Reflections on how two groups of Americans may see the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman
With the end of the academic year I took a break from blogging and let my mind rest a little. But, now that it is rested- it is getting restless. I can’t think of a better way to get the blog activity rolling than sharing this piece by Bob Vincent. Bob is the pastor at a Presbyterian church in Alexandria, Louisiana where I lived for five years. I met him a few times while in Louisiana and knew several of his church members. But, since leaving Louisiana I have begun reading some of these long posts he puts up on Facebook. I find them extremely thoughtful and balanced. Please take the time to read this it is worth the effort!
Today is the 323rd anniversary of the commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne in County Louth, Ireland, a day still celebrated by the Protestant Orange Lodge in Ulster. It is also likely to be the day that the jury reaches its verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman. Both events illustrate how easily people can look at the same event and see two radically different things, things that can be emotionally devastating to some people because of the violence that has come down on them throughout history.
All you have to do is look at the polling data to see that there is a great gulf between how black and white America view things. Whether it is the trial of the police officers who beat Rodney King, the O. J. Simpson trial, or views about President Obama, sometimes there appear to be two Americas. The dividing wall isn’t so much conservative versus liberal, or Christian versus non-Christian; it is between two groups of people who largely think alike on pretty much everything else. Black Christian evangelicals and white Christian evangelicals see eye-to-eye on virtually everything except where it has to do with things that touch on race.
Growing up in South Carolina, I never understood how African-Americans saw the world around them. I grew up in a strangely contradictory society. My black nursemaid took good care of me, and I loved Amy. Later we moved to Myrtle Beach, and Mattie entered my life. These were kind and loving women who were gentle and knew how to raise children. My aunts and uncles had black servants who were treated as part of the family, but never with equality.
This was the world into which I was born. These were the African-Americans that I knew. They all seemed happy and kind. I was “Mr. Robert” when I went back into the kitchen to chat with Viola or James at my Aunt Inez’s house. Viola never seemed to mind the intrusion of a curious little boy watching her cook on the old, black iron stove. I was always treated as an honored guest.
That was one side of race relations in the South in which I was born — it was warm and personal but terribly unequal and demanded a measure of deceit from the African-Americans who successfully navigated the intricacies of that paternalistic world. But I did not understand that for years. Like most white folks, I thought that every African-American I knew saw that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an “outside agitator” causing unwelcome trouble — we were too stupid to realize that our white dominated world demanded that black folks smile and deceive us if they wanted to keep their jobs, poor paying though those jobs were.
The price for going from the cotton field to the kitchen was usually due to playing by the white man’s rules, and that included flattering “Mr. Charlie” about what a “fine Christian gentleman” he was. It is why I think that white folk should not always take at face value what black people tell them when it minimizes the difficulties and discrimination they still encounter. Fear of reprisal by the white establishment is very deeply seated in most older African-Americans. White conservatives and a handful of Black conservatives dismiss Black religious and political leaders as “welfare pimps.” But what does the black community really think about this charge behind closed doors, out of the hearing of white folks? Most whites will never know. How sad!
When I was a junior in high school, I worked as a desk clerk in a small hotel, the Caravelle; the bellhop was a middle-aged black man, and he educated me more than anyone else about the black experience. One evening I helped him carry the luggage for some tourists, and he noticed the look on my face as he was doing his “routine” for them. When we got back to the office, he asked: “Do you think I like acting like a fool — smiling and laughing at white folks making fun of me? I got to feed my kids, and the more I act like a fool, the more food I can put on the table.”
Charles got me to think. He was the first black person who was really honest with me. It had never dawned on me that the kindly African-Americans of my childhood had had to keep us in the dark about their true feelings. Their very survival depended on it. Under Charles’ tutelage the contradictions of my upbringing began to register.
I had only known adult African-Americans; I had never met their children. Many of the white children that I grew up with did not have any kind of personal relationship with African-Americans. I had gone to all white schools, and African-Americans were oftentimes the objects of scorn and twisted humor. Older boys bragged to me about riding through “N. i. g. g. e. r. town” and shooting African-Americans with twenty-twos. They had replaced the lead with wax. This other side of my life, the public side, was completely devoid of African-Americans.
My first job was pumping gas at Chapins Shell Service in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; I was thirteen, and Daddy believed that I needed to learn how to work for other people. We had three restrooms: “Men,” “Women” and “Colored.” When our only black employee quit, the “Colored” restroom was never cleaned again. It had no light bulb and was nasty. But it was against the law for a black person to use one of those white restrooms, no matter how serious the problem.
My father was a health officer; once I was with him when he inspected a black school. “Separate but equal,” he said, as he got in the car, “There’s not a damned thing equal about their schools . . . used books, worn-out equipment, buildings needing repair.” Daddy believed in being fair: “N. i. g. g. e. r. s. love me, because I treat them just like white people.” To the best of my knowledge my father never mistreated a black person. He was a kind and decent man, a good father and an active churchman. But my Daddy was a racist, and he taught me to be a racist, too.
In so many ways my mother exemplified the contradictions of my society. Mama would drink coffee with our maid in the kitchen. She cried with her and went to the funeral when Mattie’s father died. After I became a Christian, I asked Mama about African-Americans coming to our church, she responded, “Oh, Robert, I couldn’t stand it if a Niggrah man sat down next to me!” How well I remember Daddy coming home from a session meeting and proudly telling us that the elders had passed a resolution on how to handle these agitators: “We agreed to meet them at the door and ask why they had come. If they tell us that they are here to worship, we’ll tell them they have their own churches to worship in and send them away.” Mama was relieved.
This action on the part of the officers of my church was not isolated. Back in the sixties, my wife and I worked at Thornwell Orphanage; it was under the oversight of the old synods of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida of the Presbyterian Church U.S., and black children weren’t allowed there. My alma mater, Presbyterian College, finally admitted a couple of African-Americans my senior year.
My wife’s experience growing up was more garish. She was raised in Jacksonville, Florida (In Florida the further north you go, the further South you are.) and brought up in a Baptist church with a few thousand members. She remembers her pastor teaching them from the pulpit that African-Americans were advanced apes, created by God to serve white people. That’s how she heard it back in the fifties.
I remember a chapel sermon preached by Bob Jones, Jr., back when I had attended his university:
“Blacks have never had a successful civilization.”
“They are only happy when they are in the role of a servant.”
It was in flight from that world that I went to the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., back in 1968.
During the four years that I was in seminary — three in Philadelphia, one in Pittsburgh — I became acquainted with Northern people. Since I was married and had to work at least part time, I discovered that there was at least as much bigotry up North as there was in the South; it’s simply that the Northern folk with whom I worked were less honest about their prejudices than the people in the South with whom I had worked. I thought about what my old political science professor at Presbyterian College would say: “I can accept a black on equal terms in an impersonal relationship, or I can accept a black in a personal relationship as long as he is not my equal, but I cannot accept a black on equal terms in a personal relationship.”
In many ways the South is becoming more like the North; it has become more hypocritical, and relationships between African-Americans and European-Americans have become much less personal than what I knew as a child with a “Mammy.” By and large, racism on the surface is gone; there are lots of changes that have come. The 1964 Civil Rights Act has guaranteed many things, but underneath, in so many ways, little has changed.
Illiteracy among African-Americans is far greater now than it was fifty years ago. Though many people have come a long way, there is still great disparity in everything from jobs to housing. Streets are poorer; streetlights are left burned out more often; mailboxes are harder to come by. And black folk, especially males, are far more likely to be stopped by the police.
So, as I await the results of the trial regarding the shooting of Trayvon Martin, I do so as a Southern, white, conservative Protestant male. It’s how I tend to see reality, because that is how I was brought up, and how you have been brought up is very hard to filter out of your thinking.
But there is another group of Southern conservative Protestant males, and their experience is VERY different from mine. My mother was never raped and when I found out, I was told to stay out of it because there was nothing we could do. But that is the EXACT experience of a close friend of mine. His mother worked as a maid, and he often did yard work while his mother worked inside. One day their employer gave him some money to go to the store to buy some things and included enough money for my friend to get some candy. While he was gone, this white man raped his Mama. What recourse did they have for justice? The anguish of his powerlessness has stayed with him all his life. When he hears the verdict, it is going to resonate with the experiences of his whole life, and he is either going to be relieved or mad as the devil.
Please pray for peace.
Bob/Robert Benn Vincent, Sr.