Rebel Flags and Sweet Brown Friends

January 16, 2017

I have something on my heart that I would like to share. I’ve been sitting with this subject for a while. It feels as scattered as I am these days but I am praying that somewhere in my words your heart is touched, and your mind says –whoa — I’ve never thought about that or gosh that would be hurtful. Or better yet, oh I get it, no one is trying to steal my heritage but this symbol and some people’s behavior brings a whole lot of bad memories and pain.

I have worked on this post for weeks and probably could be working on it forever.

Today is the day as this is the day we honor Martin Luther King Jr. A man who stood for love and equality for all. A man who had a dream that one day his children would be judged not by the color of their skin but for what was inside them. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered on my second birthday. His life cut short way too soon. His legacy lives, and I continue to pray for his dream of equality to be a reality.

This writing will probably be a little uncomfortable for some. My intent is never to invoke discomfort or anger but to ask you to sit with the story and open your heart and your mind. For some of you, that will be easy. For others, maybe not so much but I beg you to at least try. I’m not asking for me but for the people I am about to tell you about and all of those like them and for our maker because ultimately I believe that God wants us to see the whole of our fellow beings. He wants us to look past ourselves.

In the 1990’s, my husband Lee was building fitness equipment. We were fortunate enough to land a job with the Miami Dolphins. In hindsight, I see it as fate, but I didn’t think about those things as much back then. The strength coach there was an incredible man. His name was John. He and Lee had become friends. His family would become our friends too, and they would help us learn more about this thing called life. Thank God for that!

Their skin color was darker than ours, but it didn’t matter. They were real people, and we were grateful to have them in our lives. It was instantly apparent that their entire family was filled with LOVE. I was a LOVE lover even back then and our visits to see them were some of the best days of my life.

They would take us out to cool places — like football games where we interacted with real NFL players and nice restaurants where they introduced us to things we had not experienced like Escargot and Stone Crab Claws— which are delicious by the way.

In those days, Sissy (my sister), was doing interior design and John’s wife Sharon invited us down for Sissy to give her some ideas on their new home. We stayed with them during our visit. Sharon and her sister Lynnie introduced us to another cool place that we had never been before — Target. Upstate South Carolina didn’t have those back then. Lynnie and Sharon pronounced it with an accent — Tarjay — as in Dahling. Those women made everything more fun.

Speaking of darling, between the two sisters they had three darling little boys and one adorable little girl. The youngest boy was still in diapers. I love it when a memory makes your heart smile and every memory of our time in Miami is a heart smiling one. Those little ones loved on us like we were one big part of their family. I loved that. I’ve moved past interest in meeting and greeting NFL players and moved towards dedicating my life to spreading the love this family and kids gave to us.

I guess I should have known when we got home and people were asking if we “really” stayed in their home that something was amiss but I dismissed it and didn’t think anything of it. I thought it more of a starstruck kind of “really” until someone made a comment that in hindsight sounded like something out of “The Help” Did we “really” stay in the home of “black people”? Why yes and they let us use their commodes and sleep in their beds. They introduced us to our first sushi, and I loved on their little ones and baby like nobody’s business. Their sweet baby allowed me to kiss on him and change his diaper. I would happily have brought all of them home. Some of the looks I received spoke volumes but that mattered not to me. I judge people by how they treat me and they treated us like a part of their family.

Sharon and Lynnie and Sissy and I decided that we would plan a trip to the Atlanta Merchandising Mart to shop. The sisters would fly into what is now The Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport, and we would pick them up and bring them home to stay at our house with Lee and me. What an exciting adventure! A few days with Lynnie and Sharon and the knowing that time would be filled with so much laughter and fun. We couldn’t wait!

When the day arrived, we picked them up as planned. As we drove home, there were what we had always called, Rebel Flags along the way. To me, they were just that — a symbol of rebellion but in a good kind of way. I wasn’t thinking of the Civil War or slavery and oppression.

It’s a thirty-five-mile drive from Greenville to Hickory Tavern where we lived. We chatted about how excited we were to have them with us and gave them the spill on our family history. We talked about how our great-grandparents were sharecroppers and told them how Granny (our paternal grandmother) was eavesdropping in church and heard some woman saying that the property they were farming was to be sold. They would be evicted. We shared how Granny ran through the woods and told her dad, my Great Grandpa Joe Allison. He hitchhiked 40 plus miles to Piedmont and convinced the landowner to let him buy the property.

When we got home from the airport, I was shocked when Sharon and Lynnie asked if it would be safe for them to go out and walk on our little tar and gravel road in the mornings. Of course. What a strange question. Why would they not be safe? We were in Hickory Tavern, South Carolina, not South Florida “” crime was nonexistent.

Our friends kindly said that they noticed all the “Rebel Flags” on the drive from Greenville and were worried it wouldn’t go over well if two black women were walking up a road in a white community. They explained to me that the flag meant they were not welcome or wanted and it signaled things like the KKK, DANGER, and DEATH. (I don’t think I fully got that part until I saw the movie, Selma.)

Oh my gosh, a flag that represented one thing to me meant something completely different to someone else. I was horrified. Even though I was brought up in a home where color was no issue, I suddenly saw through the eyes of a person of color and it jolted me. I let them know they would not be accosted if they went out without us and walked in the morning. I explained it was all family on our road and they would be just fine. The next morning they went for their early morning walk and came back and reported that they got a couple of glances, but all was well.

Our trip to Atlanta was fun, and we enjoyed deepening our friendship. We visited them for many years to come but lost touch as life and time went on. I never forgot them or the valuable gift of their friendship and the other view of life they gave us all.

When I saw Selma and The Help, I thought of them and said that if I had lived during that time, I would have hoped I would have been courageous enough to march in support of black people being treated equally. Then as we do, I forgot about the flag and the oppression of people of color. I would think of it every now and again when I saw news stories of black men being killed. I would think of it when I was with Mrs. Pearl, Mrs. Barbara, Sheryl, Kimyko or sweet Eugene whose smile could light the entire planet — all people of color. The flag no longer represented the things it did in my teenage years; it had taken on a totally different meaning.

That meaning shifted even further when I was horrified to see the breaking news that a White Supremacist named Dylan Roof had walked into the Emmanual AME Church in Charleston SC and massacred nine church members including the pastor after they welcomed him to join them.

According to the news reports, he gunned them down as they sat praying. How? How on earth in 2015 could we have something so horrific happen? Roof told the FBI that his intent was to start a race war and he displayed that same Rebel Flag as you can see in the photo above. Obviously, he was mentally imbalanced, and the flag didn’t make him do it. It’s quite clear he hated black people.

I flashed back to our friends Sharon and Lynnie and those three beautiful little boys and a girl who had grown up in a world where skin color could be a death sentence — even in 2015. They could be sitting in a church and get gunned down in cold blood. My heartfelt pain for them and every other little black boy or girl, man or woman who had lived before them.

We can’t keep saying racism and inequality are in the past. We can’t keep saying black people need to get over. We can’t get upset when people say Black Lives Matter and come back with White Lives Matter too. We have to be able to step out of the shoe we are standing in and transport ourselves into the shoes of another.

To be fair, I don’t think most white people I know intend to come off as racist. I think for many it is fear and a lack of understanding. They don’t understand what it means to be anything but white. They have never had their people held as slaves where they were beaten, raped and treated as less than human. They don’t know what it is like to be told you can’t drink water from a fountain or be refused a seat at a restaurant counter. They didn’t see their people lynched, or their churches burned. It would be impossible to understand unless you lived that or had it in your DNA.

It is extremely hard to admit that we would judge a person by the color of their skin or a whole host of other things. I can admit it; I do it too. That is what human beings do. If I see a person with a burka, I have been guilty of feeling a little fear. Fear? Why? Because I think of terrorists and planes and death but then I think of God and I KNOW that my fear cannot control me and not every person who is from the Middle East is a terrorist. I know that is an area that I must look at myself in the mirror and face my judgment and fear and change. I can be a part of the solution and acknowledge it, or I can be a part of the problem and sit quietly by and deny it.

There is no denying that Dylan Roof chose his victims because they were black. That breaks my heart into a million little pieces. What breaks it, even more, is that we still struggle to face our demons and see that we, myself included, sometimes judge others by things that really shouldn’t matter, and we let our fears drive us to do so. I want to change that. I want to look at every fellow human being I encounter and see what God sees “” their soul “” not the color of their skin or their sexuality, nationality or their religion or lack of it.

I practiced that a few weeks ago by stopping on the side of I-385 and offering to help a group of people whose car had broken down. One of them was wearing a burka. The man seemed shocked to see me stopping to help. He thanked me profusely. As I drove away, I thanked God for giving me the experience.

I know in my heart of hearts that there are others like me who are willing to look inside their hearts and find those places that need improvement and not just talk about being better but doing it. We owe that our fellow brothers and sisters who walk this world with us and to the Creator who put us here.

Dylan Roof was convicted of those killings and received the death penalty. That won’t bring back the beautiful people gunned down while they sat in a church in prayer. The families of the victims will live the rest of their lives without them and with the pain of knowing that their skin color and a young man’s hate was their death sentence and he willfully executed every single one of them.

Y’all. God is in each of us just waiting for us to turn inside and see past our differences to the places in our Souls where we are all the same.

It’s been almost 49 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walked this earth and wished for equality for all. We are closer than we were but further away than we need to be. We’ve got some work to do.

The time is here that we have to step up out of our comfort zone and see ourselves as the imperfect and fearful human beings that we are. We don’t have to ignore that there are dangers in this world but we cannot keep living our lives creating them by closing our hearts and minds to the idea that racism is alive and well.

If we choose that, this will keep happening, and our world will keep ending. One life at a time.

Much Love and Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day to you!


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