It seems to me, important to note, that I have never been someone who has cared much for speaking about race; mainly because the term and the concept is thrown around and almost weaponized, on a daily basis, in our modern and softer-skinned culture. I think this feature of who I am, is at least part of the reason I was less than excited to take my first free Saturday in a while, and venture to a place where race was the preeminent focus. In my aversion to race-related issues, I did recognize that perhaps a bit of apathy had arisen in me, over time, since I have had the privilege of growing up in a society that is vastly different from what my grandparents knew. But that apathy sort of colored (no pun intended) over the fact that these things I saw on the walls, were actually experienced by people in my own family. It seems likely that a sort of dissonance is created upon realizing that many of these things I saw were also perpetrated by others in my family.
As soon as you enter the initial room of the museum, you are met on both sides with pictures littering the walls.
On the left side, black and white photographs, crowned with neon letters that read, “White”. On the right side, black and white photographs, crowned also with neon letters that read, “Colored”. There wasn’t really any weight that hit me here, as I have known that this was the case, once upon a time. In fact, my own mother told me years ago, about when she had to get her birth certificate from her home town (of Metter, Georgia), how on it she saw the same words, “colored”. So, having been faced with it before was not really altogether shocking. It was more interesting, than anything, at how similar the walls were. On the one side, there were people smiling, dancing, and living their lives. On the other, you had the very same thing. What was so different about these people? Well, nothing. The black and white tint of the photographs demonstrated that much.
My inquisitive nature meant I had to fondle the dials a bit, and run my fingertips over the metal casings, of these devices that seemed so foreign yet so familiar. It was fascinating to me, to be so close to something that was out of the past. I didn’t quite feel the same way though, when I came to the wall that read, in big white letters, “SEGREGATIONISTS”. A wall adorned by men who would have seen me and wondered how I could be in such an institution as a University; men who may have even looked upon me bewildered or even angry at how immensely their efforts failed. I didn’t feel any sort of animosity, in the least. On the contrary, I have more of a passing fascination with how a person can look upon another human being, who is made in the same image, and hold such a disdain for them, simply due to a difference in the hue of their skin. It always strikes me as highly illogical and unfortunate, because it is the easiest way to miss out on getting to know good people and getting to see the best of what those people have to offer your life, or society as a whole. But that is the point though, isn’t it? When people have come up in an environment of fear of others, or a disdain for them, rather than an acknowledgement that all human beings are in this life-walk together, it leads them to lack value for the sanctity of every single life. And when that value for life’s preciousness is found deficient, man can bring his mind to the proper rationalization that malice against his neighbor, is justified, necessary, and perhaps even the right thing to do.
The violence, is what brought me out of my apathy toward this trip. In particular, the lunch counter simulation. A previous professor of mine told me about it, but I sort of dismissed it, for reasons I have stated, but experiencing it firsthand, is a different beast altogether. Upon first sitting down, writing on the counter prompts you to place your hands above the hand prints in front of you; the goal of course being to simulate a peaceful protest. The thing I noticed immediately was that having your hands in that position, sort of forces you to arch your back and place your head in a downward position. Immediately, your ears are bombarded with voices of men bellowing vulgarities in your direction and it escalates to a level of surreality that I had not expected. The vibration of my seat, to simulate someone kicking it, caused me to jump a bit and told my mind, ‘this is real’. With perfect clarity, I could hear a man sneering in my ear. I could hear the sound of spit he sucked in as he ravenously threatened me with, “I’m gonna kill you boy.” It was as if I could actually feel him with one hand on my shoulder, as he slid his face next to my ear. I noticed the words on the table in front of me also prompted me to close my eyes, but I refused to close them. I already felt as though I was there, and I knew if I did, my eyes would probably betray my successful composure. Upon getting up, I walked over to a friend from class, who had been sitting at the table next to me, and she was in tears. Every tear she wiped away broke me a bit. It broke me for a few reasons: it moved me that she was more upset about it than I was; seeing the pain in her face was eating away at the composure I had put so much effort into; and it reminded me just how far we have come.
We have come so incredibly far, in our society. I do not think we focus on that fact quite enough, if I am being honest. I also believe we forget that it would have been almost impossible to have gotten where we are, had people on both sides of the racial divide not organized under the auspices of togetherness.
Not togetherness in a generic or contrived sense of the word, but in actually coming together to combat a problem people on both sides saw and wanted to fix. What struck me throughout the exhibit, as profoundly amazing—whether from freedom riders who were willing to be beaten or killed for their cause or the holding of hands during marches, risking police retaliation—were the pictures of people of all hues, singing & walking together, showing that only together could this problem be fixed.
Many times in our society, as a result of much of what has transpired in the past, we tend to paint all people in one group as the boogeymen, when in actuality, it takes people from all sides, to bring a nation together. It is a mistake not to recognize that only together, can we continue to move forward. Only through the lens of love’s patience, love’s kindness, love’s gentleness and understanding, can we move past the chasm of separation and onto the fertile promised land that Dr. King saw. He saw us ALL as Americans that were equal, under the only three colors that should really make the difference. We should all strive to remember what those colors are and why they hold us together.