on being Southern: 50 years since Selma

Today marks fifty years since Bloody Sunday, where 600 protesters were viciously beaten by Alabama state troopers. In the first two months of 1965, Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led demonstrations at the Dallas County Courthouse in Selma, AL. They were persuaded to make Selma a location of national concern given its historical problems with resistance to black voting, despite the high population of black people in the county. Jimmy Lee Jackson, a protester was killed on February 17 by a state trooper.  In response, a protest march was planned for Selma to Montgomery to occur on Sunday March 7. However, the 600 protesters found their way blocked at the bridge just outside Selma by local and state law enforcement. The bloody and horrific events that occurred next were televised and became known as Bloody Sunday. The one-sided battle became the rallying point for voting rights that culminated with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

I am sitting in an airport in Washington D.C. listening to speeches memorializing and honoring this day.

I am southern. I like to think I am not racist. I was called hateful names in school as a child/teen because I befriended people regardless of the color of their skin. I am ashamed of the history of my homeland – and I don’t mean the South. I mean the U.S. But just the other day, I was listening to an amazing speaker who helps fight for equality around the globe. It underscored my gratefulness of being born in the U.S.

Often in individuals, we proclaim that our past makes us who we are, the trials we experience form our character. And no matter how you were raised, at some point you should grow up and take responsibility for your own actions and quit blaming them on your parents. Is our country not in the same position? I am justifying nothing. I am saying that we’ve made mistakes as a nation. We continue to make mistakes as a nation. Is there a point which we should stop blaming those who came before us for what we are facing now? Shouldn’t we hold ourselves accountable for the actions we take? Knowing that we have a lot to overcome – can we not manage to do it?

There is no doubt that race relations in this nation are bad. I read a survey that said that many feel that relations are getting worse. I read an article the other day about how white people are more racist than they think they are. Very interesting reading. Eye opening.

I was thrilled when I moved to Arizona and there did not appear to be the racism that I saw in the South. Oh, but there is. It is not a necessarily a black and white issue – in multiple ways.

Racism in this country persists. And it should not. There is absolutely nothing that makes one race of people better or worse than another race. Some of the most horrendous crimes against people have been perpetrated by white people: the Holocaust, Apartheid. If there is hatred to be deserved against a group, arguably, Caucasians are more deserving, a global minority responsible for such historical horrors.

In law school, 2001-2004, we had a race incident that expanded to include comments made by professors. One of the few black students (the school always tries to recruit in a diverse fashion, but the black students who wish to go to law school are often snapped up by more prestigious schools), a friend of mine, pointed out to me that we could sit in the same room, hear the same comment, and I would not realize it was racist. That clicked with me. Often, I am in a wheelchair due to my disabilities. I lose about 100 IQ points and the ability to make choices simply because I am sitting on wheels rather than walking on legs. My family can be right there and see/hear the same behaviors and comments and not comprehend how insulting the comments and behaviors are. It’s the old adage of walking in my shoes. Not being black, not walking in those shoes, I don’t get it. And no matter how much I try, I never will. But I can damn sure try.

My children had babydolls representing a wide variety of colors. Their Christian daycare told me never to send them back with black babydolls. While i was willing to continue to live in the South for me, I was not willing for my children to do so. Similarly, while I was apparently willing to live in a violent marriage, I was not willing to subject my children to it. So we left the deep South. And within five years, we left the South altogether. But trust me, nowhere is perfect.

Years later, in Arizona, one of my daughters at 8 years old perhaps third grade) was invited to a birthday party for a classmate. I could not place the name with a face although my daughter insisted I met her. Well, I thought I had met the whole class. I asked her to describe the girl – “taller than me” – most of the class. “slender, but not too skinny” – about 3/4 of the class. “brown eyes, brown hair” – still this let out the one red-haired girl and three blondes, but we still had Hispanic, Indian, Native American, Israeli, Asian… I had no clue who. I finally figured out who when at the store, she wanted to buy lots of pretty hairclips because the girl wore her hair in about eight little ponytails. At no point did my daughter use race to describe her friend. And I never asked what race she was.

Did I go too far? Is it now shameful to use race to describe a person for fear of being seen as racist? I don’t know. I really don’t. I don’t know the solution, but I do hope that in some fashion, this nation is getting better. It think it is. We no longer have slavery. We permit women and minorities to vote. We have desegregated schools. It is not enough. It is slow. But I still thank God every day that I was born in the U.S. – there are countries that as a woman, I would not be who I am, I would be imprisoned or killed. I am not afraid of the military coming into my house and attacking my family as a matter of course.

However, I am also not stopped walking and questioned by police because of the color of my skin or because I appear homeless. We’ve come a long way, but we do have an incredibly long way to go. Some of the same people who called me horrible racial names in school are now friends with the same people they mocked me for befriending. Perhaps with age or education comes wisdom.

We are a young country.

Perhaps soon, we too, will mature even more. For the health of our nation and our people, I pray it happens.

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