I felt discouraged this week. Sometimes I wonder why I keep writing about race and culture. It seems as if people don’t really care when it doesn’t impact their lives directly. On surface, of course, lots of people denounce racism, but most of those people will not ever do a single thing about it, because they don’t see their role in it, and they don’t recognize racist situations. In their minds the racists wear white sheets and burn crosses on lawns. They aren’t the people sitting near us in the restaurant giving us the “Southern stare” or the ones telling Ronald that President Obama is neither a citizen nor a Christian.
We experienced the “Southern stare” again on Friday night. I described how we coined the phrase in my post Amendment One: I See Hateful People (http://aboutracewriter.blogspot.com/2012/05/amendment-one-i-see-hateful-people.html).
We had gone out for pizza on Friday, and on our way out of the restaurant, a table full of people stopped eating, talking, and drinking to stare at us, as if they had seen the strangest thing and might never have a chance to see it again. You might be asking, “Why do you have to keep talking about it? Why does it bother you? I’ve been stared at before.”
I bring it up again and again, because it is common in our experience. We can’t go places without it occurring and if you are white, you don’t think about that happening to you. You may have been stared at, but not in this way, I promise you. You are expected and welcome just about every place you go. You don’t surprise, shock, or offend others. We do. Gay couples do. People who have physical deformities do. But if you are white, heterosexual, and physically average (which most people are), no one notices you, and you can go about your business. But for those of us who differ from the majority, our ability to go about our business is hampered and sometimes turns dangerous as it did for Trayvon Martin who was shot and killed returning from a quick run to the convenience store.
Take gay couples in my home state of North Carolina. Not only did the state vote to constitutionally define marriage as between and man and a woman, many preachers have spewed hate about homosexuality during their Sunday sermons. On Mother’s Day a Catawba County preacher railed against gay couples and called for them to be placed in concentration camps. Not only did he reach his parishioners with his hateful message, the church posted the sermon on You Tube where it was viewed 165,000 times before it was taken down.
An alumnus from Wake Forest University took out a full-page ad in the Winston-Salem Journal asking for the removal of the university’s chaplain Imam Khalid Griggs. The alumnus Donald Wood claimed Griggs, a Muslim, would replace all our laws including the U.S. Constitution with Shariah law.
The Ku Klux Klan still exists, and they planned to stage a rally and cross burning near Harmony, NC on Memorial Day weekend. Protestors turned out. One sign read, “Bigotry wrapped in religion is still BIGOTRY.” One resident of Harmony was quoted in the paper as saying, “[The Klan rally] was a shock to me. I thought that stuff died down.”
But it hasn’t died down. Such activity has actually increased. Though most people don’t think they support racism there is a new level of fear and anger about people who are different than the majority, particularly because minorities are now growing in number. See my post Demographic Evolution (http://aboutracewriter.blogspot.com/2012/05/demographic-evolution.html).
So I keep writing about it hoping I can contribute to changing our social views on race and culture. Over thirty-six years of experiencing race in America has taught me that change is slow and regression is prevalent. Sometimes I think I can’t change anything. Then discouragement paralyzes me.
But last night my resolve changed again.
We went to Ziggy’s, a national club in Winston-Salem, to see The Wailers perform. There is only one original member left, bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett, but we had seen Bob Marley and the Wailers twice before Marley died in 1981.
We were too early to purchase tickets, so we wandered upstairs to the outdoor bar. Ronald asked me to wait while he went to the restroom. He is always attendant to me at bars. I hated them when I was a young woman because men buzzed around me like flies on dog shit, and I hated the attention. I always thought my large eyes made me look vulnerable to their pickup lines. I’m not as worried now that I am a woman of a certain age, but Ronald is still protective, and I am appreciative.
I stood by the outdoor deck to wait for him. A man stopped him on the way, hugged him, and told him he missed him. The middle-aged black man with pocked skin stood at my height. He carried a stuffed messenger bag swung around behind his back. I heard Ronald tell him that he had the wrong guy, but the man insisted, “No, man, I know you. I just got out of prison, but I remember you.”
I wondered if he was one of the people Ronald spoke with on one of his late evening forays downtown during the warm weather. He likes to sit on the benches lining the sidewalks, watch the crowds walk by, talk to anyone who stops, and, he tells me, learn about life and people. A minute later the man’s white wife joined them, so I wandered over. She looked weary and shy. She weighed a good hundred pounds more than her husband, her skin was sunburned, her hair lay flat on her head and pushed behind her ears, and her teeth were dark on the edges and spaced apart.
Ronald introduced me, and the man told me I was beautiful and that Ronald was fortunate. Then he told us his wife waited for him while he served a fourteen-year sentence for shooting an intruder during a break-in at his home. He had found God in prison, as many do, and we talked about the Bible for a few minutes. Then they told us they were homeless, down on their luck, and looking for some help. We expressed our sorrow for their condition.
Soon we hugged one another good-bye like long lost friends. The man asked Ronald if he could talk to him privately, and I knew he was asking him for a handout. I stood with his wife and told her I hoped something good would come into their lives, and she told me she had spent a day in the hospital for heat stroke and how her husband was trying to keep her out of the sun. “Take good care of yourself,” I said when Ronald and her husband joined us again and we said our final good-byes.
“You didn’t know him,” I said after we had purchased our tickets and entered the venue.
“How much did you give him?”
“Twenty,” he said. I wasn’t surprised. On many occasions I witnessed Ronald give someone money, buy someone a meal, give something of ours to someone who needed it more than we did, or give someone a lift to a destination miles out of his way. His generous spirit is one of the things I love about him.
“They’ll get a nice meal out of it. Maybe at Jimmy John’s,” I said. I felt bad that we spent fifty dollars to get into the concert when it could have bought them a hotel room for the night. I knew they scoped us out, another interracial couple that would be empathic. I knew they lied, but I didn’t know what was true and what wasn’t.
“He worked for it,” Ronald said as if he had read my mind.
“You did what felt right,” I said.
The Wailers came on stage long after the opening band, just as I was growing tired of waiting, just before midnight. They opened with the song Get Up, Stand Up.
Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights
Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights
Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights
Get up, stand up, don't give up the fight
Preacher man don't tell me
Heaven is under the earth
I know you don't know
What life is really worth
It's not all that glitters is gold
Half the story has never been told
So now you see the light
Stand up for your rights
My whole mood lifted. I felt awake. Ronald and I, holding hands, moved to the music. I leaned into his ear and said, “I love the drummer.” I sang along with the lyrics. The crowd was quite diverse: people of all ages and all races, quite a few interracial couples. Reggae music has universal appeal.
The main singer was not Bob Marley, but he had a special stage presence, a mellow, soothing voice, and he sang in the pocket of the music, riding on the rhythm, taking his time, as if he were floating on the notes.
When the band took their final bows and left the stage, I was disappointed for a moment. “They didn’t sing No Woman, No Cry,” I said. “They can’t be done yet.”
The lead singer and the guitarist wandered back up on stage about five minutes later.
The singer began singing a cappella. The guitarist joined in after the first verse.
Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
'Cause all I ever have
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our mind
The rest of the band walked back on stage, and they began playing No Woman, No Cry. “You have to dance this one with me,” I told Ronald. He wrapped his arms around me and I nuzzled my head against his chin. We held each other tightly as the lyrics washed over us:
No, woman, no cry.
'Cause - 'cause - 'cause I remember when a we used to sit
In a government yard in Trenchtown,
Oba - obaserving the 'ypocrites - yeah! -
Mingle with the good people we meet, yeah!
Good friends we have, oh, good friends we have lost
Along the way, yeah!
In this great future, you can't forget your past;
So dry your tears, I seh. Yeah!
No, woman, no cry;
No, woman, no cry. Eh, yeah!
A little darlin', don't shed no tears:
No, woman, no cry. Eh!
I felt the urge to cry and squeezed my arms tighter around Ronald’s neck. He tightened his arms around my waist.
I know now that I have to get up, stand up. I have to keep writing about race and culture, even when it is painful and when people wonder why I keep talking about it. I may not change anyone or anything. No woman, no cry. All I have are redemption songs.