Wrestling with the dark parts of our past

Some readers may remember when Wilcox County made national news for hosting its first integrated high school prom just a few years ago. Folks around the country were flabbergasted that almost 60 years after schools were integrated, this kind of thing still happened.

Thankfully, the story became news because four students decided it was time for a change. They led fundraising efforts, and the school sponsored a prom for all students for the first time in decades. It turned out to be a great success.

The headline about the Wilcox County prom caught my eye when it popped up on my computer screen. But unlike some of my friends who commented about it on Facebook, I wasn’t shocked at all. You see, Wilcox County borders my home county of Ben Hill, and it hadn’t been but 15 years since I attended a segregated prom myself.

In my county, as in Wilcox County, the high school did not hold a prom. Proms, homecomings, other dances and social events were sponsored and planned by private groups. As it happened, the “white prom” was on Friday night, and the “black prom” fell on Saturday night of the same weekend. Occasionally, a black student would come with a date to the white prom, but generally, the crowd at each event looked pretty homogenous. And very few students really questioned it.

Now, I am ashamed to confess that I attended a segregated prom. And I am even more embarrassed that such a thing did not register with my 18-year-old self as something inherently wrong.

Sometimes when we grow up in a place, particularly when it is a place we love or among people we love, we become so entrenched in the way of life there that it’s hard to see its shortcomings. In my town, racial divisions were the norm. My neighborhood and my church were white middle-class, exclusively.

White people voted for white candidates; black people voted for black candidates. White people did business with white people, and black with black. Most people were not overtly cruel about these relational dynamics; we just accepted it as the way things were. I did not condone the inherent prejudice, but I did not speak up against it, either.

So in 1998, I went to my senior prom with all of my white friends and had a great time without ever noticing what was wrong with that picture.

Is there anything about your own past life that makes you ashamed? What is it about you that needs to be changed? What part of your past lies deep within you and still shapes how you see the world? Maybe it is something that haunts you every day. Or maybe it is something that still lies unquestioned. Maybe it is too uncomfortable for you to talk about. Perhaps you are even scared of it, afraid that it might bubble to the surface if you don’t keep it suppressed.

Is it a prejudice that you were taught as a child? A stereotype about people of another race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or class? Do you harbor resentment toward someone who hurt you? Is it greed? Are you quick to point out the faults of others without looking deep within to see your own?

How do we change those dark parts of ourselves?

Sometimes our lives are interrupted — even rudely interrupted — by people and events that awaken us to our own inadequacies. When that happens, don’t be stubborn about it. Pay attention. Sometimes those rude awakenings, while hard to endure, can become gifts to us. Change is not easy. But the growth that comes from it can be life-giving.

Of course, you don’t have to wait to be rudely interrupted. You can take charge of your own growth. Take the time to read a book or watch a program about a culture you don’t understand. Reach out to make a friend who is different from you.

Spend some time in prayer, meditation or therapy wrestling with some of the demons that lie deep within you, and ask God for healing. It may be hard work, but your health and wholeness depends on it. Indeed, the health and wholeness of our world depends on it.

The Rev. Julie Long is associate pastor and minister of children and families at First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon.