When my brothers and I were born in Toledo, Ohio, my parents were poor like most black people in America, and they lived in this public housing development:
Eventually, we moved into an all-black neighborhood of single-family homes and attended this all-black church:
Though my parents attended desegregated high schools, segregation was otherwise the order of the day, even in the North. In fact, for about a decade, my parents rented a cottage at Fox Lake for a week every summer. Located in Angola, Indiana, Fox Lake was included in the Green Book travel guide as one of the safe places where blacks could vacation. You can watch a brief video about it here.
I share this to provide important context for you as you read my story. The Jim Crow era may feel distant and vague to many white people, but it feels like yesterday to black people. On one hand, the Butlers were a normal American family with four kids and a dog. On the other hand, we were a normal, American BLACK family, trying to wisely navigate a racialized nation. If my parents were alive today, they would each be 84 years old with plenty of stories to tell.
Take, for example, the day a boy named Scotty spit in my face. I was in first grade and he was a sixth grader. He was walking to school with his friends, just ahead of my friends and me. Without warning, he turned around, looked straight at me, and said, “Hey Kid.” Then he spit in my face. His friends laughed and they all kept walking. I remember the smell of his spittle as I used my hand to wipe it off. I didn’t cry or tell my teacher. But when I told my parents that night, they wrestled over what to do.
For most parents, this would not be a question. Bullies need to be held accountable, and many parents want to know when their children behave badly. Scotty’s family lived within walking distance of our house, so a conversation seemed in order. But it was 1969. The idea of black parents approaching the front porch of white parents had to be weighed very carefully.
We lived in a suburb of Grand Rapids, Michigan at the time, and there was only one other black family in our neighborhood. We attended a predominantly white school and church, but it took a lot of courage for my parents to integrate these spaces. Integration in all of America was evolving in the 1960s, and my parents were brave pioneers on one hand, and realists on the other. That’s why they decided not to address the incident. While we had no way of knowing whether Scotty spit on me because I am black, there is no doubt my parents felt they could not defend me because of our race.
That was 1969 and now it’s 2019. Unlike my parents’ generation, black Americans are freer to speak out against injustice, especially the mistreatment of our children. We are beyond the era of silently tolerating racial ignorance, and that is why you are hearing so much about it. This new wave of activism is necessary so we can make racial progress in America. Please do not interpret it as far-left political correctness or petty whining. For me, it’s a very Christian refusal to allow the sin of bigotry to go unchecked.
I have been warmly welcomed into white churches, schools, and work places throughout my life. My dearest white friends have and will sacrifice the shirts off their backs for me. You have helped me raise my children, supported my career, and comforted me through painful trials. So even though I don’t feel threatened while I am with you, I still have brown skin. The unfortunate truth is that being black in America still requires a certain careful navigation. It’s not just the history of my parents and their peers. It’s a present reality for my children and me. That is why I am writing.
The new place where speaking up is difficult is in the workplace. The civil rights act of 1964 created workplace anti-discrimation laws, but fear of reporting and retaliation is very real even today. I work in civil rights employment law and see it all the time.
Excellent point. I think the hesitation I have had expressing myself in this forum is indicative of the fear that crosses the many spaces that we occupy.
I am deeply, deeply, grateful to you for sharing your story(s). It is these relentless and everyday wounds that need to be heard. By me. Thank you.
Thank you Sharon for reading, and for being willing to grow. Your feedback means a lot to me.
“[I]t’s a very Christian refusal to allow the sin of bigotry to go unchecked.” <—-This. As a Christian and a black woman, I totally get it. It's unfortunate that so many see the cries out against racism as being more divisive than the racism itself. What's even more of a cruel irony is that although Christ taught on principles of love and compassion, Christianity was manipulated in America as a tool for oppression. Your story truly resonates with me.
"It’s not just the history of my parents and their peers. It’s a present reality for my children and me. That is why I am writing." <—This line is so beautifully stated. There's always complete shock that comes across the faces of my white coworkers when I share stories of racial injustices that have occurred in my own life. (Which I suppose they find even more perplexing because I'm not a Baby Boomer talking about the "old days", but I'm a millennial referring to adversity in the early 2000s.) Like you mentioned, though racial prejudices may be a distant memory to some, it is not so for others. Thank you for sharing your story. Respect.
Thank you for your comments. Your perspective and experiences are so important, evidence that racism crosses generational lines and it will continue to do so unless there is an active effort at silencing bigoted narratives in families, communities, workplaces, and churches. We are in this together and many white readers value our stories. Thanks for sharing.
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