The world of my youth was a world of separation. The railroad tracks separated our town into black and white. There were two libraries, the Wilson County Public Library and the Wilson County Negro Library. Everyone ate barbecue from Parker’s but my mother had to go to the back door to pick up our order; only white people were allowed to enter the front door and sit in the dining room and eat. The train station had two waiting rooms, one for whites and one for coloreds. The one for whites was bigger, brighter, and cleaner. In facilities where there was no separate area for us, the signs read, “no colored allowed,” or “white only.” There were even two hospitals. I don’t recall the name for the white hospital but the colored hospital was called Mercy. These are my memories of growing up as a colored child in Wilson, North Carolina.
I was born in 1955; I turned eighteen in March 1973. The public school system in Wilson ignored the court ordered integration that came from the Brown decision in 1954, and it was 1971 before the school system fully integrated. I was in tenth grade. My dad, who had been one of four black men who integrated the Wilson police force in the 1960s, worked a detail at the only high school in the city of Wilson, Fike Senior High. The KKK had set up camp across the street from the Fike to make their opposition to the presence of Negro students at the school perfectly clear. The police were there to maintain order. My dad says that when he first joined the police force, the black officers weren’t allowed to drive patrol cars. He was on the force when Dr. King and then Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. I remember him wearing his riot gear as he went to work. I was thirteen.
Darden, which had been the black high school before integration in 1971, became a school for tenth grade only. All sophomores, Negro and white, attended Darden; all juniors and seniors attended Fike. Darden lost its status as a high school for participation in sports, choral competitions, drama competitions, and all other extracurricular activities. When I began my junior year at Fike, I signed up for chorus. The chorus teacher commented that she had noticed that the Negro students all had a lot of vibrato in their voices and asked us why we sang that way. At Darden, we had sung spirituals, jazz, and R&B as well as some classical pieces. At Fike, the spirituals, jazz, and R&B were not regarded as appropriate music for choral presentations. I dropped chorus and took art instead.
A new employee at my office is also from Wilson. She is my sister’s age, two years younger than I am. She is white. She doesn’t remember any of this. She says that her year at Darden was a lot of fun. She has asked me if my class ever has a reunion. I didn’t have the energy to explain to her why there is no class to have a reunion. There are the black students who attended Darden when it was a high school and the white students who attended Fike. When we integrated, all it really meant was that we attended school in the same buildings.
We never became a class. When we got to Fike for our junior and senior, we were still separate, just in the same buildings. Fike was on the white side of town and the KKK felt that it was on its home turf. It was difficult to build bridges among the students when grown men in white robes and hoods were standing across the street shouting epithets at us every day. It was also common knowledge that some of the armed police officers who were supposed to protect us had white robes and hoods in their closets at home.
I had thought that I was done writing about race. Friends whose opinions I value, have cautioned me that I only upset myself when I write of these things. I had decided to move on to other matters and let it be. However, I’ve come to realize that although they are well meaning, they don’t get it at all. Writing about my experiences, what I know to be true, doesn’t upset me. What upsets me is that so many people want to pretend that these things never happened, that they are some distant echo of reality, that what I know to be true is insignificant. That’s upsetting and something that I refuse to accept.
Why am I thinking of these things now, at this time? Because I am witnessing an amazing revolution, a revolution of heart and mind that I never believed that I would see in my lifetime. I am filled with a deep joy as I contemplate the very real possibility that a man, who has brown skin like mine, may well be the next president of this country, my country that for so long has rejected me and my people. I had long ago accepted that there were wounds to my soul that could not be fully healed, wounds made by bigotry and hate, by an unrelenting message that because of the color of my skin, of the skin of my people, we were inferior. Don’t misunderstand, I never believed that we were inferior but it was far too daunting a task to have to constantly fight against the belief by the larger culture that we were, a belief bolstered by pseudo-scientific claptrap like The Bell Curve.
I’ve been working over time to refrain from admitting to anyone, least of all to myself that at least part of the reason that I support Barack Obama is because he looks like me. I’m done with that. I admire Hillary’s strong female base who have not shied away from admitting that they rallied around her in part because she is a woman, and they identified with her accomplishments as a woman in a male dominated world.
What Barack Obama has done is astounding, in a culture that is in its infancy of letting go of the racial apartheid of a less than 50 years ago, the culture of my youth, a culture that I know not through history but because I lived it. I get misty eyed and I have a lump in my throat just thinking about it. Every time I hear Barack Obama speak, I feel a sense of pride and joy that is intoxicating, and I shed all of those scars born of bigotry and I feel newly born into a world of promise. Finally, I can say with no irony, no sense of fabrication, to a little black baby, “Someday, you may be president.”
I make no apologies for my unabashed support of Barack Obama. I have no more tolerance for those who profess that he scares them, that they worry that he’s going to sell out this country. That’s total nonsense and you’re too ignorant for words to even believe it. If I hear or read one more person assert that he’s a Muslim and that he’s going to help the terrorists destroy the United States, I’m going to scream. And so help me, if I read or hear one more white person say that he is a reverse racist, I’m going to forget that I believe in nonviolence and slap somebody up side the head. By the way, my head was wagging when I wrote that last line.
Barack Obama is a man of principle. He is a man of intelligence. He is the man to lead this country forward on this journey of healing and I’m proud to claim him as my candidate of choice.
As a seventeen year old, I dragged around my guitar in a battered case with peace signs all over it, and sang songs about peace and love, but I was filled with the despair of youth, that the world in which I lived would never “give peace a chance,” nor ever find those “answers blowin’ in the wind.” I thought that the racial division that filled my world would outlast my lifetime. My heart cried for the ongoing list of martyrs–Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Jonathan M. Daniels, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, King, JFK, Bobby….
The Civil Rights Memorial that stands in front of the Southern Law Poverty Center includes the names of many of the people who risked and lost their lives in the pursuit of justice. I visited the memorial in August 1993. I recall my visit very clearly, because it was on that trip that I decided to go to law school. The memorial is black granite. It bears the names of the martyrs on a large disc in front of a curved wall that bears a favorite line of Dr. King’s, “Until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” A steady stream of water bubbles out of the disc and washes over its surface, and water cascades down the curved wall. When I visited the memorial back in 1993, I sat and stared at it for a long time and I cried, not so much for the dead, but for the living because I had no hope that we were going forward and I feared that their deaths had been in vain. I am allowing myself to believe that I was wrong. I am engaging in the audacity of hope, and it feels really good.
Below is a poem that I wrote after viewing the civil rights memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.
Memorial in Montgomery
casting long shadows in the afternoon sun
the wall is smooth, black
warm to the touch
the water falls down like healing rain
close by, rising from the earth
stands the remembrance of struggle
a litany of the martyred
finite circle of sorrow and joy
cross over the river Jordan
fall down, fall down
like the walls of Jericho
like the walls of Jericho
dark mirror of tears take me home
wash my heart in justice
bathe my soul in peace
fall down, fall down
like healing rain