Eat the Elephant: The First Bite

By Cliff Springs

Although I did not vote for Barack Obama, I have embraced his Presidency with great optimism in one regard:  my hope for a real opportunity to improve race relations in this country.  It is an issue that has been laid on my heart by God for reasons that will become quite clear in this and subsequent articles. 


First, though, I have come to the conclusion that for any conversations about race to be productive, everyone has to come to the table naked—not physically, of course, but transparently honest.  So with that said, I want to start the dialogue being as up-front as I can be in hopes that others will participate similarly.


A little background…


Fortunately, I was raised by parents who were accepting of everybody and never taught us otherwise.  Because my parents had their hands full with four children—including three of us within 5 years—we had a part-time housekeeper/nanny who was black.  Her name was Dorothy, and while I was little, she was one of only a select few people that I would let hold me without throwing a fit.  To my knowledge, she was my first regular interaction with an African-American.  I grew to love her before I ever had the chance to know any reason not to. 


Looking back (this was the early 70s), I was not aware how freshly raw many Civil Rights movement feelings were at that time.  In fact, it was not until I had graduated college and was working on a Civil Rights era documentary entitled Freedom & Justice (with photographer Cecil Williams of Orangeburg) that I realized that the Orangeburg Massacre at S.C. State University happened just two years before I was born.  Again, I credit my parents for raising us to be color blind, though my knowledge of the still-simmering racial discord obviously left room for improvement.


Interestingly, the first friend I made in kindergarten was black—Everett McElveen—who remained my good friend until high school graduation when we moved in opposite directions for college.  We could get away with saying things to each other about race that might provoke someone else to get punched in the face.  I remember in third grade making friends with Mark Sams and going to his house in “the black neighborhood” that fed our school district.  Please remember that I’m trying to be honest in recounting these details.  Orleans Woods in Charleston, SC had no white residents.  But that didn’t stop me from going to see my friend and it didn’t stop my parents from taking me there.  I will also mention that my brother’s best friend from middle school through college was also black.  Friendships in my family were based on character—as it should be—not color. 


Our school district had a 60% white to 40% black ratio, so it was hard not to have black friends. For whatever reason, I never seemed to have trouble being accepted by African-Americans.  I would hope that it was as simple as the fact that I accepted them.  Once that was out of the way, the normal paths of friendship were allowed to develop.


But while growing up, I will—for the sake of transparency—acknowledge that I did on occasion participate in telling a “black” joke.  I never meant any harm by them and I certainly never acted out any of the disdain contained within the misguided “humor”.  It wasn’t that I viewed black people in any negative way, but these were jokes about someone other than me—so I could, on that technicality, participate.  This is often the foundation for humor about a “category” of people, whatever kind of category it may be—as long as that category doesn’t include you, then that category is fair game. 


When I was 17, I met Thomas.  Thomas is black and has been my very best friend on this planet for the past 22 years.  Somewhere during that first year of friendship, as we realized just how frighteningly close we are to being the black and white versions of each other, I knew I could no longer participate in the jokes.  The jokes were never frequent or prevalent for me to begin with, but that didn’t matter.  One joke would be too many for me from that point forward. 


If I found humor in a joke that was only funny because it was about someone’s skin color, then that joke applied to Thomas every bit as much as it would apply to any other black person.  I was no longer comfortable with that as a basis for humor—especially as I encountered people who DID judge Thomas based only on race.  Though their judgments were sometimes generalized, for me they were specific.  I knew Thomas’ heart and the quality of his character.  I became protective and defensive of him in the face of such foundationless disrespect. 


I will profess that as an adult I tend to be a more self-controlled person than your average individual, so I don’t know if my ability to completely set those jokes aside is typical or not.  I do know that I never meant anything by them (as hard as that may be for some of you to believe) and they are not in any way a part of me now.  The fact that I said them didn’t and doesn’t make me evil.  It means that I’m human.  It means that I’m a human being that got smarter and grew up.  Not everyone comes to such a realization easily.  Shying away from conversations about such things won’t help anyone else come to such an epiphany either.


An interesting side note to this story:  before retiring a few years ago, my mother worked at the Medical University of South Carolina—as did Thomas’ grandmother (who he lived with off and on over the years).  When my mother found out that Thomas’ grandmother worked nearby, my Mom sought her out and introduced herself.  Many years later when Thomas’ grandmother died, he made a specific point of thanking me and my Mom for what we had done for his grandmother.  I wasn’t sure what he meant.  He went on to confess something he never let me know previously: that she—as someone who had experienced quite a bit of the worst of white people in her younger days—was not fond of his and my friendship early on.  Getting to know my mother and knowing of the lasting nature of my friendship with Thomas, she had undergone a complete change of heart, released her bitterness toward white people and went to her grave at peace. 


Hearts have to be changed on both sides of the racial divide.  My mother and I helped do so by simply treating a grandmother and her grandson with respect. 


After the election of Barack Obama, I had conversations with Thomas and several other African-American friends about my desire to see race relations improve in this country.  We all talked openly and honestly on the subject in a way that gave me new insights as well as additional motivation to follow my heart on this issue. 


As I stated earlier, I believe transparency is important to this conversation.  I’ve confessed the truth of my past actions so that I can hopefully make the following plea:  let’s talk.  Let’s talk honestly and grant each other a little bit of racial wiggle room so that we can talk without walking on eggshells.  Let’s lay the foundation for an environment where we can all have the opportunity to experience relationships with others who we learn to think so highly of that the quality of one’s character is the only color we see.


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