I'll never forget it. I was a young stay at home mother with two young babies living in the middle of nowhere, going about my normal daily routine. Out of the blue, I heard God speak to me as clearly as He had ever spoken to me in my life. He said, " You have racism in your heart." I was arrested in my tracks. "What?" I thought. "You must be kidding! I love everybody! What are you saying God?"
He spoke again. " You have racism in your heart because you think that its okay for African Americans to live in poverty because you feel that is all they have ever known."
I was dumbfounded. But I was also convicted. I knew God was right. I was also flabbergasted because I had no explanation for why God was saying this to me now. I lived in the middle of nowhere. The few Black people that I knew were far away. There hadn't been any recent occurrences that I could think of that would cause God to address this issue in my life now. Little did I know then where my life would carry me.
I grew up in overwhelmingly White communities. African American History was relegated to two paragraphs in my History book. I knew about three African Americans, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglas and Hariette Tubman. But God had his hand on my life. When I was about twelve I found myself deeply fascinated by African American authors. Its only because of this that I learned about Frederick Douglas. I would go to my school library, check out the books and take them home while friends and family would ask, " Why are you reading that!?! I couldn't explain it, but something in those writings resonated deeply within me. Still, even with that, I knew so little of the real horrors of slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and the true story of lynching in America. Nor did I know anything of Emmett Till, Malcolm X, Bessie Coleman, Nat Turner, Langston Hughes, or James Baldwin. Nothing. I was ignorant with a capital I, yet I had graduated in the top 10% of my High School class with honors.
I knew precious little about African American History and racism until I moved into a predominantly African American Community on the south side of Chicago. And though I know much more now than I did before, I truly feel I know precious little still. But I am learning. Oh yes, I am. Because of all the things I have learned over the past six years, the most important one is that African American History is everyone's History. Eradicating racism is not a Black issue, it is a human issue. We try to deny it, ignore it, or bury it, just as a Mississippi Sheriff tried to hide the truth by burying the mutilated body of Emmett Till 50 years ago. But how can we ever be free, if we don't even understand how bound up we are?
The subject of racism isn't something I take lightly anymore. I wish I could say the same for the rest of my fellow Americans. But for whatever reason, whenever the subject of racism pops up in a group of non-African Americans, I can count the seconds before I begin to hear the same predictable old disclaimers with sickening familiarity:
"Those people are always playing the race card."
"People see racism where it doesn't exist."
"That was so long ago! They need to move on and just let it go!"
"Racism doesn't happen anymore."
And the walls of denial go up. The listening ends and the discussion is over, the hope of understanding eradicated. And yet the gap between the test scores of African American children and White children is horrendously wide, there are more young African American men in prison than in college and the median income for the average African American household is $18,000. less than that of non-Hispanic Whites.
It is said that those who do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat it. But how can you learn from a history you do not know? How can you learn from a history that has been whitewashed and sanitized?
Racism and racist attitudes do not merely manifest in the hateful shouts and actions of the KKK. Racism can live in suburbia, in corporate America, among the educated and the political policy makers, and even a young mother who "loves everybody." It can be deeper and more subtle than who you want to live next to or even date and marry. African American History is everyone's history, and we all have a lot more to learn and a very good reason to learn it. Eradicating racism is everyone's responsibility, and it begins in our own hearts.