.

The Sisterhood of Only Children

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As an only child, sometimes I admit to being envious of people with siblings, especially later in life. How great it must be to grow old with someone who has known you almost from the start.

Sure, I was always affectionately called “the baby” who never had to share presents, clothes, or a parent’s attention while growing up.  As I made my way in the world I didn’t have the burden of someone else’s image to fall short of or someone else’s ego to overshadow. But, I also never had anyone to help split chores, escape discipline, or stand up to a fight – or sort out the complexities of family over the years.

And, as we age, we only children become the lone dancer in the ceremonies of parental care.

Gratefully, I have created an extended family of Sister-Friends – Black, White and Hispanic – who have become my fellow travelers for several decades on this journey of Race and Change experiences in America.  Now we also share another bond linking the first wave of Boomers. I have joined them as part of the growing sisterhood of motherless daughters as the baton is passed our way.

Our generation seems to be mastering the routines of end-life caretaking with varying degrees of grace. Some are daily ministers, wiping foreheads, squeezing hands, and holding on tight until the end of their loved one’s journey. Some are healers of the past, dabbing away resentments and sipping some sweetness from those final hours. Others squirm – at sitting still, at placing their lives on hold for someone else. They may avoid phone calls or wish their duties away. Those with resources call upon them; but most just get up, face the music, and resume the rhythm again the next day.

The only child may have to assume all those roles at some point, to some degree, and may carry the sense of loss alone. But when the mother-stone that sharpened her edges is gone, the motherless daughter gets to create our own ritual of remembering.

That’s how I found myself recalling the stately grandmother tree and my mourning of its demise a decade ago.

I sat relaxing on the back patio of my church on a Sunday looking out at the clearing where the tree had been recently removed. I had taken her for granted for so many years.  When the humid Florida morning would send others inside for after-service fellowship in the cooler air, I would accept her offering of a canopy of shade.

It was easy to see how she got her name.  Like a perpetual sentry she stood, full grown and mature long before most of us were born, formidable in size.  At least 10 sets of human arms could link around her trunk comfortably. Deep roots curled up around it like cords of muscle circling a leathery thigh.  Cracks and spider vein scars formed crevices hollowed by time.  Moss, like a grayish tangle of matted, uncombed hair, dripped copiously to the ground from branches broken in places but reaching for the sun, sprouting hope with each new leaf.

It took one of the strongest storms in recent memory to topple her.  Or maybe she was finally ready to give up.   Either way, after many months, scores of hands, and thousands of dollars, her remains were disposed of – but her legacy remains.

What a graceful way to grow old when the time has passed for dancing alone in the wind, I thought then, staring at the space she once held.  That’s what I will continue to remember for the remainder of this journey alone.

Generational Moments of Race and Change

Before I start my self-guided tour of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN, I am urged to see a short introductory film about injustice and the worldwide struggle for equality that precedes the exhibits.  I agree, reluctantly.  I just want to get on with things. And then I have to wait for a few dozen listless, mostly Black high school students to gather in the viewing room before the film can start.  They titter when a close-up of a veiled Muslim woman is shown on the screen, the only time a reaction is registered, and it disturbs me.  I wonder if they even know what emotions the image is provoking.  And, who knows how those emotions might be acted upon with some type of prejudiced behavior later on.   

By the end, though, they are quiet, filing out to tour the exhibits on their own.  Thoughtful, perhaps. But a moment is lost. It’s a shame, I think, that I don’t see their chaperones around.  

Later, two girls from the group dash past me as I view the recreation of King’s cell when he was arrested and jailed in Birmingham. They rush as if they are late for an appointment.  I have stopped to read the transcript of the phone call to his wife which President Kennedy personally arranged.  The endearments are there – concern for the children and the family’s welfare and concern for publicity to make sure the arrest continues to get press attention, continues to be noticed and reported on.  The two high school girls appear again, just as suddenly, headed the other way, as if exploring but not sure of where to go.  They glance my way this time, talking loud enough for me to hear.

“You’re looking at your future,” quips one, gesturing towards the cell.

“As long as I can stand up,” the taller one says dryly.  

No, that’s not your future.  Don’t say that, I say low, under my breath.

I want to call out as they sashay away, but their backs disappear around a corner, fast, again.  A moment lost.  I finish reading the transcript in silence and start off towards the next exhibit, in the last direction the girls had followed. Then a voice drifts over my head.  

“So what is this supposed to mean?”  

The tall girl has materialized behind me, and she is peering, perplexed, through the bars and into the jail cell.  This time she is alone.  

I turn around and head back to her and start to explain.  I tell her about King’s choice to be arrested and to make a statement in the movement.  About his letter from a Birmingham jail exhorting others to keep the faith.  About the significant choices we can make when we have a conscience and the belief that we can make a difference by doing something we know to be right.  What surprises me is the way she stands still, not smiling or nodding, just listening.  

My babbling spills out, overflowing, before I can shut it off.  I stop myself, embarrassed at coming on so strong.

“Oh,” she says, nodding, eyes squinted up a little. “That’s interesting.”  She is thinking.

“Well, now you know,” I say, “and you can explain to other people.”  

She nods and smiles.  I take that as a good sign and wave goodbye as she goes her way into another part of the museum, and I go mine.

Later, after the Civil Rights Museum visit, I recall that encounter as I sit at a fast food restaurant table with coffee and a newspaper, sorting things out, considering my next move before heading back to the hotel.  I am aware of a child, about 10, passing by, trailing her mother, and my head is drawn up in her direction for some reason.  Barrettes bounce from the tips of her braids as she walks and she looks at me squarely, and smiles, with mirror eyes.  For a moment, in her face I see hope, and it lifts my spirits. I just hope she sees the same in mine.

How To Be Hopeful In A Negative World

One of the worse traits you can have these days – aside from being a liberal – is optimism in a negative world. You are branded as someone who is out of touch with reality. In a climate of conversation that requires you to engage in the litany of examples of how bad things are, if you counter with a “yes, but,” expecting a mature debate, you’re tuned out or dismissed as a deluded child. 

While on an outing recently with my grandkids, I was reminded of just how far the pendulum has swung.  I shared some factual information – the location of a new play area – and one of them asked how I found out about it and I said the newspaper. From the backseat my analytical grandson piped up, “You can’t trust newspapers. They don’t tell the truth. And you can’t trust technology.” Of course I made the correction (our job is to pay attention, do the homework, assess the sources, the free press, etc.). In the quiet I could hear the inner wheels turn. But the fact that all of this was necessary in an exchange with a SIX-year-old already on the road to jadedness was enlightening since we say our innocent children are the hope for the future.


I have been called a pragmatic optimist. Those are people who pay attention, see what’s happening, and have a pretty good grasp on the range of problems. They also have experienced enough history, societal and personal, to know that things – and people – do change, but as long as we are alive, challenges will always remain.

Positivism is the popularized description. Psychological research does seem to suggest that we who practice it are going against the grain. The brain, it seems, is like Velcro when it comes to negativity and Teflon when it comes to positivity. Numbers like these confirm this assessment:

5-10: That’s the number of positive events it takes to counter-balance one negative event.

12: That’s the number of seconds for good news to travel from temporary memory to long term memory. 

3/4: That’s the amount of our vocabulary that negatively describes people.

2/3: That’s the percentage of English words that convey negatives.

And here’s the kicker: We know that negative people can be like a virus, infecting positive people. But did you know that positivism is actually bad for some people? Their psyches can’t handle it; it makes them sick to try and think in a different way .So, what are we positive folks to do?

I take heart from a conversation with my doctor the other day encouraging me to keep on doing what I’m doing. She has a practice filled with aging agitated Baby Boomers who are worrying themselves into a state of disease over things they cannot control. And, based on the wealth of memoirs and personal stories of people faced with an illness or survival situation, no one ever cites a negative view of the world as the path to healing and growth. Instead, they go within, find resources to help them start enjoying the smallest things in life and they do the best they can as individuals to make a contribution to the world in a positive way.

Meanwhile, those of us who are already there have no problems recognizing each other. In a gathering where the debilitating wave of anguish and futility begins to rumble around the room, we’re the ones who drift away. Huddling together in a corner, we gain strength from each other nodding our heads and laughing about life like kids.  

The Beatles and Segregation: A Message for the Younger Generation

The Beatles and Segregation: A Message for the Younger Generation

By Dr. Kitty Oliver

From a Race AND Change perspective, the story recounted in Ron Howard’s documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years about the band’s refusal to perform for a segregated audience in Jacksonville, FL, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement – and my decision to be one of only a handful of Black youth to attend the concert – has resonated with so many people for a reason.

It offers us a rare chance to talk about race beyond the traumatic events of the day – not just because of them.

As an oral historian and researcher on race relations committed to ongoing dialogues across cultures I have found that we are well-versed in conversation about troubling racial times.  The themes of prejudice and discrimination, oppression and resistance, and how to keep discouragement from overcoming goodwill seem to reoccur in every generation.

If those of us in the generation of the first wave of Beatles fans have learned anything, though, and have any message to give to younger people, it should be this: Life is a continuous presentation of problems to confront, come to terms with, or solve and we are products of survivors who endured even more and put their hope in us.

In the Beatles era of the mid-1960s the conversation was also about violent, repressive times. The four young musicians acted spontaneously from conscience and took a risk – and so did I. And now, over 50 years later, their stand is still remembered, and who would have predicted that my personal decision would lead me from segregation to international cross-cultural work?

The Race AND Change community is launching a new project to acknowledge, honor and award members of the younger generation today who are also taking a stand for what is right and just and serves humanity in their everyday lives – those who are moving out of their comfort zone and building bridges across differences despite resistance, since every culture has a negative name for people who do.

These are “Agents of Race AND Change.” They need encouragement from us and we need them.

Watch the Race and Change Facebook Page for updates on how to identify and nominate young people who are modeling a different conversation: how to touch the world in a positive way during troubling racial times.

Please “Like” the Race AND Change page on #facebook. http://www.facebook.com/raceANDchange #raceandchange

Florida Southern Stories

For the “Florida southern” writer, place takes on a complex meaning.

For instance, my hometown of Jacksonville was known as “south Georgia” when I was growing up because of the hostile racial attitudes of that segregated North Florida city. At the same time, the state was disparaged by Deep South southerners as a Yankee outpost because so many transplants from the North move here.  I became a displaced immigrant who left  the old world for the new  as one of the first Black freshmen to enter  the  all-White University of Florida and I have lived an  integrated, multicultural  life ever since – but the new broom that swept through, ushering in the New South, also left us with emotional debris.   

For a “Florida southern” writer, race is also a complexity.

It haunts our memories, clinging like red clay to walking shoes. It conjures up disturbing images as nagging as a squeaky porch swing.  It stirs us to pull our chairs up closer to the table when the topic comes up in conversation, determined to get our two cents worth in, and leaves us with a sense of unfinished business, full of questions, always wanting more.  

For some “Florida southern” memories of growing up and living in the multicultural South and lessons learned checkout my Race AND Change blog. The memories are sure to spark memories of your own. I invite you to share your stories and embark on your own writing journey as well.

#floridawriters #southfloridawriters #creativewriters #southernwriters #raceANDchange

AGING GRACE: Growing Up in Our Sixties

Remember our twenties, the know-everything years?

We charged into adulthood believing we were destined to run the country – and the world – so much better once we got in power. At the very least, we wouldn’t make the same mistakes as our parents. A month after my 20th birthday I got married, certain it would be forever, priding myself in waiting two years longer than my mother when she took the unsuccessful plunge. Brimming over with book learning, post-adolescent freedom, and Civil Rights Movement fervor I smoked, drank, wrote, challenged racial and gender barriers, and had two children before the decade ended. I preferred the company of people several years older than me, but not necessarily to listen at their feet. I couldn’t shut up; I had so many revolutionary ideas I thought they needed to hear.

Once the thirties kicked in we seemed to warp into a do-everything blur of responsibilities and quests, bending and breaking rules in our professional and private lives. We chased “what next”, “there must be something more,” and “maybe this is it” experiences, often losing track of ourselves in the process.

And then came the forties; how quickly the pages turned.

Nests emptied, or filled – or both. Marriages and partnerships were reassessed. We started losing people who were dear to us. Life forced us to let go of some things; others we couldn’t wait to cast away. Many of us crashed, and burned, and resurrected– more than once – before the decade of reshaping was done.

In the feel-everything fifties we started spiritual triage on our finances, our health, and our relationships. Maturity began to peel away that shield of invincibility. Now we’re making peace with the dichotomies of life.

The sixties is the decade of aging grace.

Yes, we may feel sandwiched in between the expectations of ailing parents and adult children, between the societal pressure to look and act forever young and to just disappear. Yes, we can’t do it all, and maybe we shouldn’t, even if we could. As a generation we’ve changed some things, and we’ve made some mistakes. Growing older means we accept that we will never fix everything. But that doesn’t mean a solution isn’t possible, or that we don’t keep trying.

In many ways our survival this long through society’s shifting uncertain sands has given us the firmer footing needed for navigating today’s richly troubled soil. The challenge now is how to pass some of our knowledge along.

Every generation has the same burden – the problems of its “historical moment” as Robert Penn Warren called it in Segregation: Inner Turmoil of the South, a little-known homage to racial change, controversial in its own turbulent time. The noted poet and novelist and son of the South wrote the 65-page collection of reflections in 1956 during his travels through southern states in the U.S. in the wake of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation decision which kicked off the civil rights movement of our era. Stopping at stores and cafes and homes, he held impromptu conversations with people on both sides of the color line on their misgivings about what the future held for race relations.

They wrestled with conflicting attitudes and so did he, going from being a proponent of segregation to declaring that desegregation was inevitable – strong fighting words from a White southerner of that time. He saw a pattern of brutal assaults, public outrages, and discriminatory practices, as a moral problem that keeps us locked in a “national rhythm of complacency and panic.”

In the end, he concluded, the best we can do “Is try to plug along in a way to make [the younger generation] think we – the old folks – did the best we could for justice, as we could understand it.”

Perhaps our role as the generation that survived the turbulent 1960s is to impart lessons we have learned, and cautionary tales. Our children may not get it – yet – but just give them a few decades. Besides, that’s why they made grandchildren for us to regale.

Answer your call: "The Calling of Our Time" inspirational jazz CD by Kitty Oliver”>https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wH7a4TsTqs4

Seeing Race AND Change in Selma: A Memory

 (In the wake of the national release of the new movie “Selma” and the 50th anniversary of the 1965 march for voting rights.)

Arrival

Selma, Alabama waited on the front porch of U.S. Highway 80 and a crooked finger of road beckoned me closer into town. I slowed down my rental car. I was a Black Civil Rights Movement child on her first trip into the Deep South, traveling alone, and unaccustomed to navigating these roller coaster hills and unexpected inclines.

I had set out on this journey of reconciliation to confront some painful parts of the Civil Rights story of my sixty-something generation, to sort out why the memories are so conflicted. The new broom that swept through the country in the 1960’s left even the sanest among us with emotional debris. It causes us to shove talk about racism into corners of denial and then shudder when the headlines shine light on it. Or, erupt with anger and pointed fingers whenever the topic is raised. We who have lived through and fought for social transformations that inspired global imitation tell our children that no progress has been made.

Even a Florida-born girl like me is, as the old folks say, just as “touched in the head.” Although I grew up in segregation, I found the state’s ethnic diversity easier to align with than my troubling southern roots.  But the South is the one place in the country where race has always been right out there, on the table. Southerners expect to talk about it, to pull up a chair and sit a spell.

Eventually I would wander through six cities in four states and visit Civil Rights sites, peruse archives and hold conversations with Black and White residents about the past. By the time I wound my way through Selma I was on factual overload. That early morning in March I would join hundreds of others for a crossing of the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge and a step forward in history for a change.

Preparation

Selma was already bustling with sojourners, including Black families, young White people, politicians, celebrities and civil rights notables. We had converged for the landmark commemorative walk honoring the 40th anniversary of the ill-fated “Bloody Sunday” attempt to launch a protest march to the Capitol in Montgomery. Participants were brutalized by the police and pushed back into town, but the event set off demonstrations that led to passage of the long-resisted federal Voting Rights Act.

Vans with camera crews and streamlined coach buses filled up the lion’s share of parking spaces along Water Street but I found one, near the foot of the bridge, and went exploring.

The mass of iron lattice arched like a crown over the murky Alabama River. At the far end, a memorial plaque saluted the Voting Rights Park. Nearby – an incongruous sign about Nathan Forest, an infamous local son, and his founding of the Klan.   Scrawled boldly at the bottom of the sign was a hand-lettered message – “We ain’t scared” – a paraphrase of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words at the height of battle.

Times change. One of the speakers later would proclaim that our commemorative walk would be more like “a pilgrimage of faith.”

The March

The streets swelled with people singing spirituals as we filed out of the Brown Chapel AME Church.  Georgia Congressman John Lewis, a wounded soldier in 1965 turned Civil Rights griot called out sternly, “We did not sing; we did not talk,” enforcing solemnity.

Once the ceremonial moment of silence at the top the bridge ended, however, with no easily identifiable adversaries below, the crowd began dispersing before even reaching the other side. Where to go next? I wondered, leaning for a moment on the railing. So many sighs that river must have swallowed over the years.

A young Black teenage girl paused to flop down on the same railing, inches away, swinging legs next to a friend. I strained to overhear their take on the commemoration experience. “That’s all they did was march and they got the vote?” she asked of nobody in particular. Bored, or perplexed? I wasn’t sure. No, that’s not all, the elder in me couldn’t wait to say. But her friend jumped in and interrupted, drowning me out with a boy-story, a gift in disguise.

I probably would have touted the importance of a righteous do-or-die struggle – the story we usually tell. It’s easier to explain than the power of acting from hopeful ideals. They sustain you and keep you alive and viable in the arena, trying to make a difference even when it looks like you may not win.

Later, over dinner at the riverfront hotel, I related the incident with the teenage girl to a couple of folks I had met. Young people don’t know, and they want to know, a 27-year-old diner insisted, and the history we were experiencing should be taught.  Our table overlooked the same streets where, one night in 1965, a White minister and activist had been beaten to death by locals for just being there.

But Selma pulled on the cloak of evening and headed for bed after our march, leaving the doors open wide for us until we chose to say goodbye.

 Leaving Selma 

Traffic crept slowly for awhile out of town the next morning to give room to a ragtag group walking along the side of the road.  About 15 marchers were making their way out of Selma to Montgomery in a voluntary continuation of the commemorative walk on their own. They were American, and Australian, and Japanese, and Buddhists pounding tom-tom rhythms to their steps. From time to time, busloads of public school students joined them for a mile or two in symbolic support.

State troopers, the assaulter in the 1965, now an integrated squad of escorts, would guard the marchers as they camped overnight along the route.

Tears surfaced – surprising and sudden – for the courage of people still engaged in the act of remembrance, for the determination to keep going despite the odds. Once the traffic was allowed to speed up again we hit a stretch of road. I prepared for curves ahead. 

 If you have INSPIRATIONAL stories of race AND change, share them with the younger generation and visit. http://www.kittyoliveronline.com.

Talking About “Race” Across Generations and Ethnicities

Meditations Of An Aging Civil Rights Child: Baby Boomers

The first wave of Baby Boomers is in the stage of life I call the passage beyond middle age.  Even the diehard health fanatics among us must concede that we’re way past the halfway point.  Heck, considering the vices and upheavals that marked our era, many of us never thought we would live this long.  And, on the surface, most of us wear our new roles as society’s elders fairly well.

The first wave name refers to those of us born between 1946 and 1955, whose rebellious 1960s experiences were different from the more jaded children of the ‘70s born between 1956 and 1964.  But we’ve all been on the front lines of racial and ethnic change. 

The boomers rounding 60 now may be battle weary but when they get together for lunch or dinner, we usually bring an upbeat attitude.

Over fat-free lattes we assay our future with grownup talk about living wills and long-term care.  Chuckles ripple around the table as the reading glasses come out when the low-carb menu arrives. 

We pass on the dessert tray to dish up memories of growing up with end-of-the-world prophecies, bomb shelters, and the fear of foreigners threatening the American way of life; of wars, assassinations, and public protests against government.  We had to take low-paying jobs in a down market because our college degrees couldn’t promise us jobs. 

We’ve lived a pendulum of economic, political and social upheavals, confirming that the only constant is change.  In today’s world that should make us the wisdom-bearers of hope, not fear and dissension, advising others on survival skills during challenging times.

 In our conversations at the table, a whiff of the frustrated child does tend to seep in.

We want to make a difference, shake things up again, and resist the pessimists who predict and expect the worst. Yet we lament the lack of a clear vision of how that can be done.  The passion and optimism of youth has waned. 

Here we are, officially the older generation, the ones “in power”, feeling ineffective.  It’s as disorienting as the aging figure staring back from the mirror each day. 

We’re in an in-between time.

On the one hand, the turbulence of our past is fading into nostalgic stories about a youth that was trouble-free, unlike the overwhelming obstacles faced by younger people today.

There’s a theory, though, that many people reach their peak in their youth and then they decline, not the society around them.

 Aristotle was even more critical of this melancholy stage, saying that as people age they get cynical, distrustful, less open to innovation and less able to absorb new ideas – about what’s possible for them, or others. 

But, research has also found that people 60 and older, in general, can be less conservative than people in their 40’s and 50’s. 

A lot of us are getting involved again in unfinished business with the environment, women’s and children’s rights, the political system – and with building bridges across racial and ethnic lines, despite the troubled waters.

Black, Whites, Hispanic/Latino and Asian boomers, especially first wavers, have become the target group for my Race and Change oral history interviews for this reason. 

We have lived through, arguably, the greatest social change in history in society and our personal lives.

A willingness to recall all of the experience and to share the lessons we have learned can be our greatest legacy.  

In the process, we’re also trying to re-envision what aging means in society today. It’s an uphill struggle, though.  (More next time.)