The other side of the river

June 20, 2012 

I go to live on the other side of the river, hoping to find that it is no different from this side, and that we can no longer justify demonizing man for such false reasons.

-- John Howard Griffin

Fifty-three years ago, John Howard Griffin traveled to New Orleans. There, with the help of drugs, dyes and radiation, he darkened his skin, shaved his head, and crossed the line into a country of hate, fear and hopelessness of the American Negro. Many readers will remember that Griffin spent a couple of months traveling through the Deep South as a black man. Following this journey he published his observations in a magazine series and the widely read book “Black Like Me.” It has been said that this was his most traumatic gesture during a life devoted to radical empathy.

Perhaps this type of care and determination to make the world better has in fact contributed to the changes that we see today in the relationships between blacks and whites in the South. Although there continues to be much work left to do, it is crucial to pay close attention to the ways we have moved forward.

I saw a vivid example of some changes a few days ago as I traveled over a 1,000 miles by car to Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama. I remember the dread with which my family, and many other black families, undertook travel across the South because of the difficulty in finding welcoming restaurants, hotels or restrooms.

Even though my roadtrips over the past few years have been without incident, I am very conscious of my childhood and young adult memories about those trips of my past. My concerns about being in Mississippi were always at the top of the list, even though there are so many differences in the availability of services today, my memories are still quite strong.

So, last week when I began the drive from Memphis to a small town in Mississippi, I pondered over some of my old memories. I stopped for gas, after driving about half of the distance that I had to travel. The station was not very impressive, but it looked basically welcoming compared to the other places I might have chosen. As I left my car and started to walk toward the station store, there was a small group of young white people approaching the door. They arrived at the door a few seconds ahead of me and the young man opened the door and held it while three children entered. Then, he continued to hold the door; while he and the young woman with him stood there for a moment, so I could enter before them.

I smiled to myself and said silently, “it is a new day in Mississippi.” Of course, I know there is still racism there and across the nation, but it is important to pay attention to every act of kindness and everything that can be deemed as positive. Griffin is right, we can no longer demonize one another because of the color of our skin and each time we refuse to do it, there is a shift in the negative energy that works against justice, healing and reconciliation.

Does this small act of respect and kindness make up for the years of violence and unkindness? Absolutely not, but this act matters because it can help support other acts of kindness. Hopefully, it will continue to be a positive image in my memory for many years to come.

Amazingly, this encounter came a few days following my attendance at an inspiring Christian Scholars Conference on reconciliation. The intention to be reconciled requires a willingness to pay attention to the unexpected moments such as I have described and to keep their memory in our head and hearts everyday.

This column by Catherine Meeks, Ph.D., appears twice monthly. Meeks is also a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. E-mail her at kayma53@att.net.

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