When will we put race aside
See instead what lies inside
Not as different or worth less
Just as valued as the rest
At last abate our angry cries
Find the place where peace resides
My first experience with race relations was as a child in the 1950’s and early 1960’s in Kirkwood, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, just a stone’s throw away from Ferguson.
Like most post WWII families, dad was the breadwinner, while mom stayed home to tend to the children…all three of us rug rats…born between 1945 and 1948.
That’s when Cleola and Liz entered the picture. Cleola helped with household chores of all types, from cleaning, to cooking, to babysitting, to laundry (done in the early days by hand on a wash board and hung on the line outside to dry).
She rode the bus from the heart of downtown, where the vast majority of African Americans lived, to Kirkwood, several days a week. Liz made the journey on Friday evening to join her and both would babysit the three of us while our parents enjoyed a night out with friends.
I have fond memories of hot summer evenings when Liz would walk with us to the neighborhood drug store to get an ice cream treat. Onlookers to our trek never gave us a second glance, automatically assuming that our parents knew where we were and trusted this individual to watch over us.
Bystanders today witnessing this scene would probably fire up their cell phones immediately, dialing 911 to alert the police to an African American man who had abducted three Caucasian children. Our parents would be deemed unfit by Social Services for letting us out of their sight, and we would be placed in foster care.
The innocence of youth did not completely shield us from the harsh reality of racial discrimination. We were aware Cleola and Liz’s day to day existence was in stark contrast to our own.
Yet, within the confines of our home, things could be different. Setting the example for us to follow, our parents always treated Cleola and Liz as members of the family. We in turn regarded them with the same respect and implicit obedience accorded all adults in our lives.
But, there was more to it than that. In some ways, we were the children they never had, while, for us, they were the grandparents who had passed away out of our lives, too soon.
It is human nature to fear that which is and those who are unfamiliar to us.
With familiarity comes understanding.
It is distance which breeds contempt.