Friday, July 30, 2010

A Talk With the Elders

I was recently asked to give a speech about the Black community in my little town. The town is celebrating it's 200th birthday, and they wanted to acknowledge the storied history of the Black people in the area. So, they asked me to speak. I still can't figure out what made them do that, but I'm awfully glad they did. I guess because I'm a researcher now, I didn't feel right speaking about something of which I didn't know. I mean, I'm 34 years old. What do I know of the past 200 years in my town? So, I decided to ask a few questions.

My idea was to speak to my elders in an attempt to gather a bit of history about my community. I figured it would make it easier for me to speak about the town with some authority. What I got, though, was an education in life. See, old folks, like children, speak the unedited truth. They do it because they don't have to edit anymore. So when I asked them what my little town was like, they told me more than I asked. They told me how LIFE is supposed to be.

Eighty something year old Black folks have seen a different type of life. They've experienced things that we tend to try to forget ever happened. The very idea that there were jobs and areas, stores and restaurants that were off limits, not because of their means but because of their skin color, was outside of the scope of my understanding. But what was even more interesting to me was that they told these stories with such pride. The pain that they had endured didn't break them. It made them. They say that which does not kill you......Well these were some strong folk.

Being a relatively progressive soul, I have always thought of myself as knowledgeable. I have read my history. I have paid attention. I'm not afraid to say I know more than most about what my people have been through. But that's in the abstract. When you sit down with the people who were there, it changes the view a bit. Seeing tears in the eyes of a man who had endured racism as he pioneered in his work place. Seeing the joy in the face of an old lady speaking about the first Black doctor in her town. Hearing stories about not being served at a lunch counter. When you see it on TV, its like watching a movie. When you shake their hands, it touches you in a different way.

I am a part of that story. My father bought a home in an area that, before him, had never been open to Blacks. In fact, the neighbors even petitioned to buy the house from him. The guy next door put up a fence in the driving rain the night we moved in. As a kid, I never understood why they had lined that fence with grease. It took years to realize that it was so that my brother and I wouldn't climb over. We used to get into fights. We used to be called names. I always knew MY story. But after speaking to my elders, I knew that it wasn't really my story at all. It was our story. And in our story, my little part wasn't that bad. Before my father, it was unthinkable to live in the house that I took for granted as I grew up. My son truly has no idea that there are places in this town that have still never been home to Blacks. He has no reason to think that. But now I know he has reason and need to know it.

Knowing the story has changed me. It has given me a greater respect for my history, my elders, and my life. It has given me a brand new perspective on the state of my community. The bitterness, divisiveness, and entitlement that many of my peers feel is laughable when you consider the pride and connectedness that the elders felt in the face of odds my peers and I could scarcely imagine. Those folks put their heads down and made a way. No matter what. And because they did, I live a life that they could only imagine.

I don't know why they chose me to speak. I'm sure glad they did. I can only hope I did them justice. I can only hope I made them proud. If I live 80 years, I can only hope that I do as much for my community as those elders did for me. I've got work to do.

1 comment:

  1. You know, I saw what the question you posted on facebook and I wasn't sure how to answer it and wanted to read what everyone thought. I must say, I wasn't surprised by what I read however a bit saddened. I had a racist great-grandfather who said the "n" word as much as anything. But I guess I find myself very lucky that I grew up with non-racist parents. Not to say that everyone is racist in their own ways, we all are. However, I felt actually lucky during our time at the "High." I have grown to know people who have never had the experience of going to a diverse school, black or white. That part of town is different to the "outskirts" to me. It is a place that I made so many friends, had so many memories, and I cherish them all black and white. It saddens me that during that time my friends had to experience the stories that I heard because I was so grateful to have them in my life.