On the rare occasions that my father had the time, he would sit and watch our first color TV and laugh with the same fervor that we imagined Santa Claus laughed. He would watch Roadrunner with glee, and the Honeymooners and Archie Bunker. I couldn’t understand the comedy of cartoons, couldn’t relate drawings to what my eyes saw around me. I couldn’t understand the jokes on the Honeymooners or Archie Bunker; couldn’t understand why the people on TV behaved like they were reading out loud from a book and pretending so badly to be whatever it was they were pretending about.
From the get-go, my mind translated what I saw on TV to be nothing like reality. I didn’t have to be taught that what was on TV wasn’t real. It was way too obvious. What was shown on the news became the same; it was pretend, fake, put-on, farcical and made up. I could understand Captain Kangaroo, but not the shooting of President Kennedy that they interrupted Captain Kangaroo to show. I didn’t understand why Mr.Green Jeans didn’t step onto the screen to explain what I just saw. Instead, there was Walter Cronkite in tears, saying the president had been shot. Not long after, it was Martin Luther King that was shot, and then Malcolm X. Still, it wasn’t reality.
No. It was on TV, so it wasn’t real. No one ever said otherwise.
So, when the news showed scenes of demonstrations against racial segregation, it wasn’t real. The pictures of “coloreds here” and “whites here” weren’t real. Black people were only on TV, so they weren’t real either. There were no black kids in my school. There were no racial signs to be seen anywhere, and no segregation. By the time I got to Junior High, desegregation was law and the one and only black kid enrolled in my school. To me, it just looked like he spent way too much time out in the sun, and in every other way, he was no different than the rest of us. I never got to know him, so I never knew if his reality was any different than mine. It didn’t appear so, so I gave it no mind. Carl was just another kid.
Somehow, my conversation with a woman I respect and admire very much turned to our childhoods and what it was like growing up.
“When we were kids, there was a line that we didn’t cross. No black person ever crossed that line on the top of the hill and no black person ever went to the town on the other side of that hill,” she said. “In High School, we had this field trip and me and a friend rode in a car with white friends. We were both terrified when we drove over that hill. Other blacks had gone over and never come back. They would just disappear, never to be seen again.”
Horrified, eyes wide, I listened to her describe the school she went to. There was never any new textbooks. There wasn’t much art or music or other activities, but there was basketball “because you know we play good basketball,” she said. Even so, the basketball team never played in any white school. No, they weren’t allowed there. Her mother worked in a restaurant in town and was almost fired when she forgot and came through the front door to see her mother after school. Only whites could come through the front door. Blacks had to use the back door. Her brother was the first black student in the local Christian university.
It made no sense, it was an abomination, it was the perfect illustration of hypocrisy and the most often-seen Christian behavior. She is the first person I had ever met that lived through the horrors of segregation and I told her so. We agreed that there are many that profess to be Christians with one face and turn around in a split second to show their true, ugly face that is deceptive, cruel, and abusive, all with no limits or inhibition.
I staggered out of her office, my mind reeling as I drove home. To hear those stories from someone who was there, who lived through it all, drove a reality I had never had a reason to believe before into my heart. I do not understand how anyone, no matter what race or nationality, can behave toward another human being with such blatant hatred, then turn around and go to church to profess their belief in God; like that would make them a good person, forgiven of their sins and holier than anyone else.
“We just come from different cultures,” she had said to me. “That’s why you don’t believe it.” There was more to learn, to face, to digest; that I’m sure of. The images she planted in my brain will be with me forever.
I’m embarrassed to be a member of the human race.