Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

A conversation…a confession about race

Two men.

Different as different could be. Save for gender. And age. Both 60-something. And stage of life. Both retired. And, both Episcopalians, religious upbringing.

One. White. An attorney. The child of an old Southern family with roots tracing back to mid-17th century English colonists. His mother, a painter of note and an author. His father, a prominent attorney from a long, generational line of prominent attorneys.

The other. Black. An Episcopal priest. Midwestern born. His mother, an elementary school teacher. His father, a postal clerk.

Two men, largely different as the proverbial day and night, in an unlikely, serendipitous (Spirit-led?) encounter in a quiet corner of a coffee shop of a local bookstore, engaging in an unlikely, serendipitous (Spirit-led?) conversation about race…

A conversation that, once he discovered my vocation, became his chosen opportunity for his confession. “I’ve wanted, I’ve needed to share this with someone for a long time…”

He sat forward, clutching his coffee cup in his hands, first, looking down, averting his gaze, telling me of his formative years. His parents had taught him that his privileged life bore an obligation to care for those who were needy, which, he acknowledged, as he understood their instruction, meant those who were lesser endowed with the material blessings of life, which, he further admitted, meant those who weren’t white. His parents, “Good people,” he quickly asserted, did not teach him that they were “better than other people.”

Still, certain moments in his childhood were indelibly, painfully imprinted on his memory.

His nanny, “a lovely, kind lady”, who cared for him from his earliest days, wasn’t allowed to enter their home through the front door. One morning, he, then at the age of 8, seeing her approach the house and turning, preparing “to go around to the back”, opened the front door, happily welcoming her; an impertinence, his parents made clear, that prompted an unpleasant scene of his being corrected and of her being chastised…

On another occasion, he, accompanied by his nanny, rode the bus downtown. He could not understand why she had to leave him and go to the rear when there were plenty of empty seats in the front. When he asked her, she declined to say more than, “That’s the way it is.” When he later asked his parents, they simply affirmed, “She is right.”

But somehow, even as a child, he knew it wasn’t right. “What is right,” he looked up at me, his lips trembling, yet his voice firm, “is that we’re all equal because God made us that way.”

Then, as best as I can recall, he said something like this: “For a long time, I’ve thought about Jesus on the cross asking his Father to forgive those who were killing him. I finally decided if he, who died for me, could do that, I needed to forgive my parents for their ignorance. But,” he held out his hands to me, “I need to be forgiven for my silence. All these years, I’ve known what was right and I never said or did anything to make it right. I promised God I would do something, whatever I can, but right now I want you to ask God to forgive me. Please.”

Taking his hands, we said the Confession of Sin that Episcopalians pray every Sunday. Then, making the sign of the cross, I pronounced the absolution of sin. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He mouthed a silent, “Thank you,” stood, and departed.

For a while, I sat motionless; moved, stunned by the experience of his transparent honesty, his naked humility, his patent sorrow, and his evident need, and by the swiftness of our entry into the depths of our encounter and the abruptness – yet, in its own way, timeliness – of its end. I do not know whether we will see each other again. It’s doubtful, I think. But, if we do, I will say to him, “Thank you.”

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a privileged position

Recently a friend shared a web post on privilege, pointing to the reality that humans, by virtue of qualities of birth beyond individual command or control, e.g., gender (read: male), race (read: white), affluence (read: rich and educated), nationality (read: American), and combinations thereof, possess unspoken, often unconscious economic, environmental, political, and social advantages.

As I read the article, I was reminded of a passage addressing this issue from my June 2008 novella, The Makings of a Memorable Life. (Since 2006, I’ve been writing these works of fictional prose for personal pleasure and the exercise of my imagination.) I share the episode.

The characters: Madeleine Katharine Fitzgerald, 26, only child of a prominent Atlanta family of attorneys, a graduate of Cornell University and law school. Carl Antony Thomas, “Cat”, 21, born to a farming family on the outskirts of the fictional small town of Robardsville, SC, recently completing his sophomore college year, his matriculation having been delayed by family struggles and personal strife.

The scene: Washington, DC, 1971 (not long after the end of the formal Civil Rights Era and the emergence of the Black Power movement and the April 1968 rioting in DC and 110 American cities, the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., that made unmistakably visible and palpable the all-consuming rage in many a heart and soul). Cat is visiting Madeleine, who works in DC. They return to her apartment following dinner with one of Madeleine’s clients and friends, Dorothea Jackson, who, meeting Cat for the first time, hardly veiled her skepticism about mixed raced couples.

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Entering the apartment, swiftly Madeleine turned, closing the door; leaning against the wall, sighing, trying to release the terrible discomfort she had harbored all evening. “I’m sorry, Cat. I just don’t understand.”

I do. The idea that people need to stay with ‘their own kind’ isn’t held only by white folk. Black folk, some of us, believe it, too.” His sadness suddenly was eclipsed by an explosion of energy and anger. “And if I’m a ‘good man,’ a ‘good black man,’ why do I want a white woman? Am I rejecting women of my own race?” Gesturing madly, speaking to some unseen audience of inquisitors, he paced about the room, seeking without success a comfortable place to stand, without and within. “Do I think black women are inferior? No! Less beautiful? No! Less attractive than white women? No! Have I bought into the white culture’s definition of what is beautiful? No, I have not!”

Madeleine was overwhelmed by the vigor of his oration, the tenor of his voice. “I never would think those things about you!”

“Of course you wouldn’t. You’re white. It wouldn’t ever occur to you.” Standing still, he looked into her eyes. “It doesn’t have to occur to you.”

She hadn’t quite understood what he was saying, but felt he had misunderstood her expression of confidence in him. The conversation having turned in a perplexing way left her feeling lost, anxious, and defensive. “What do you mean, Cat?”

“It’s the privilege of being white in America, especially if you’re privileged. And you are, Madeleine! You don’t have to think about what you have or don’t have because you’ve always had whatever was considered valuable. In fact, you…not you, Madeleine, but you, white people, always have had the power to define what was valuable. So, you don’t have to think about whether you’re buying into someone else’s definitions. They’re all yours! Money. Opportunity. Society, you know, family and friendships that were given to you at birth. Even dreams! You’ve always been able to dream without having to pay a price for it. The price of having a dream, but not being able to fulfill it. You always could dream and make it come true!” Again Cat strode around the room, his arms flailing, his voice rising and falling in accord with the overflow of his anger and sorrow.

She never had seen him like this and it, he frightened her. What scared her most was her sense of the divide between them. One she hadn’t thought about, even given their experiences and encounters with those whose bigotry and racism was pronounced. One, given what he had said, she believed he must have thought about many times. “You’re right, Cat. I haven’t…I don’t think about these things. Definitions of value or beauty. Do you? Do they occur to you?”

“Of course they do! I’ve asked and answered myself many, many times, especially once I knew I had fallen in love with you.”

And?” Apprehensive, she bent forward, not sure of his reply and knowing she had to ask.

“No. I’ve already said that I don’t believe white is the standard of beauty. I don’t believe I’ve opted for the dominant culture’s description of what is good and fine or desirable. At least, not consciously.”

“I think I understand that. As hard as it is to hear.”

“Yeah. Like a fish in water breathing through its gills.” Coming to rest, his turn to lean against the wall, his hands stuffed in his pockets, he exhaled. “It’s hard to know at any moment how much of the environment is inside you or out.”