What's Your Black History?
By Elaine Creasman
Black history month has come and gone. But I’m still asking a question of my family and friends: “What’s your black history?” What I mean is, “What were you taught about African-Americans?”
Then I tell them some of my black history.
I grew up in a “lily-white” area southwest of Chicago. I didn’t see black people every day. As a child, I heard talk of people leaving their neighborhoods in the city because “colored people moved in.”
I remember warnings about driving through black neighborhoods - especially at night. I’d ridden on the elevated trains with my parents, but some of my relatives warned against doing so because of “all those colored people.”
One memory stands out from my youth. I was maybe 10 years old and was swimming in a public pool in the next county on a hot summer day sometime in the 60s.
“Why are there hardly any people here?” I asked my father.
“Because colored people swim here,” was his shocking answer.
Some days, as I see the terrible effects of racism continue in our country, I feel ashamed of having been born white.
On one particular day at my large, mostly white church several years ago my then-teenage daughter invited three black male friends to Sunday school. She left them for a moment and when she returned, her friends were surrounded by security guards. One of the guards shouted, “You don’t belong here!” Why? Because certain people saw three black youth dressed differently then their own teenagers and concluded they were part of a gang. When these young people walked around in the book store, as one lady told me indignantly and “took more than one piece of sample candy,” people concluded they were thieves. When these teens who were poor, and therefore hungry, looked in different classrooms for cake they’d seen someone eating, it was assumed, “they’re casing the joint.”
Instead of doing what the Bible says “Love one another as I have loved you,” (John 13:34), frantic calls were made to security to deal with criminals on the premises.
These young men were gracious, despite their treatment. What broke my heart even more as they saw me crying was when one of them said, “Don’t feel so bad, Mrs. C. We get treated this way all the time. We’re used to it.”
I had to face a fact though. If I’d fully embraced the lies I’d been taught, I might have reacted the same way others in my church acted. I thought back to times in my recent past when I crossed the street if I saw a black man coming and how I avoided entering a checkout line if the clerk at the register was black.
The ladies from my church, whom I knew as loving, caring Christian women, denied acting out of prejudice. No apologies were ever offered.
If I’d asked those involved in that incident, I suspect that the answer to these questions would have been “never.” “When was the last time you hugged a black person, entered a black person’s home, or invited a black family into your home?”
When I asked these questions of a friend recently, she said, “I don’t have the opportunity.”
I used to think the same thing until I prayed about the issue. Then God opened doors. He opened my heart too.
My daughter brought scores of black youth home from school. Sadly, they told me other white parents wouldn’t let them in their houses.
Then I was invited to teach Sunday school to teens at a black church, and I accepted. After befriending some ladies who were members of a black church, I was invited to speak at a women’s retreat there. I joined integrated clubs and groups and attended integrated church services. As a Hospice volunteer, I started to choose black patients to care for. Not long ago I spoke in a black church at a black friend’s funeral about how she had impacted my life. At that moment I thought how racism could have robbed me of that.
If you truly seek racial reconciliation, you will find it. And once you integrate your life, you’ll have to confront racism – in those around you and in your own soul.
One Sunday a member of our church came to the pulpit after attending a Promise Keepers event. He talked about being raised to use the ‘n’ word, and in his profession as a policeman it was common practice. He went along with other officers even though as a Christian he knew it was wrong. That evening, choked with tears, he confessed before the congregation his racist attitudes and actions. The beauty of the moment reached a poignant peak when a black man, a fellow Promise Keeper who was visiting our church--walked forward and put his arm around him while he confessed his racist sins.
I plan to keep asking, “What’s your black history?” even as I continue to deal with my own—not just in February–but every month of the year.
This article first appeared in the February 11, 2009 issue of The Lookout.
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Elaine Creasman is a freelance writer and part-time mental health tech and lives with her husband, daughter, and granddaughter in Largo, Florida. Her website is www.elainecreasman.com.
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