Last month I visited the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. Founded by Bryan Stevenson, this stunning museum traces the history of racism in the U.S., beginning with the 12.7 million enslaved people who were forcibly brought from Africa, and proceeding through the Jim Crow era and the mass incarceration of Blacks today. Stevenson, a graduate of Eastern College and Harvard Law School, first moved to Alabama in 1989 to investigate prisoners on death row who had been wrongly convicted. A book and movie, Just Mercy, describes that phase of his work.
In addition to the Legacy Museum, Stevenson also developed a National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors some 4,000 victims of lynching. Plaques give some of the details:
“lynched because he didn’t say ‘Mr.’”;
“hung for writing notes to a white woman”;
“killed for talking back to a shop clerk”…
It would require days to absorb all the stories and facts presented in the museum and memorial, and I had only a few hours. I wish every American could see this state-of-the-art presentation of an evil that we continue to grapple with today. For me, it was a time of solemn reflection and repentance. Coming of age in Georgia of the 1960s, I was definitely not “woke.” In this passage adapted from my memoir, Where the Light Fell, I tell of my gradual awakening to racial injustice. Sadly, it meant learning to distrust what the church had taught me.
A pastor named Peter Ruckman is the featured speaker at church camp this week. Besides the evening sermons, which he illustrates with colored chalk as he speaks, he conducts afternoon workshops on various topics. We meet in the camp’s large dining room, and this day he’s chosen to speak about race.
It’s the sixties, and the civil rights movement is making daily news in Georgia. Freedom riders and other protesters are demanding an end to whites-only schools, restrooms, and lunch counters. Ruckman uses his workshop to defend segregation, citing the same “Curse of Ham” theory that I heard at church. “Read Genesis 9 for yourself,” he says. “God cursed Ham and his descendants to be servants. Campers, this is where the Negro race comes from.”
(The theory comes from a weird passage in Genesis 9 that tells of Noah, drunk and naked, cursing his grandson Canaan for some vague sexual sin. “The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers,” declared Noah. According to the theory, Canaan’s father was Ham, and the Hebrew word Ham means “burnt black,” so God was condemning the Black race to a future of slavery. No one bothered to point out that a drunken Noah, not God, pronounces the curse, and that it applies to Canaan, not his father Ham.)
Then Ruckman grins and moves from behind the pulpit. “Have you ever noticed how Coloreds make good waiters? Watch them some time. They swivel their hips around the chairs and hold those trays high without spilling a drop.” He does an exaggerated imitation, and the campers laugh. “Don’t you see, that’s the kind of job they’re good at. But have you ever met a Negro who’s the president of a company? Have you? Name one. Every race has its place, and they should accept it. We can get along fine as long as we stay separate and don’t mix.”
As it happens, I have become the pet of Bessie, the camp cook. She’s a large Black woman who loves kids, works hard, and sings while she prepares food. As Ruckman is talking, I see her refilling the salt and pepper shakers at the other end of the dining room. She shows no sign that she has heard him, but I break out in a sweat just thinking about it.
My doubts about racism come to a head when I read the new book Black Like Me, by journalist John Howard Griffin. A line on the cover describes the premise: “A white man learns what it is like to live the life of a Negro by becoming one!” Although that stretches the truth, Griffin indeed underwent a regimen of drugs and ultraviolet treatment in order to darken his skin.
The book recounts his experiences during six weeks of traveling on buses through the Deep South, passing as a Black man. He tells of the “hate stares” that he gets in Mississippi when he asks for directions, applies for a job, or simply tries to buy a bus ticket. In his disguise, basic things I take for granted—a place to eat, somewhere to find a drink of water, a restroom, some place to wash up—pose a major challenge.
When the pigmentation finally fades and Griffin scrubs his face from brown to pink, everything changes. Once more he’s a first-class citizen, with the doors into cafés, restrooms, libraries, movies, concerts, schools, and churches now open to him. “A sense of exultant liberation flooded through me. I crossed over to a restaurant and entered. I took a seat beside white men at the counter and the waitress smiled at me. It was a miracle.”
The book has a profound effect on me. At once, I grasp the absurdity of racism based on skin color. John Howard Griffin was the very same man, whether with white skin or temporarily brown skin. Yet sometimes he was treated like a normal human being and sometimes like a dirty animal.
My brain aches after reading his book, as does my conscience. Unlike John Howard Griffin, I’ve never been treated—even temporarily—as if I were a Black person. What would that be like? Timidly at first, then greedily, I find books like Native Son by Richard Wright, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The racist stereotypes I have inherited take on a new cast. Maybe Black people “don’t keep up their neighborhoods” because they live in dilapidated housing owned by slumlords. Maybe they “have no sense of history” because of what that history represents.
Black people, it dawns on me, don’t want to have names like ours, use the same grammar and pronunciation, enjoy the same music, wear the same clothes, shake hands the same way, worship the same way. For Blacks, “She thinks she’s white” is an insult, not a compliment. Black culture has its own set of gifts.
As I step over the fence to the church property where we live, I start viewing my own tribe of white-racist-paranoid-fundamentalism as its own kind of culture. I don’t like what I see.…
All summer a crisis of faith smolders inside me. The church has clearly lied to me about race. And about what else? Jesus? The Bible?
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