Recently I had a conversation with a seventy-year-old White gentleman. As we were talking, he said he was born and raised in South Carolina but moved all over the South because he was a minister’s kid. This intrigued me so I asked him more what it was like to grow up in the segregated South—specifically a segregated Christianity. He likened growing up this way to being a magician’s kid: you always see the illusion from behind the veil.
He told me that his father, who was a Southern Baptist pastor, was asked if Blacks could attend his church. His father, who wrestled with it responded, “I don’t have an issue with Blacks, but if they attend, church would be shut down for the day.” He described his father as not openly racist but someone who upheld the values and convictions of a racist society—and a racist Christianity.
His mother was similar. She wasn’t openly racist by his account, but she was someone who embodied a racist paternalism. The kind of racism that while they didn’t use the “n-word” also didn’t see Blacks as equals—the kind that congratulated itself for not being like those “cross-burners.” He tells me he remembers those “cross-burners.” As he sat looking out his window and seeing the smoke rise, fear and perplexity would strike him. On the one hand, he wasn’t like those “cross-burners” but on the other hand, he never ate with, associated with, or worshiped with Black people. Like many White Southerners, his parents were poor. This brought a whole new set of complexities for him at the intersection of race and religion. But sadly, he realized that when it came to Blacks, “to my parents, somebody had to be poorer.” The poorer were the Blacks.
He knew of one such Black: the lady who would watch him and his brother when his mother had to work. She would cook for them, teach them the Bible, pray over them—and all in a different way from what he had learned from his church and dinner table. It was through this Black lady, whom he knew but didn’t know, that he learned to see the world and people differently. It was through those Black hands and those Black prayers that Jesus looked different.
Yet one thing he couldn’t shake: the difference. I asked him, “Looking at where you are now, what would you say to the Black lady who cared for you and your brother?” He responded, with tears in his eyes, “I would tell her I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t know your last name . . . I’m sorry that you were only Willa Mae to us. That taught me that there was a difference. A hierarchy. I’m so sorry I didn’t know your last name.”
That was interesting to me. What’s in a last name?
There’s a story in a person’s name—a story of full humanity. To know Willa Mae’s last name is to wrestle with the divide of experiences. It’s to bring all relating, one as fully human and one as less than, into question. It’s to now join in the struggle for freedom. It’s to question a Christianity that upholds racism. To know Willa Mae’s last name is to know Willa Mae’s history. It’s to enter into the trauma of the burning cross, not from the eyes of the “cross-burner,” but through eyes of the disenfranchised. It’s equally to enter into a Christianity much different from his own—is to not put up with a racist society, but to see himself, his family, and his church as it is. To name it and to do something to change it.
Yet, he doesn’t know her name.
What of him today? Only tears, a broken story, and some sense of hope because he now sees.
Cover photo by Akira Hojo.
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