America’s Uncomfortable Legacy of Race…
I was planning to share my various experiences in the U.S. but race was a constant conversation during my trip to the U.S. so I wanted to post some of my conversations about race.
Just last week, I was having pizza with a friend who has had a profound spiritual influence on my life. This friend is white and we were catching up after my year in Nigeria. Eventually the conversation turned to race and the recent events that have been dominating the American press – Ferguson, Baltimore and McKinley, Texas. This friend and I have had details conversations about race over the years and how my life has been affected my America’s focus on skin color. Through our conversations and in letters that I have written him, he has used my experience to share with others. He was telling me that he was recent talking with another friend, who is also black about our discussions. My friend (let’s call him Bobby) asked his friend (let’s call him Danny) about what he thought of my experiences and my outlook on race. Danny (his friend) said that he could not speak to my experiences but he grew up in inner city Washington, DC and grew up with a distrust of white people. A distrust that still exist in certain situations. This conversation got me to thinking about our different experiences.
I grew up in the “Deep South”, not far from the fields that my ancestors toiled in the soil rich Black Belt of Alabama (Monroe County). While I grew up in a small black enclave in Mount Vernon, we were surrounded by white southerners who were descendants of the slave masters that owned the plantation. The year I was born, George Wallace was leaving the Governor’s Mansion after serving two consecutive terms and would return in 1983. Race in Alabama was like humidity, you could feel it but at times it could be hard to see. I too grew up with a distrust of white people but in high school and college, that distrust took on deeper feelings because of my interactions with other students at Auburn (I am thankful for a God who forgives and soften hearts).
Bobby’s friend Danny grew up in inner city Washington, D.C. Washingtonians elected their first black mayor in 1974. Walter Washington, who was elected mayor in 1974 had served as chief executive of the city since 1967. My high school wasn’t integrated until the early 1970s and still to this day, many white school children in Alabama attend private schools. While we have had different experience with race and interacting with white Americans, I am sure if I was to have a conversation with Danny, we would have very similar experiences because from what I have learned, American blacks can be born in the “Deep South” or the Midwest or the Northeast but yet have similar upbringings. We all had a Big Momma, Madea or matriarchal figure who often used wit and humor to make a very important point. I had two, on both sides of my family.
The recent cases of police brutality have revealed what American blacks have been saying for years, American institutions have a legacy of race that often affected the justice that is dished out. I often don’t talk publicly about race. I will talk in small groups but I had a difficult time in college processing race and grateful that God is in the business of softening hearts. (AMEN) But I am a firm believer that American institutions still struggle with the legacy of race. Maybe it’s the way police deal with black men and women versus white men and women or maybe it’s when people follow me (and others) around in stores as if I am the greatest threat to the company or the fact I don’t get a callback for a job because of my name. It’s hard to qualify these incidents but I am sure my white friends don’t think about them.
Recently, I was attending a meeting at a government agency, as I was waiting for the contact person to come down and meet me, another government employee looked at me and just assumed I was the person she was looking for. (The woman was white and she was looking for an Antoine Williams) When we got upstairs a women came out and asked me to fill out forms. I informed her that I was not the person she was looking for…there was a mistaken identity. She called to her colleague and told her that I was not Antoine Williams. The woman, a middle aged black woman was mystified that I was brought to the conference room. Most of my friends will say, “Sentell, the woman was just confused.” And I would agree. However, she never once asked me my name or the reason I was at the agency. She just assumed I was the person. I have other examples that are more overt but this incident made me laugh and provided for a good story.
Until America deals with the legacy of racial oppression, we will continue to have incidents like those in Baltimore, Ferguson and McKinley. But I don’t think the solution is that difficult. We just need to see people as fellow human beings who bring unique experiences to the table because of our race and ethnicity. I believe we are all sinners who desire a relationship with a loving and just God.