Finally after almost 40 years I can tell this story that is almost entirely about race, but only slightly less about ignorance, with a substantial overlap. Despite my great shame.
In 1981, a bad time to be finishing college (or being poor for almost any reason, under Reagan), I found myself with an accounting job with a factory in a tiny, rural south Georgia town. Both at work and in town I was almost immediately hated nearly universally as an “outsider.” Soon after my arrival my own neighbor unjustly threatened me at my door with violence. I kept three door locks engaged, didn’t go out at night, and reacted instantly to any footstep on the lowest step leading to my rented garage apartment.
Lacking a phone (since I was so often at work) or even a television, I passed my time with books (science fiction and fantasy, purchased by the grocery bag full), and the occasional drink, etc. Considering the circumstances, I was more than content in my solitude.
One Saturday in the early afternoon I was on the couch engaging in both pastimes when there was a knock on my door, strangely unannounced by the sound of steps. At my door stood a small, young Black child of perhaps 7–10 years (thus a lighter step than I would typically hear.) He very politely asked if he might have some pomegranates that my landlady grew on trees in the chin-link fenced backyard of my apartment.
First, a little background. Millen, Georgia was the first awareness I’d had of active, hate-filled segregation since the early 60s when it became illegal under federal law. In this small town Black lives simply did not matter, and Black deaths were not even reported in the local weekly paper (with a single exception in three years; “A black man was killed with a shotgun in a fight over a bag of potato chips.” I’ll never forget the deliberate phrasing that omitted everything about the victim except his race and gender.) The local doctor literally had separate waiting rooms based purely on race. Having once been lead out through the “white” one, it was immeasurably nicer from the sense of receiving more attention to cleanliness and furnishings, though with an undeniable sense of sterility. My home, while only two blocks from a US congressman (and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate, Bo Ginn) bordered on a very dissimilar one starting the next block over (and a world away.) During my three years there, I can’t recall a single week when I failed to hear shots and/or screams from that direction, yet never once sirens indicative of action or assistance of any kind. I assure readers that there were most assuredly shots from both directions, but those from the “white” side of town were more carefully concealed, and generally during the darkest hours of night. At that time, to some degree regardless of race, this tiny town had a murder rate more than four times that of NYC during the same pre-Giuliani period. Death and killing became an expectation never to offer disappointing results for its active participants.
At the outside of my screen door stood this polite young man, asking if he might be allowed a few pomegranates; at my side of the door stood a young, white, middle-class person of (not yet labeled) white privilege, still fairly new to this dangerous world of violence and racial hate around him. So, the response from this oh-so-wise and educated white guy was, “Sure, no problem. But I don’t have a key to the locked gate. I think you can climb over, like I do. If you have any trouble, let me know.”
Yeah. That’s what I said. That’s what I still hear when I listen to these words spoken from the past of this college-educated white guy. It wasn’t until later, looking back, that I realized he and I heard very different things. And instead of going with him, I sent him on his way.
But he followed my instructions (as he had perhaps felt he had little choice but to do.) A few minutes later he returned to my door, fruit in hand, and thanked me. As far as I know I never encountered him again. As time went by I learned just to what degree much of the south was still so very different from the northern states I had spent much of my youth in (despite being born in the deep south.) And it occurred to me that what I may have perceived as a slight change in his expression had meant, and just why he returned to my door before leaving.
To this day, rarely does a week go by where I don’t curse myself for my absolute stupidity, and the narrowness by which that young man may have escaped serious injury or death (as he was certainly entirely aware.) This young man, who not only was far wiser than I in understanding the dangers from humanity and his environment, was equally aware of how to best control the situation in order to bring about a conclusion that did not involve the deadly violence that very likely might have occurred if even one white neighbor had seen him astride a fence in that white neighborhood.
I guess one point of this is hate and racism aren’t the only reasons not to trust white people. Ignorance rates pretty high too.
Wherever you may be, whatever your name, I wish for your happiness and health, and thank you for your deep and mature understanding. And I beg your forgiveness, and hope some day to deserve it.