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I came very close to sticking my foot in my mouth today. That will come as no surprise to those of you who know me as I do struggle with chronic foot-in-mouth disease. Today, however, could have been life-changing or, at the very least, have cost me my job.
Luckily for me, it didn’t, although I suppose it still could.
I started a new audio book today. I have read/listened to some of Frederick Douglas’s writings before, but this was a collection of his articles that I was unfamiliar with.
Douglas was born a slave but managed to escape. He then became a popular speaker and writer on the evils of slavery.
Today’s article was about how he gained his freedom. Although he said there was nothing heroic in the story, I found myself enthralled as he spoke of narrow escapes and the kindness of people who helped him. Some aided him by actual physical effort him while others helped through quiet acts of civil disobedience, as in the blacksmith who recognized Douglas on the train but chose to ignore him rather than expose him as a runaway slave.
In America back then, a black person was required to present his “free papers” upon demand or be considered a runaway. A good portion of the article covered the importance of those papers and the difficulty Douglas had acquiring some free papers he could pass off as his own.
That brings us back to how I almost swallowed my size 9½s.
I arrived at work and was processing with the young staff I was relieving when my friend and coworker for the shift walked in. Johnny, is a black man of close to my age. He is married to the sister of one of my former classmates who was also a friend and came from a very respected family in my hometown. His father and mother in-law were wonderful people who were active in the civil rights movement and beloved by all who knew them. Johnny is also a preacher who lives a true Christian lifestyle. We have gotten to be friends whose conversations cover a wide range of topics. It was a pleasant surprise to find that I was working with him and it immediately came to mind that I would be able to talk to him about the works of Frederick Douglas.
In my mind my conversation with my friend was a sure thing, virtually already started. Since we two were there, the younger co-worker was officially relieved to go home. I looked at him and said, “You can be free.”
I saw my young co-worker look at Johnny and I realized how my statement might have sounded, despite its innocence.
The awkwardness of the statement gave birth to the even more awkward explanation, “I was thinking of Frederick Douglas’s free papers.”
The silence that followed was quickly broken when the younger worker said, “That wasn’t awkward at all.”
We all laughed.
My ill-conceived statement could have ended badly, except for one thing. My black friend and I knew each other and he understood the innocence of my words.
The younger worker left for home and Johnny and I had the conversation I had intended. He and I are the only ones at work old enough to have lived through the turbulent civil rights battle of the 1960s.
I talked about my childhood in a town where, though it wasn’t official, black people sat in a different section (one of the balconies) of the theater. I told him about my family being so poor that we had to pick cotton to make ends meet, and asking Mom why black people picked in a different part of the field than we did. To Mom’s credit, she didn’t understand it either and didn’t try to justify it.
I told him about the swimming pools of my youth. I never saw any signs saying, “whites only” or “blacks” but everyone knew that whites had the larger pool and blacks went to the smaller one. Only a few hundred feet separated the public pools. They were within sight of each other, but they were a whole world apart.
Johnny then told me about his childhood in Caruthersville, Missouri. He had lived in a neighborhood with a diverse group. One of his best friends was white. There was a public pool right across the street.
He told me about playing under a tree with the white boy, about wrestling in the dirt with his friend all summer but every day about 3:00 p.m. the white youth would go inside to clean up and change into his swim suit, then go to the pool to cool off.
Johnny told me about standing outside the fence, watching the white kids splashing and playing while he thought, “I could do that. I could jump off that diving board and do tricks. I could play in that water.”
I was saddened and angered.
I wanted to cry for that little boy who stood outside the fence on a hot Southeast Missouri summer day, close enough to hear the laughs and shouts; close enough to be splashed now and then by someone jumping in to that cool, cool water. Close enough to imagine exactly what he might never, never to be allowed to experience.
The father in me was angered. I wanted to take that little boy by the hand and walk to the gate, and insist, “We’re going in. You won’t stop me and you won’t stop him.”
But I was also filled with pride. I’m proud that Johnny and I live in a country that is not afraid to say, “This is WRONG.” I’m pleased that our nation attempts to fix its mistakes, tries to heal old wounds.
I am proud to live in a country with people like Johnny’s in-laws, who stood when others would have cowed down. And I’m happy to have a friend like Johnny who brought it home to me without coming right out and saying it that I lived through that era, saw it on TV, but I was the boy in the pool.
He was the boy outside the fence.
Johnny and I grew up in different towns, so I don’t know for sure if our paths ever crossed, but they probably did. I’m glad those days are over but how I wish I could go back for a few minutes and be that buddy of his so that I could go to the gate and say, “If you won’t let my friend in, I won’t go in either.”
We might not both be able to swim, but we could find something else to do…together.
Addendum: Since my drive to and from work takes at least ½ hour and I find that many of the offerings on the radio can be intellectually useless at best and false or insulting at worst, I frequently listen to audio books on my CD/MP3 player. Audio books can be checked out of the library or purchased, but I was lucky enough to discover a little treasure called Audiovox. On the website www.audiovox.org you can download many of the classics for free. That is where I acquired the writings of Frederick Douglas mentioned above. Check it out. Although the books are sometimes not up to the quality of professional productions, convenient and free are tremendous equalizers, especially for someone like me with a budget more limited than his taste for literature. You can download the files to your computer and put them on a CD or jump/thumb drive to listen to at your convenience.
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(above) Martin Luther King Jr. speaks of how it should be.
(below) How I wish it was back then. I’m so glad that smart, good people back in those days worked so hard to make changes so that, now, Johnny’s and my grandkids can play together, like these beautiful children. (photo courtesy www.unsplash.com)