I walked into the Turnage Theatre in downtown Washington, North Carolina and saw the renowned Chuck Davis holding court while his assistants led a group in an African dance. I stepped up to his side and whispered in his ear, “Remember me?” Chuck’s eyes, older than my own, smiled, his dark arms reaching around this aging white woman and giving me the hug I so needed. One of the dancers jumped up and down, waving in recognition. I felt that I was home after a long time away.
Much of my life has been about bias and prejudice, beginning in south Texas where I feared there would be another Civil War because no people would stand to be treated forever the way blacks were treated there. When I was old enough to notice the separate water fountains, restaurants, seating in theatres, etc., I went to my mother in tears with a premonition of great violence. She assured me there would not be another Civil War with brother pitted against brother. But neither she nor I ever dreamed a Martin Luther King, Jr. would lead peaceful protests and bring about the beginnings of long-awaited social change. The struggle continues today because humans seem to be incapable of finding the balance needed to co-exist.
In my Texas classrooms, Mexican children were treated with disdain; blacks, of course, weren’t even allowed. I am not speaking against the American south or southwest. Racism and prejudice are everywhere, permeating every continent and culture and religion.
My father built oil and chemical refineries. We moved all over North America, and after my brother and I began college, our parents took assignments all over the world. In Canada, we saw prejudice towards Native Americans and towards us (Yanks); in Australia we witnessed the same towards Aborigines; in Trinidad, we saw prejudice between light and dark skinned people, all of African descent.
At William Carey College, a small Baptist school in Mississippi, I was drawn to the speech and drama program, even though I was pursuing a degree in pre-med. I liked science and was terrified of public speaking, but loved theatre. I found that, like me, shy students wanting to express themselves in creative backstage arts were as welcome as the out-going performance talented students. There was an attitude of acceptance for all. I felt that I had found a place where I would thrive.
In 1965, after graduate school, I was invited to teach at my alma mater. It was the first year black students were enrolled. Tension dominated the atmosphere. I was known as an anti-racist, and my favorite comment was, “The only thing I can’t tolerate is intolerance”. But looking back, I know that even I made judgements about our black students that harbored some deep-seated negative attitudes of distrust and lowered expectations. Those first years were like walking on egg-shells as we all got to know one another. And of course that was the secret—knowing one another.
I moved from Mississippi to North Carolina and in 1976 acquired a teaching position at North Carolina Central University. The pain of Viet Nam, the assassinations of King and the Kennedys, the murder of the Civil Rights workers, the Kent State killings, and all the other atrocities of that time were in the past but not forgotten. NCCU is a historically black university. All of my friends were sure I would be mugged, raped, murdered, or all three.
That was the beginning of my real education on racism. As an empathetic person, I was better able to witness and feel my students’ experience. As a minority in that institute, I was made to feel the other side of prejudice. Some of the students were accepting and kind; some hated and distrusted me based solely on my color, and openly expressed their anger. The big difference was that I could leave the bigotry behind each day. They could not. After twenty-seven years at NCCU, I retired and now have the opportunity to look back, to be honest about my own biases, and to write about this amazing life experience. I began with journaling and gradually moved to fiction where I could gain distance and objectivity. I am now working on my third novel. Each one has explored different views of this, our human condition.
In Ontario, other students spoke with disdain about Americans but said my brother and I were different. We were different because they got to know us. Again, the secret. There is much complaint about Hollywood and actors being too liberal. I am very proud of my association with all aspects of theatre: film, television, stage, and literature. It is through this media driven art that we get to know one another. Through both comedy and tragedy, we meet people beyond our boarded-up neighborhoods and minds. We learn about our differences and our similarities, but mostly about our common humanity.
It is seventy years since I first became aware of racism, and much of the world I know has improved. But has prejudice gone? Not by a long shot. It seems to be in human nature to find something or someone to belittle, to step on in order to make an easier step up for the privileged few. It just changes faces from color differences to cultural, to intellectual, to financial, to anything that can be used to separate one group from another. I wish I could glimpse into the future and see where we will be seventy years from now, wish I could see a profound and positive change in the human condition. But I don’t expect it. Please, prove me wrong.
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By way of Water