Sunday, January 15, 2012

On this King Holiday, what I’m thankful for

As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here in the United States, a personal incident from many years ago comes to mind.

I no longer remember when this happened—it was probably back when I was in high school or junior high. But, one day, having seen films in school, and documentaries and movies on television, about the Civil Rights movement and the white racism that at one time was so pervasive in the American South—and knowing that my great-grandma (born in 1896) grew up in the “Heart of Dixie”—the state of Alabama—I asked her if she ever saw the Ku Klux Klan in person.


“You never saw them marching or anything like that?”

“No, I never saw that.”

That puzzled me, because I got the impression, from the documentaries and movies I saw, that the Ku Klux Klan was everywhere in the South.

“Well,” I asked, “did you have any trouble with white people down South?”

“We didn’t really have any trouble with the white folks,” said Grandma.

Now I was thoroughly confused. I had been taught about Jim Crow and lynchings and the black struggle for Civil rights, and here was Grandma—who grew up in Alabama—telling me she didn’t have any trouble with white folks down there.

“Well, how did you not have any trouble with whites?”

Grandma said, “Because we stayed in our place, and the white folks stayed in their place. So, we didn’t have any trouble.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever considered what it means to have a “place” you must stay in. It means all your dreams, hopes, goals and ambitions have all been circumscribed by society. It doesn’t matter your intelligence, gifts or potential. You can only be what others say you can be. You can go thus far, but no further. And the implied message was, “Stay in your place, or else!” That was what life was like for black people in the rural South when Grandma was growing up.

For Grandma, staying in her “place” meant that she could only go as far as the 8th grade in school. Staying in her “place” meant that she spent a lifetime doing menial labor, first on her father’s small farm, planting and hoeing and picking cotton and other crops. Then, after the family migrated north to Illinois, working as a maid, then as a short-order cook and, finally, as a self-employed hairdresser for 37 years, working out of the basement of her home, until she was 80 years old.

Imagine the potential damage to one’s spirit knowing “people like you” must “stay in your place.” Regardless of your talents, regardless of your abilities, because you are born “not white” you cannot aspire for anything higher or better in life than what society says you must be. Imagine the feelings of inferiority, resentment and bitterness that could develop.

Yet, I never detected a note of resentment or bitterness in Grandma. In fact, she was one of the most unresentful and contented individuals I’ve known. What was her secret? I never discussed it with her, but I think I know what her answer would’ve been: as a teenager, Grandma came to know Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. I believe it was Jesus who gave her contentment in spite of the limits imposed on her by society. I can hear her now, saying those words she often quoted: “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content” (Philippians 4:11 KJV).

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I’m thankful for two things: I’m thankful that God raised up a Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead a Civil Rights Movement that broke down societal barriers that kept black people like me in “our place.” Because of Dr. King, and countless others, doors were open to me that Grandma never dreamed of. But, I’m also thankful to God for the example of my great-grandma, and others of her generation who, by the grace of God, not only survived life in a racist society, but came through it without hatred or bitterness, because of their faith in Jesus Christ.

1 comment:

dMsmith said...

Great read. I wish I had had a grandma like yours!