As I sit here in my screen porch watching the Bahamian waves wash up the white sand beach, I bewilder myself by letting an old memory barge into my mind. That this thought invades my consciousness occasionally, must mean it really bothers me…especially when it appears out of nowhere while content in paradise:
Mary and I, in the 70’s, had ventured from our life in the cities to live on a farm near Jordan, Mn. We were miles from any neighbors, but one of the closest, an older couple, had come to introduce themselves. The first thing out of her mouth as she entered our home: “The last time I was in this house a seven foot nigger was standing right where you are.”
It must still bother me, because, unusual for an Irishman…especially a cocky (I’m accused of) one like me…I had said nothing. And am still ashamed. My immediate reaction had been to ask her to leave my house. But she was the first neighbor we had met. I’ve considered maybe I should have lectured her on racism? At least I would have communicated my disapproval. But, maybe for the first time in my life, my mouth opened…and nothing came out.
Although we were only 35 miles from the Twin Cities, this was rural white America. Certainly her statement expressed ignorance, not because she had had no education, but because she had had no experience with black people. Probably all she knew of black people is what she saw on the news of violence and poverty in the city. Lecturing a woman in her 80’s, raised cloistered in white farm country, on racism would, I’ve rationalized, done no good…only to alienate a neighbor. I’ve considered, when this memory invades my peace, that I should have invited her over again when one of my best friends was visiting with his lovely, friendly black wife—a teacher. Would that have given her the experience she needed to open up her mind?
Or, if she had observed a black president honorably and respectfully running the country alongside an elegant black wife and two charming, well-behaved black daughters, would that have helped? If the article I shared last blog is accurate, it unfortunately, would not have altered a life-long bias cemented in her life-long world view.
I believe the reason this memory washed into my mind today is that on this little, remote outer island in the Bahamas everyone from wealthy yacht-owners anchored in the harbor to the poorest of native islanders treat each other with respect. The other night on our way to conch fritters at Captain Jack’s, Mary and I passed several people whose hellos ranged from German, to French, to Asian. Two black men who had been speaking an unintelligible “Pidgeon-speak,” cast a “good evening” in a precise, almost British, accent.
These people are educated, not so much by the schools they attended, but by the experience of the decency of diversity.
Last year I volunteered to speak to a 7th and 8th grade class at the charming red and white island school on the cay. In the class were the children of the elite yacht owners and of the poor native islanders. They were all delightful. There was obvious respect for the dark, shy island girl, who asked the most the interesting question, as well as the blond-haired English aristocrat’s boy. What If if all of our educations had been like this?
By the way, after class the teacher informed me that the shy island girl was the Spelling Bee champ for all of the 700 island in the Bahamas.