Go Set a Watchman is burning inside me.
While the book centers on Jean Louise, the undercurrent is about how much white people in the South loved blacks as long as they acted, for no better a term, like their pets. The trouble in Watchman starts when black people want to be treated as equals. The white people feel betrayed- one character actually says, “after all we’ve done for them…” The opinion on Brown vs. Board of Education has just been released by the Supreme Court, and the entire state of Alabama, including Maycomb, is incensed.
To be fair, the whites genuinely believe they are helping. It makes them feel good to give blacks their old clothes and the toys their children don’t play with anymore. They literally do not have the capacity to see why this is unequal, especially in a town as small as Maycomb… and this attitude is still present in the South if you know where to look for it…….. I am from the South. I have seen it with my own eyes. Whites have no issue with parental generosity to black people, but God forbid putting them next to whites in the office or in school.
My own education was like this, especially in a small town. Blacks had their own neighborhoods, and whites had theirs. The only real integration was on the football team (which was awesome- the team was tight-knit). In school, we sat at different tables in the lunchroom. We whites did not understand why blacks talked differently, but it seemed to me that there wasn’t an issue with it. It just was. Queer to our ears, but not enough for comment. I cannot remember having a single black friend until grade seven. Of course there were black people in our classroom, but it’s not like we went over to each other’s houses to play.
One of the memories from middle school that I will always regret is sharing a bed with Leslie (my middle school black friend) on a class trip to San Antonio. Before she went to sleep, she put a kerchief over her curlers and I laughed my head off and told her she looked like Aunt Jemima. Now, there is not a racist bone in my body. I literally meant that she looked like a syrup bottle. In retrospect, I can see her face clearly and how much I didn’t know.
When I was 19, I dated a black woman. One Sunday morning, I went to her house to pick her up for church. Her parents looked at me like I had three heads the entire time. It was so uncomfortable that the word awkward was onomatopoetic. It was like an alien had arrived to take their daughter away. They were drinking coffee while my girl put on her last minute church touches, and I asked for a cup of coffee as well. Not wanting to be impolite, her mother gave me one and stared the entire time I was drinking it, as if white people drank coffee differently and there might be cooties left on the cup. White is not catching. I looked it up.
In reminiscing on that moment, it’s hard to tell whether they were upset that I was female or white or both. As I have said before, if you’re in an interracial relationship in Texas, no one will notice you’re gay.
I didn’t know that there were American blacks that spoke just like me until I moved to DC the first time around, in 2001. I say “American blacks” because I went to the Bahamas as a kid and was fascinated by black people with British accents. Moving to DC was an education in itself, because had I not moved here, I don’t think I would have discovered that there was a difference between Southern and Northern blacks. And this is not to say that either is better or worse- just different. Because there is less segregation, there is less difference in language. There is less difference in education. It just highlighted to me how backwards the South was, because integration was key to black success… and in the South, there is less incentive on both sides of the equation.
If it sounds like I am pulling for black integration into white society, I am sorry. That is not my point in the slightest. My point is that every black deserves a white education, and every white deserves a black education. The way to equality is always compassion and understanding. I have been to majority white schools my whole life. I chose Howard on purpose. I understand the white side of the issue. It’s time to flip my understanding on its ear. If I am called to be Christ in the world, one of my jobs is to understand race relations, and I will never understand unless I experience. There is only so much experience I can have not being black myself, but at least I am making the effort. I am one of the white people that wants to absorb the experience of being black in America, because my skin is white, but my eyes and ears are open. I seek to learn.
I am angry about #alllivesmatter, because of course they do, but the hashtag misses the point entirely. #blacklivesmatter is bringing attention to racism, because the treatment of black people in America has long been a disaster area of an enormous proportion. Whites fall into the guilty category most of the time, and with their WASP upbringing are loathe to talk about it. There are also those who are still angry that the South lost, and take it out on the descendants of slavery daily. There are still more people who just don’t care enough to engage. As with voting, this is where the rubber meets the road. What if all the people that didn’t care suddenly did? How different would the country look?
In Watchman, there is what is going to be a famous scene in which Jean Louise goes to Calpurnia’s house. While there, Scout realizes that a wall has gone up between them because of current race relations. It brings them into sharp picture, ironic only because Calpurnia has gone blind.
Jean Louise rails at the heavens, and it burns her up thinking about the fact that Cal raised her. The truth that came up for me in all this was thinking about race relations in different areas of the country, and how it’s funny how fast things change, and how nothing ever does.