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A Smile to Bridge Troubled Waters

Bridging The Racial Divide

Black And White, Baby, Boy, Kid, Child

When I was in tenth grade in high school in 1970, my progressive English teacher engaged all of his “lily white” suburban area students with a half a year of Black Renaissance literature. I loved it! This material opened me to a new world of awareness, especially about racial inequalities and diverse voices.  Our book Black Voices  included the following poem that I have never forgotten:

The Incident
by Countee Cullen (1903-1946)

Once riding in old Baltimore,
    Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
    Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
    And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
    His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”

I saw the whole of Baltimore
    From May until December:
Of all the things that happened there
    That’s all that I remember.

 

This poem by Countee Cullen has been with me since tenth grade and now, with the Black Lives Matter movement still needing to draw attention to persistent racial inequalities in America, it has resurfaced in my own, shall I say, racial memory.  I have had a counter sort of experience I like to share.

Bus Stop, Waiting, Bus, Public Transport

Around 1978 I was living in Buffalo, New York while in graduate school.  I used the bus system to get around in the city, and one night I was in inner city Buffalo near midnight, waiting for a bus connection at around 11:30 PM, the last bus of the night. I was returning to my apartment across town from an activity at the spiritual center I was involved with.

The bus stop was just outside from a bar. While I stood waiting for what would be around 20 minutes there at the bus stop, a man wobbled out from the bar and approached me. I could smell from his breath that he was quite tipsy. He happened to be black, maybe in his mid-thirties or so.

grayscale photography of jacket

“My name is Freddy,” the man said as he approached. “That is my car right there at the curb.” He continued: “I bet you think I’m gonna grab you by the arm ‘n drag you over there to my car and take you away and rape you.”

“No, I do not think that, Freddy,” was the answer that emerged from my mouth, much more calm and confident than I actually was beginning to feel about the situation.

“Well I could, you know. All I need to do is grab you and take you over there,” Freddy continued.

“My name is Linda. Do you live around here?” I asked (or something of this nature). I started asking about Freddy’s family, if he was married and how many kids he had.  He reciprocated and asked me about my life. I told him I was a college student waiting for the last bus home and that I had just come from my spiritual center across town.

We talked for a few minutes. Then Freddy said:

“I’m gonna stand right here and wait with you until the bus comes ‘n I’ll make sure nobody does anything to harm you.”

Freddy and I continued to talk for another fifteen minutes or so, then the bus arrived. I thanked him and we shook hands, then I boarded the bus and went home to my apartment across town.

Architecture, Building, Infrastructure

images are from pixabay.com

This encounter with Freddy has shaped a lot of my understanding about race relations.  I feel that so long as we see one another through the lens of stereotypes—helpless white female, drunk inner city Black man—we are likely to interact according to these stereotypes. But as soon as we connect with each other as individuals, as Soul=Soul, the stereotypes dissolve and we can see and hear one another for who we are.

So here is a Better Endings slight revision of the same Countee Cullen poem, The Incident:

Once riding in old Baltimore,
    Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
    Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
    And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, and he looked twice,
   and smiled back just as nice.

I saw the whole of Baltimore
    From May until December:
Of all the things that happened there
    That’s all that I remember.

 

Such a small shift in wording, a smile returned for a smile.

Is that so very much to ask of ourselves?