The Power of Hope- On Racism

Among those I admire most are people who are unafraid to have their voices heard; I’ve always longed for the courage to be one.

Recently a friend and I were talking about racism. Her parents were an interracial couple who married in the 70’s and lived in the Deep South, her mother Caucasian and her father African-American. It is difficult to imagine the prejudices they faced daily as they raised their four children. My friend’s parents shielded them from much of the hatred but they couldn’t escape it entirely as their mother was shunned by some of her family members. Their father’s family was completely accepting of them.

My friend and I each have a child, hers a teen-aged daughter and mine a son who will very soon turn 21 (yikes!) Our children have friends of different ethnicities and do not see “color” in the same way that we were shown through either direct teaching or observed behavior. They give us hope that one day racism may not exist. When my son was in high school and talked about new friends he’d made, I never knew what color their skin was until I met them, and I loved that.

As she and I talked that day, I said the words I’d never spoken out loud before: “My dad was a racist.”

Is it guilt, shame, or a sense of betraying my own father that makes those words so hard to say? He’s no longer here and cannot defend himself. I never asked him why he held the views he did and suspect that he just couldn’t move past what was taught to him. Hatred is a heavy anchor to be chained to and it drowns any happiness that comes along. I think Dad found peace near the end of his life and I’m so thankful.

Some of the negative reviews for Go Set A Watchman: A Novel are reflective of how we feel when someone we once looked up to lets us down: ‘I hated it!’ ‘Don’t read it! Read the other one instead!’ ‘How could Atticus act that way?’ ‘What an awful story!’ It’s not an awful book or even an awful story. Lee’s writing is descriptive and easy to read; the reader gets to know the characters and is able to visualize the settings, just like in To Kill A Mockingbird. All these years, Atticus Finch has been our hero- we loved him and loved Scout for being a part of him. In Watchman, we see the grown-up Jean Louise’s disappointment when she finds Atticus upholding laws that were in place even though they were wrong. Her hero is a human who has faults…that means she is too.

When I was a very young girl, Dad was overseas a lot working as a consultant for an oil company and was gone for weeks at a time. Mom and I often travelled to wherever he was working, but when I started school those trips were limited. When Dad would come home, there was no greater joy! I wanted to spend all my time with him…we went on walks and drives together, had our “cocktail hour” every night (his was bourbon and mine was coke), and he told me stories about when he was young while showing me the places he’d been on our lighted spinning world globe.

I was nine when I first became conscious of Dad’s saying the n-word and he said it often. Though I didn’t fully understand the implications of that word, I felt sad every time I heard it because it was uttered with such hatred. How could my dad hate anyone? Why did he hate people because their skin color was different than ours? I don’t know what else was going on in my dad’s life around that time, but I was definitely aware that my parents’ marriage was dissolving quickly. I wanted Dad to be happy and I felt like a failure because I couldn’t make that happen.

It was three years later when my parents divorced and my father quickly remarried. Two years after that, he had another daughter. By that time, my mom had remarried as well and was happier. Throughout my teen years, Dad and I stayed in touch and continued to spend time together, albeit rather sporadically and sometimes at my mother’s urging. I’d become someone he didn’t like very much who no longer sought his approval. He liked young women who were thin, pretty, and agreeable- I was none of those and he voiced his disappointment.

We still took trips together, mostly to my grandparents’ farm. It was during one of those trips that we had a heated argument about the Civil Rights movement; Dad always placed high value on education, and every time we were together he wanted to know what we were studying in school. He asked what I thought about it. I told him that the Ku Klux Klan was a group of cowardly monsters so afraid of showing their faces that they had to cover themselves with sheets, and that they were wrong to persecute and kill others. Dad had a completely different view and was furious over mine. He never asked for my opinion after that, nor did I ever ask for his. As years went by, he tried the best he could to maintain our relationship. My own effort wasn’t as strong as his- that’s something I have to live with.

There were some good times though. Dad had a dry sense of humor and could come up with the funniest one-liners. He loved to sketch cartoon characters with hilarious captions on paper napkins. He was an innovative thinker with a brilliant mind who was an avid reader; we shared the love of reading- many of the books I have in my home today were gifts from him.

Even as I was not the daughter he’d hoped I’d be, we attained a sort of reconciliation with each other during the last several years of his life. Secrets he had kept for most of his life were exposed, he got to know the son he had fathered years before, and he was relieved of the burden of living a lie. Joy, love, and acceptance began to seep into his heart leaving less room for bitterness and fear.

I was with Dad when he took his last breath and was blessed with the gift of time to be able to tell him that he was loved, to thank him for all he had done for me, and to let him know it was okay to go.

Throughout history, each generation has complained about the one that follows- “Kids today don’t know how good they have it. They don’t have any respect. They don’t know the value of hard work. They listen to devil music. They don’t know how to dress. In my day…”-blah, blah blah. Our parents complained about us, and their parents complained about them. Everyone has their faults. What I see with my son’s generation is hope. I see young people speaking out against bigotry. I see college athletes, knowing they are role models for young children, publicly giving glory to God. I see love. Will they make mistakes? Yes, plenty- haven’t we?

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

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