Looking back on my life, I am amazed at the changes I have seen in the interactions between races in the generations before and after mine.
I grew up hearing stories from my maternal grandmother about her grandmother, who “died of pneumonia from tending the ex-slaves who were sick” You see, these ex-slaves were so content with their lot after ‘the whoa-ah” ended that they wanted to stay on, as just one big happy family. I never believed that propaganda; my mother taught me the truth. While my grandmother had more of an Old South view on racial interactions, my mother’s view was more one of compassion. She saw many of the indignities that black people endured in her small southern town, and felt sad about how African Americans were treated in her generation.
I began school on the first wave of integration in public schools. I do not recall my parents ever using the “n” word, or speaking disparagingly of black people. But I do remember my older brother making racist remarks often as we grew up. I probably bought into some of his views in my youth. Then I watched the miniseries Roots on television at age twelve. It made a big impact as it gave me a painful glimpse of the violence and sufferings of African Americans during slavery.
As an adult, the PBS documentary Africans in America sparked a yearning to know more about the African American experience in this country. I bought the book, read it, and sought out other books on many different topics regarding race in America. It took many years for me to get a better understanding of African American culture and history. In my schools growing up, the only black history taught were snippets about George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, and Booker T. Washington. I had no idea that African Americans built this country in large part, fought with valor in all of our wars, and bravely spearheaded their own fight for freedom and equality.
When my daughter Jamie started school, she became best friends with Somer, an African American child at her preschool. They were inseparable from preschool through high school. The friendship that I developed with Somer’s parents was a good experience for me. They were both more educated than me, had better jobs than me, made more money than I did, lived in a nicer house than Jamie and I did, and frankly they were better parents than I was in many ways. It was good for me to personally see and know this successful African American couple, and so many others just like them at Jamie’s school. It helped to reinforce the lessons I was learning from my readings.
I will never forget one night when I drove Jamie and five of her friends to a middle school dance. We were all crammed in my Honda CRV, listening to music on the radio, and I looked in my rear view mirror and saw all these happy kids: Jordan, half-Arab, half Caucasian; Reggie, African American but raised by a Caucasian adoptive single mother; Nam, Asian; Jamie’s boyfriend Justin, half black and half Caucasian; Somer, and Jamie. We had our own little Rainbow Coalition right there in my car.
That image has stayed with me because it felt as though I was looking directly at America’s future. It was a seminal moment in my life, seeing those kids laughing and having fun, each one on an equal social footing with the others, and seeing no skin color. It gave me a sense of hope, a promise that America was changing, with each successive generation, on the way to becoming a more integrated, cohesive country, one Rainbow Coalition at a time.