It’s been a while but I felt the need to speak up as have so many protesting around our nation and the world. I don’t have anything profound to say but I would like to share some of my experiences with people of color. Some of these were learning moments, others were random acts of kindness that I have carried with me.
Ms. Johnson was my first grade teacher in Detroit Public Schools. Our first day in class, she looked us over and said “You WILL learn to read in my class”. Black, white, she terrified all of us equally, we knew she meant business. I learned to read from Ms. Johnson.
Lisa, one of my classmates in that same first grade class taught me a new phrase. We had a disagreement and I was ready to continue the fight when she looked at me and said, “lets make up”. I didn’t know the meaning of these words so I agreed thinking that our conflict would escalate, smiling she grabbed my hand and shook it.
Britt was one of my tenants when I was an apartment manager in Palmer Park in Detroit. He was a young working man with a family. He took the bus to and from work, every day he had to cross Woodward Ave. to go from the bus stop to our building. He related to me that when he would cross the street at the light he could hear “click click click” as people would lock their car doors at the sight of a young black man crossing in front of them. He taught me what racism felt like.
Mr. Smalls owned the plaster repair company that worked on our building. As it was an old building we saw each other fairly often. Whenever he saw me he would put his arm around me and with a smile on his face introduce me to his employees as his daughter.
One of our tenants invited us to one of her house parties to thank us for installing some new tile in her kitchen. It was the mid-eighties and it was the first time that I had ever heard the phrase “shut up!” as a response to hearing something surprising. I must have had a puzzled look on my face so she gently tapped my shoulder and said “Oh it’s just an expression.”
Paula Lord, a Trinidadian girl was my manager at a leather shop in St. Croix. When ever I was slacking she would look at me and say “Mahjree, why you don’t have a duster to your hand?”. We would smile at each other and then at the end of the day we would take turns going down to the drug store to grab a beer and sip them with a straw behind the counter. She taught me the value of work.
Sheila was one of my co-workers at a Deli on St. Croix. We had a crew of people from what seemed like every island in the Antilles chain. One day we had a tourist from the states, a black gentleman who was requesting more information about a particular cheese, I told him that I didn’t have the information but that I would be more that happy to contact the company in New York and try to find out. He scowled and said “Oh, you just don’t want to find me the information because I’m black”. Within what seemed like less than a second Sheila picked up her 18″ sandwich knife and started walking towards him and waving it in his face while stating, “You don’t come in here with that color SHIT! I don’t care if you’re black, brown or PURPLE!” She was suitably intimidating to where the customer backed up to the door and apologized. She stood up for me.
When my marriage was falling apart we went to counseling through an agency. Both of our counselors were young black women. Lisa was the first person in my life who in a moment of complete exasperation and brilliance barked at me from the top of her lungs “What do YOU want, what do YOU want out of your life!”. No one had ever asked me, I thought that pleasing everyone else was how I was supposed to lead my life. She changed that.
When I was at a low point in my life I would take walks at our local park to decompress. I was sitting on a park bench facing the water when a young man probably in his mid-teens sat down next to me and said “I know it’s real peaceful here and everything but I wanted to make sure that you were alright”. I was taken by surprise that a total stranger let alone someone so young could be so perceptive. I assured him that I was and thanked him for his kindness. Recalling this moment has brought me to tears many times since.
I was in Detroit coming home from work one day and as I turned the corner from Gratiot to Mack a car was coming at me from the wrong direction on a 2 lane road. I believe that they were trying to go around a block of traffic. I hit the brakes and had the thought that someone was going to come around the corner and rear-end my car. Sure enough that is exactly what happened. I stopped, the car that hit me stopped and a young man stepped out, walked up to me with his arms in the air and said “What the FUCK!”. I stepped up to him with my arms up in the air and said “What the FUCK is right, did you see that jackass going the wrong way?”. I explained to him what happened, he said he had just gotten his car repaired and this was the last thing he needed. I said I was sorry for that but I didn’t really have an option but to hit the brakes. He said he understood and then repeatedly asked if I was OK and made sure that I was before we parted ways.
These are just a few of the people and encounters that come to mind. I am grateful for how they changed my perspective and my life. I’m not going to say that I’ve been without bias or prejudice in my thinking, but I’ve tried to understand, I’ve tried to listen, I’ve tried to be a better person. I think we all have that in us.