The South and Race – A Study of One Man’s Journey

31 Jul

SNELLVILLE, GA – When  you think of the words “South” and “race” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. almost immediately pops into your mind. He’s forever connected with the on-going struggle to bring equality to the African-American community, a struggle that has seen progress and regress as often as the beach has seen waves.

I have often been asked by others why the South has such a problem with Black people. My standard answer is usually, “Well, most of the normal folks here don’t.” Have a problem, that is. Most Southerners think of race as a problem that is generated by the media, or by outdated perceptions of the region. I’m not here to talk about the current state of the South as a whole. I can’t speak for everyone.

But I can tell you the story of one man. A man whom I love and am close to, a man that has been transformed over the past 15 years into a wiser denizen of this ever-changing landscape.

Hammerin' Hank Aaron

Hammerin' Hank Aaron

Let’s start with the gentleman to my right. His name, for those of you who don’t know, is Henry Aaron, although many of you are more familiar with his popular name, “Hank.” He is the all-time home run king in Major League Baseball (despite the fact that a certain cheater has passed his career record, Hank is still the king) and happens to be one of the classiest and finest citizens the city of Atlanta could ever hope for.

In 1974, he was about to break Babe Ruth’s record for most home runs. Hank had 714. Babe had 714. The tension was thick, not because the record was going to fall, but for the fact that Aaron was receiving death threats on a daily basis. In his autobiography, I Had A Hammer, he recounts the numerous and vicious letters mailed to him. The sentiment boiled down to one simple thing. “Ain’t no nigger gonna break Babe Ruth’s record.”

Anyway, in Atlanta, the race topic in the 70’s was a prime discussion piece. On the one hand you had a city embracing the Black culture. On the other hand, you had hundreds of years of conditioned racism. It was not uncommon for Black people to be derided from the pulpits of white churches as “abominations.” Interracial dating was still taboo. While Jim Crow wasn’t legal, he wasn’t entirely gone either.

And so, in small towns all over Georgia, thanks to the Hammer, plenty of people were talking about race.

I was born in 1976, a couple of years after Hank’s accomplishment. I grew up in a racially neutral home – my parents never used the N-word, and taught me that I was NEVER to use it under any circumstances. My best friend in Kindergarten was Alan Booker, an African-American.

So, that is the foundation.

Here is the confession. My grandfather, on my dad’s side, was not so neutral when it came to race. Growing up, he rarely used a word other than “nigger” to refer to any Black person, and he never referred to Black people in any positive way. To him, they were a corruptive force in the community. If a Black family moved in, “there goes the neighborhood.” They couldn’t be trusted, he said. Lazy and unwilling to work, he said. They steal from the government and take money out of the pockets of hard working white folks, he said. He wasn’t a Klansman, he wasn’t a militant racist; he didn’t burn crosses in yards or participate in menacing Black families.

He was a product of his environment. Period.

The church we grew up going to wasn’t race friendly either. And so we learned that Black people were somehow separate from white folks – some preachers even referring to the “mark of Cain” as God making Cain into a Black man. And it wasn’t a mark of protection, no sir – it was a mark of condemnation, and you’d better live right, or else you’ll get a “black mark” on your soul and be damned to hell. I went to church with my dad’s parents for 18 years. They heard the same sermons I heard. They were taught the same principles of the faith that I was taught. Only I had my dad and mom at home telling me differently, telling me that everyone was equal in the eyes of God.

This was the cauldron that produced a lot of what my grandfather believed about Black people. He had been culturally taught racism as a way of life, but to have it enforced from the pulpit – for someone who came to faith in God late in life, as my grandfather did, the impressions left by preachers were deep and immediate. He wasn’t much of a reader in those days – his limited education while growing up didn’t exactly make reading a favorite past time – so he took what he heard and he lived it by faith. Faith that the men who stood in the name of God were telling him the truth.

And so he had no problem with the word “nigger.” If the preacher said it, why couldn’t he?

As me and my cousins got older, we chided him on the use of the word. “Can’t you just say ‘black’?” we would ask. “Maybe even colored? How about Negro?” He would pat us on the head and laugh. “They all mean the same thing.”

He wasn’t racist in his actions. He would give to anyone who had need, regardless of color. But the ideas, the language, that were pressed into him as a child, a young man, and now as an adult, were still present in his perceptions.

Until he left the church we grew up in. We went through the most common of Southern church activities – a church split – and my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles and cousins, all ended up leaving the church we grew up in. And we all ended up at another church, this one a long ways from the small community church in Snellville.

This one was in DeKalb county. In Stone Mountain. And for those of you who don’t know, in the late 90’s, Snellville and Gwinnett County were still relatively lily white. Stone Mountain and DeKalb County were almost direct opposite.

The church we started going to was a small white congregation on Panola Road. In many ways, it was almost the same as the church we had grown up in. But the pastor, and the community, was different. Black people, when they chose to attend, were welcomed into the church with hugs, handshakes and warm fellowship. The pastor preached the message of the Gospel – that in Jesus, there is no division – and slowly, my grandfather’s language began to turn. The N-word became less frequent. He went to “colored” or “black” most of the time, although he would still occasionally slip and use the N-word.

After a few years, that church ended up having to close its doors. My family splintered after that. My parents went one way, my grandparents, and the rest of the extended family, went others. I started working for a church in Marietta, which was diverse in its population, and I began seeing my own tendencies toward racial stereotyping or racially divisive language. It didn’t take me long to correct it, and as I noted my own education in this area, I began to see it in my grandfather too. The change was rapid and it was amazing. I mentioned that he was never much of a reader, but when he joined his current church some ten years ago, he was encouraged and taught by his pastor to read the Bible for himself. My grandfather learned that he didn’t have to rely on someone else to tell him what God wanted from him – he learned that he could read the Bible and God would speak to him too.

And one of the things God spoke to him about was his attitude towards African-Americans. My grandfather became convicted and shameful over his past speech and beliefs. He repented of the ways he was taught, and he learned to challenge that pre-supposition in others. The more he read, the more he learned that indeed, “all men are created equal.”

Presidential Candidate Barack Obama

Presidential Candidate Barack Obama

I mentioned Barack Obama to him not too long ago. He wasn’t fond of him. I winced. “Don’t like the fact that he’s so young,” he said. I waited, expecting the follow up, “and he’s black.”

It never came. I asked him, does it bother you that a Black man could be President of the United States?

“Nope. White people have screwed things up enough. He deserves a chance to be President.”

I won’t say I was speechless, but it was one of those stunning moments in life when your perception of the universe seems to shift just so and suddenly things seem brighter and clearer. I was amazed – not at the fact that he had changed; the world and our culture demanded it, so there really was no choice. No, I was amazed at the fact that the lasting change, the hardest part, he had done on his own. That he had transformed his own soul through his relationship with God by searching the Bible and reflecting on his life and times. And in the end he had enough God-given character and strength to say, “I will not be this way anymore.”

Pop Harold is 82 now (or 81 or 83, I can’t remember for some reason) and I don’t get to see him much at all. Usually just holidays or the random time I think about being a good grandson and take my daughter over to see him. He’s stooped, bent from age and a variety of health issues that have sapped the strength right out of his limbs. A little slower, a little more reflective, we normally talk about heaven and what it will be like to die and enter into a different kind of rest.

But occasionally we’ll talk about the news of the day, the latest on the tube, whatever, and I will sit there amazed at the man’s capacity for re-invention. For observation. For someone who went through school (“In the front door and right on through out the back door” as he says) without going all the way through, he’s perceptive and wise in a way that I’ll never know. I am able to articulate much more eloquently what my other grandfather meant to me, but when it comes to Pop Harold, I’ve always found the words short. His value to me has been more in my soul and heart, a deeper connection that has shaped me in ways that I still don’t fully understand, and might never.

But as the nation rockets towards, potentially, a history-altering election I wanted to at least clear one Southerners name from the immediate assumption of racism. Pop, you have worked longer and harder at becoming a better man than anyone else I know. I love you for it.

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2 Responses to “The South and Race – A Study of One Man’s Journey”

  1. Laura July 31, 2008 at 8:24 pm #

    in case I have not told you lately…I am a huge fan of your writing. I’m glad I get to read it occasionally. Written any scripts lately?

  2. Nate August 3, 2008 at 2:17 am #

    Dude….I loved your post today, very well written. And thanks for the deep frying tips. I met this guy in Pennsylvania one time who likes to fry oreos. Pretty sweet, huh? Maybe I should try it sometime.

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