I spent yesterday at two different events. One was a service at Calvary Episcopal Church to dedicate a new marker on the site of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s slave market. The old marker referred to Forrest’s time in Memphis where his “business enterprises made him wealthy.” The old marker did not identify Forrest’s business as human trafficking—selling men, women, children, and babies.
The old marker went up one year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine. The old marker was proud of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s time in Memphis, how wealthy the city had made him. The marker commemorated a fine, upstanding, honored Memphian . . . who specialized in selling slaves smuggled into this country illegally. So in a way, the marker did tell the truth: 100 years after all moral people had repudiated slavery, white Memphis wanted to honor a man who sold Black folk.
The service and unveiling of the new marker was extremely emotional. The emotion became palpable, causing all in the sanctuary to rise, when the names of many people sold at the site were read aloud. Calvary is a predominately white church. Both Black and white Memphians attended the service. The primary impact—in my opinion—was white people acknowledging denied truths, and Black people hearing them do it.
The afternoon I spent at the National Civil Rights Museum. When I walked into the courtyard, I expected to see a racially mixed crowd like the one I’d just left at the church. The NCRM crowd was almost all Black. I was shocked. Ignorant as always, it simply hadn’t dawned on me that white faces would be missing from those gathered at the NCRM. After all, I had set our travel schedule around being in Memphis on the anniversary. I couldn’t imagine not being at the NCRM on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death.
I believe later in the day—when the Reverend Al Green performed, for example—the crowds were more mixed; I assume the same for the ticketed events with speakers and panels. But that afternoon, Black families had taken off work to be at the Museum. Parents and kids were sitting on bleachers and curbs and makeshift perches simply to be there. The feel of the gathering was one of sacred presence. Witnessing. Being with others to remember together.
When I saw the solemn gathering, I felt a wash of shame, knocked down a notch or two for my attitude—I’m going to the MLK50 celebration! Yesterday, I posted a quote from Dr. King’s last book my MLK50 posts have been based on, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? The quote said white folks will never understand what it means to be Black in America. The quiet being-present of the Black families at the NCRM brought this home to me.
No matter how much I admire Dr. King, it’s different for me, and it always will be. For those gathered, this isn’t a “cause.” It is life.
In reading Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community, I was struck by Dr. King’s repeated point that, following the Civil War, the country released the formerly enslaved into the land of their oppressors. These men and women found themselves in the “territory of their enemies.” In their new life, they were financially dependent on those who had enslaved them. Jobs and work and the ability to earn a living were completely controlled by those who seethed with hatred that they no longer could claim ownership of the ones now freed.
I took a moment and let this sink in. “Enemy territory.” No place to turn for work other than the one who had claimed ownership over you. How could this strike anyone as fair?
We haven’t gotten the story of race in America right yet. It’s as if the wound of race scabs over with time, but the scab is only the latest version of events palatable to white America. Perhaps we inch closer to the truth with each iteration, but we aren’t at the truth, and we must—once again—rip off the scab and try again. Why go through this agony? Because if we accept the bowdlerized version of history, we deny the injustices of the past and experience no motivation to fix them.
Her hair wound in a braid down her back, always. She was Indian, her dad a professor at Duke. Sonja was her name. We were in the 7th grade, she a part of the group of girls who had welcomed me, the new student, into their friendship. She wore tennis shoes to school and the long black braid.
One time, at a spend-the-night party, I saw her hair freed. It was beautiful, thick and lifting. It nestled around her neck, kissed the air like a black halo. I talked her into wearing it loose to school. She’d never done that before.
Monday, I saw her at the water cooler, her hand whipping around to braid her hair back into place. “No,” I said, when she told me they’d made fun of her, laughed at her hair. “It’s beautiful.”
“I listened to you,” she said, wiping away the tears with the back of her hand then taking a drink of water to hide her crying. “I won’t do it again.”
I had forgotten how much I hate giving advice to kids. Then yesterday I spoke to a roomful of 10th-12th graders about writing a speech for a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Oratory Contest. I was asked to speak because I believe in encouraging every writers’ voice. I believe in giving folks an opportunity to express what they want to express in their own particular, personal, creative way. I also believe in elbowing room at the table so others will listen to what they have to say. But until yesterday, my audience had always been adults.
In the middle of the night last night, I woke up in a cold sweat wondering what I had done. And I remembered Sonja.
I saw the clump of boys. They were down the hallway where Sonja had pointed. Her taunters weren’t other girls. They were boys. Our group was not the popular girls. We were the smartest girl in the class; the only Indian girl in the grade; the skinny Black girl in heavy glasses; the new girl who wore inappropriate clothes (my Lord, when I read this, I see an awful after-school special). The boys were the athletes, the cute boys. Boys who never paid one iota of attention to us. Now they are making fun of Sonja. And it was all my fault.
The topic for this years’ MLK speech was bullying. The facilitator asked me to use an example of a “good” speech as part of my talk. To comply, I had to do some research. I don’t remember reading anything about those who inadvertently put someone in a situation to be bullied, because it was only in the middle of the night that I remembered Sonja. When that happened, I lay there thinking, I told those kids to talk about what was interesting to them. I told them what they had to say was going to be what really mattered. I told them to put themselves out there, the very thing that could wind up leading someone to bully them.
What I can only hope is that Sonja grew up into a world that appreciated her beauty. I hope she did not spend her life with her hair tightly braided because releasing it had not worked well for her in the past. I hope she does not remember me as a rash girl who thoughtlessly stuck her nose into a place it didn’t belong, resulting in hurt. I hope that if one of those kids writes an amazing speech that reveals his or her heart in an extraordinarily odd way, their peers will clap and cheer, the sound of applause drowning out anyone who might jeer at a child’s willingness to be vulnerable.