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“I’m White and He’s Black!”

Growing up in then recent post-colonial Kenya, I don’t recall when, if ever, race consciousness hit me. My earliest recollections are a blended hue of white, black and brown.

Kikuyu herdsmen, young boys actually, are among my earliest memories. They regularly traveled by our front gate as they tended cattle, sheep and goats. I loved their weathered 1.5 meter long herding sticks, and the ease with which they shrilly whistled at their livestock; similar to what I remember trail hand and cook Frank McGrath shouting and whistling out to his team of horses on the 1960’s TV show, Wagon Train.

I remember our maid occasionally taking me on a long, winding footpath to a local, all-Kikuyu village market where she bought a loaf of white bread. When we arrived home she would cut thick slices, slather on a thick coating of delicious Blue Band margarine, then make hot, sweet, white tea for dipping.

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If any negative remembrance of racial encounter during Kindergarten to 2nd grade, it would be a 1st grade bully, who not only convinced and panicked me that our family’s post office box had been left wide open (my khaki school short’s fly/zipper), but regularly threatened me into sharing my food. It would be untrue to call this incident racial just because I was bullied by a black boy. After all, only a few years later in the seventh grade, I was bullied by a white classmate when he sprayed cologne in my eyes following football practice.

For my eldest child and only son (who, incidentally, was born at Parkland Hospital, the same hospital where JFK was taken after being shot, and from where his death was announced), racial consciousness arose out of an apartheid versus colonial context.

At one year of age, my son, plus my wife and I boarded a KLM, Johannesburg bound flight in Amsterdam for what was then apartheid South Africa. It was 1989. We were headed for Thohoyandou (literally “head of elephant”), Venda, one of several so-called independent Bantu homelands within South Africa. In reality they were mere international, geopolitical window dressings, attempts by a white government to legitimate a “separate but equal” racial segregation policy.

What at first was a significant discomfiture – a white and young American family living in and amongst an all-black Venda neighborhood in apartheid South Africa – became a transformative experience for us. For many Venda people who frequented our home, it was their first experience of being in a white person’s home, much less being welcomed as guests.

Our willingness to disengage from our traditional and accustomed racial and economic community of belonging, and live within the constrictions of a people, who knew and experienced first-hand and often on a daily basis the effects of racial bigotry and discrimination spoke louder than any words possibly could.

When we relocated from Venda to another South African province three years later, our residential Block G neighbors hosted a farewell for us. A principal of a local high school was the master of ceremony. He surely said more than this, but all I remember these many years later is his expression of gratitude on behalf of those present, for our having come and lived with and among them – sharing life and a partial history of discrimination alongside them.

It wasn’t long after settling into our new, small, yet quaint home in Block G that our son found a friend to play with. Gabriel (*not his real name) lived two houses down (a mere 30 to 40 meters away), and a neat feature of his house was the courtyard and driveway “tarred” with wet cow manure, that when dry can be drawn on, sat on, played on, driven on, eaten on and which leaves little to no odor, nor attracts flies. Unlike carpet that frequently induces apoplexy in adults each time children eat or drink on it, a floor protected and sealed with cow manure is extremely absorbent, and stress free!

Anyway, back to our son and his Venda friend. They were best friends, riding their three-wheeled plastic motorcycles up and down the driveway together, watching TV together on our bed as they reclined against our pillows, and enjoying raiding the dry Epol dog food together – stuffing their pockets and mouths with it, as they hid their dastardly deed behind our corner wall.

D&Naki

During three years in Venda, and up until the age of four, Daniel never once seemed conscious of or mentioned racial, ethnic or cultural differences. When we returned to Texas for a few months at the end of 1992, however, and just prior to our relocating to Zululand, my wife remembers him noticing and commenting on a few African-Americans he saw on our way to or from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, “There’s some Zulus!”

Sometime after our return to South Africa in 1993, and during a brief visit back to Thohoyandou after a year-plus absence, I remember driving toward town with Daniel and his friend Gabriel, both of whom were now somewhat shy around each other. Out of nowhere my five-year-old son suddenly made the following observation, “Hey, I’m white and he’s black!” And fortunately that was that. No malice intended. Just a childish observation derived no doubt from some developmental context.

I’m not sure if this blog has any intended message or purpose, other than what you take from it.

It does have a context, I suppose. The 50th anniversary of MLK’s famous speech. As I listened to the 50th anniversary events and speeches this past Wednesday, a radio commentator, in referring to one African-American participant, who marched with MLK and who was still alive, described this gentleman with the words, “He experienced violence.”

EXPERIENCE . . . Seems this is the essential one-word white elephant among so many fellow and white Americans, who glibly and from a protective and sheltered confine of some type argue that we live in a post-racial society, and who become angry and condescending to the many who need and desire to confront and talk through persistent, de facto racism and racial bigotry that persists and continues to be experienced by so many today.

I am forever grateful that my family and I had the forced (we didn’t have a choice where we would live) opportunity to experience life with and from the perspective of a disenfranchised and discriminated against South African people.

It was the first of what would be many future steps out of the safe, yet sheltered identity cocoon of my American, Christian and Anglo-Saxon heritage, and into the storied lives of people who knew and had experienced little in the way of political or socioeconomic privilege and power.

For this inestimable gift of exposure and life experience we are forever grateful.

Maybe it’s time the socio-economically privileged – irrespective of race, culture or ethnicity – reconsider what has traditionally been referred to as “white flight,” or its more racially neutral and nuanced term “suburban sprawl,” and give some thought to participating in the potentially transformative experiences of living with and among transitional communities and neighborhoods, as detailed in the article, “Here Comes The Neighborhood.” At the least, let’s work on attitudes so that we’re communicating respect and dignity and not their opposites.

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Saying Hello To Life Begins By Saying Hello To Strangers

This blog’s heading is indebted to children’s singer and songwriter, Eddie Coker, and his song “Say Hello,” a line of which is, “And that’s how we say hello to life,  forever – together everybody now Say hello.

The simple gesture of saying “hello” . . . a daily, disciplined initiative of greeting the stranger or casual acquaintance in your life serves several important purposes.

First, the physical and deliberate effort required to greet someone we don’t know helps reorient our lives from an inward fixation on self and its concerns, to an outward focus on others and Us. This mustard seed initiative, is an important first-step in cracking the inertia of isolation/disconnection.

It requires risk and emotional vulnerability to share acts of kindness and initiate pleasantries with total strangers, because let’s face it, we’ve all experienced occasions when our kind gestures aren’t acknowledged, let alone appreciated.

For instance, frequently on late afternoon walks, I’ll pass fellow exercisers, many of whom I try to share a passing “hello” with. Some intentionally close out the world and exercise doldrums with ear buds and an MP3 player, and therefore simply don’t hear my greeting.  Many more, however, walk entombed within their own sound proof life and exercise bubble, uninterested in engaging life as it passes them by. Sometimes when I’m not feeling very self-confident, myself, my internal response to their non-reciprocity of my effort to be friendly is “To hell with you, too!”

Secondly, initiating pleasantries with strangers communicates to them that they have been seen and that their lives, however different they might be from your own, have meaning and significance to at least one person in the world – You!

In 1994 I attended an open house for parents at my son’s school in Stanger, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Most children had a parent or grandparent in attendance, and once the children had completed a 1-page drawing assignment – which parents watched them complete – they were free to go outside and play. All the children had left the classroom, except one, a struggling-at-his-assignment Zulu boy. No family member was present for him. I walked up from behind, peered over his shoulder at his work, and placing my hand lightly on his shoulder remarked, “Very nice! I like your drawing!” Well . . . you’ve never seen a more ear-to-ear smile from an eager-to-please, craving-to-be-affirmed child!

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On my evening walks there is a two-story house that is occupied by elderly people. Occasionally a frail looking man is seated in a chair directly beneath the sliding garage door’s pathway, and as I round the house his eyes pierce me. Twice now I’ve turned my face toward him, simultaneously mouthed and waved hello.  His “critical stare” was merely my over-sensitive self-conscious awareness, because he smiles and quickly reciprocates my wave of the hand.

I’m indebted to two people for mentoring me on the importance and discipline of initiating pleasantries and kindnesses with strangers, casual acquaintances, or individuals you share no life history with.

First, my mother, who I kid you not, once she meets you will remember not only your name, but also your birthdate, your spouse, siblings and/or children’s names!

Secondly, my postgraduate, South African mentor, a legacy of whom, was his mostly endearing, sometimes embarrassing kindnesses (because of the effusive nature of his expressed care and attention), which he demonstratively shared with anyone who dared enter his personal space.

From waitresses, pedestrian passerby-ers, convenience or grocery store cashiers, grounds keepers, and janitorial staff to executive assistants, university students, academic/professorial and Rotary professional men and women, there were relatively few people who had not at one time or another experienced John.

Across Interstate-35 from Baylor University there was a popular Chinese restaurant that John frequented.  Staff faces lit up when John walked in, and before he even had to ask about the availability of hot and sour soup – his favorite – a bowl was placed before him. Just like in the movie The Last Holiday, where famous Chef Didier (Gérard Depardieu) makes a special table-side visit and fuss over “commoner” hotel guest and cookware salesperson Georgia Byrd (Queen Latifah), the Chinese owners always made an appearance at our table, whereby John enquired about their individual well-being and family in China, and they his life.

John’s inestimable gift to people was his practiced and demonstrated expression of care to anyone who crossed his life’s path.

He recognized and acknowledged individuals, and in so doing affirmed them as having innate value and worth, irrespective of their education, vocational attainments, or inherited socio-economic and genetic status.

My kids laugh when they accompany me out and about to town, particularly places where we quite regularly frequent, say, a local Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, or Costco, a popular wholesale merchant. On those occasions it’s obvious I’m John’s understudy because I know the names of staff and they me.

It’s easy to memorize and recite our nation’s motto, E Pluribus Unum (out of the many, one). It’s exceedingly arduous, time-consuming and a process of small steps to implement, however. The United States is no longer comprised of immigrants from merely European nations such as England, Scotland, Germany, Holland, France and Ireland. Our unity and future is being shaped by every nation recognized by the United Nations.

Relational and cultural-religious-linguistic bridge building (aka, national unity) can’t be politically achieved through a national mandate of English-only. Nor can or should civil unity (religion) be built on a foundation of collegiate and professional sports, or nationally observed holidays.

Our future unity as a nation will rely on the extent to which we individually and deliberately share gestures of kindness and dignity with those we’ve never before met, whether at our local grocer, places of worship, corporate offices, or building houses with Habitat for Humanity. It will require that the 1-percent recognize and affirm the humanity and significance of the 99-percent – listening to and hearing their life stories – and vice versa.

And so . . . this is a third reason to become a person, who intentionally and daily engages and shares pleasantries with the stranger . . . to sow the seeds of a national E Pluribus Unum at the local, micro level, and thereby, in turn, reinforce in your own conscious awareness, and the lives of your children and grandchildren, the essential truth that individually, and as the United States, we belong and have responsibility to a much larger and diverse family of humanity.

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