This story is by Loretta Martin and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.—Maya Angelou
After six months at my new job, I hadn’t yet socialized with colleagues outside of work. An African American, I’d gone into formerly all-white environments, watching members struggle to navigate a demographic shift, forced to apply diversity training theories and abstractions to real life. It took time, a mutual circling of wagons.
I knew from other settings about the unwritten rule against discussing “sensitive” topics; the same rule seemed to apply here. That—and the capricious (and often absurd) imperatives of political correctness—restricted safe topics to sports, traffic, the markets, weather, and pop culture (avoiding any mention of rap lyrics).
When Lillian in the next cubicle invited me to join her, Beth, and Marion for cocktails, I accepted, eager to do my part in breaking the ice. Their professionalism and our polite, albeit limited, interactions had been encouraging.
“Just us ladies,” Lillian said. “We hang out at Dickie’s, down the street.”
The pub was cozy, only 10 tables and four booths, and tastefully appointed.
“We do rum ‘n’ Cokes, how about you?” Lillian asked, once we settled into a booth.
“Here’s a Syrah I like,” I said, looking up from the wine list.
I was met with three identical, familiar expressions: a puzzled look when someone of one race witnessed someone of another race “going off script,” not matching preconceptions embedded in their own race profile database. It’s in the faces of white acquaintances when they discover I play classical piano, or when my “good grammar” compels them to ask a question they don’t realize is insulting: “Were you a schoolteacher?”
Lillian recovered. “Um, Beth, are your folks still worried they can’t afford to keep their home once your dad retires?”
“Where do they live?” I asked Beth.
When she mentioned a lily-white county with the state’s highest property tax rate, it was my turn to struggle with composure.
“They’ve been there 30 years,” she continued. “I grew up in that house, an only child. Mom’s already cutting back, letting one of the lawn guys go and holding on to the Lexus. Every two years, she got a new car and gave me her old one. Dad’s cancelling two club memberships.”
“Hmm,” I murmured, hoping my tone sounded sincere, coming from someone who drove a clunker that’s been a staple on the 10 Cheapest Cars list.
Lillian’s next comment didn’t help.
“At least they won’t be in the city. Totally unsafe, a war zone!”
Oh boy. I sip my wine, the safest use for my mouth. In my world, her words are whitespeak for beware—minority ghettos, high crime rates.
I wondered whether I was one of those “hypersensitive disgruntled blacks” many whites complained about. (“Slavery’s over, get past it!” or “The problem with them is them.”) No, I decided. We were viewing our respective worlds through different experiential and historical lenses. I could give them my take on safety.
“Ladies, for starters google Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Natasha McKenna, Brendon Glenn, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Victor White. All dead from questionable (white) police actions; they were shot (some in the back, some while unarmed), strangled, or killed under other mysterious circumstances (Tyisha Miller was shot while she was semi-conscious). Breaion King? Driving while black. Carol Jenkins, 21, was murdered in 1968 by a klansman while “caught” selling encyclopedias door to door in a Martinsville, Indiana, white neighborhood.
“Beth, that all-white conclave you grew up in might have been founded as one of the sundown towns that stretched across America, where restrictive covenants, violence, and threats of violence discouraged minorities from moving in, or forced them out. Roadside signs were clear: Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Black Ass in Arab, Alabama; Jews Forbidden; or Read nigger and run; if you can’t read—run anyway.” Being black, dear ladies, can be a tad unsafe.”
I didn’t say any of this, lest I be labeled Angry Black Woman.
“You know,” Marion offered, “my Asian friend Anna teases me for shopping at Walmart. Hey, I have to cut corners too, despite working like a field hand.”
MyAsian friend?? Field hand??
Should I call her out on the “I’m not-racist-‘cause-I-have-a-(fill in the blank)-friend claim?” Ask about her personal experience as a field hand? Anyone this clueless might declare, “I don’t see color,” reminding me of what late-night comedian Trevor Noah asked a guest: “So what do you do at traffic lights?”
“Well, Marion, I’d offer, “here’s a Walmart story—two, actually.
Once upon a time in Dayton, Ohio, John Crawford III picked up a BB rifle from a Walmart sporting goods shelf. While walking around the store talking on his cell phone and fussing with the rifle, he was spotted by a (white) shopper who called the police, reporting a black man carrying an AR-15 assault rifle. Officers arrived and immediately (and fatally) shot Crawford.
Three months later, after shooting up a Post Falls, Idaho, Walmart with a BB gun, two intoxicated (white) dudes were taken into custody without incident or shots fired.”
Nope, won’t go there either. I’d be Angry Black Woman Inciting Hatred. Instead, I mumble,
“Walmart doesn’t have the best rep, does it?”
Beth leaned across the table, covering my hand in sisterly fashion.
“Jean, what about you? Where’d you grow up? Share some of your memories,” she gushed.
“Oh, Birmingham, Alabama, also an only child,” I smiled, not removing my hand.
What I did not say:
“Golly, Beth, I remember summer evenings during the 1960s when neighbors gathered on porches, burning rags so the smoke repelled mosquitoes. When cars filled with hooded klansmen paraded down our streets, horns honking and Confederate flags waving, we quietly moved inside and turned off the lights. We remained in darkness for the rest of the night, even after someone whistled the all clear.
“I remember this one like it was yesterday, a Sunday morning in 1963 when our house shook. A klansman had bombed the nearby Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four little black girls.
“And in 1964, eavesdropping on grownups whispering about the three missing civil rights voter registration workers. No one was surprised when their bodies were discovered three days later in a Philadelphia, Mississippi, dam.
“Oh, and Jet articles—remember Jet Magazine?—about Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago boy visiting Mississippi relatives in the summer of ‘55. Abducted at night by a gang of white men, he was beaten, shot, had one eye gouged out, and his body thrown into the Tallahatchie River, a 75-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. For whistling at a white woman.”
“You know, Lillian interjected absently, “I don’t get Black Lives Matter. The police are just doing their jobs. Why is everything always about race?”
Three sets of eyes were on me. What about the safe topics rule? Was it the rum and Cokes?
“Dear Lillian,” I imagined saying, “in 1944, 14-year-old George Stinney, all of 5 feet 11 and around 90 pounds, was charged with first-degree murder and rape of two white girls, ages 11 and 8. He was in jail less than three months, and his trial lasted one day. No physical evidence connected him to the crime, and the only witnesses were three officers who testified that he confessed (no record a confession, mind you). Threatened with lynching, George’s family fled town, leaving the child to face charges alone. Jury deliberation lasted 10 minutes. (Blacks couldn’t vote, and therefore couldn’t sit on juries.) Because of his small size, the Bible Stinney carried to the electric chair was used as a booster seat. No child-size mask existed, and the adult mask slipped when the first volts hit. His conviction was overturned 70 years later.”
“I guess it’s complicated,” I said, pretending to check my phone.
I pictured them, squirming like worms trapped in a bottle, mentally declaring me a racist. I’d blasted open the door to a world of realities they were sure had nothing to do with the world they inhabited. After all, they’d never owned slaves.
“My god,” they’d conclude, “she’s part of the problem.”
“Oops,” I said brightly, “phone call, gotta go. See you tomorrow at work.”
Thanking them for a lovely evening (“We’ll do this again—absolutely!”), I tossed cash onto the table and made my escape.
Awareness, as soul-wrenching as it can be, is essential to healing. As the poet Rumi said, “The cure for pain is in the pain.” I wasn’t proud. My silence had done a disservice to both worlds.
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Loretta Martin, an editor and writer, lives in a Chicago suburb with her artist husband, Phil. A former blogger, she writes for print and on-line publications. Her nonfiction has appeared in local press, and her flash stories have been published in Every Writer and Short Fiction Break.