By Nan Frydland
When John Lewis headed to Montgomery in 1958, I did, too. He was going to meet Martin Luther King, and my mother was taking me to meet my grandparents. My mother was no stranger to Montgomery, having lived there until the Great Migration swept her parents up in 1938, which is how I came to be born in New York. And although I would spend relatively little of my life in the state where both sides of my family had labored since 1734, it was there that my identity was forged, starting with an incident at a family gathering in Wetumpka. I was almost five.
At a bustling family restaurant, I urged my mother to show me the way to the restroom, but a waitress pointed to a hall. I knew what to look for and was proud of the words I recognized—sight words as English teachers call them—although I couldn’t yet read. I stood before two doors with words I didn’t know, and the waitress helped again. “That’s white,” she nodded to one, “ the other’s for colored.” I put my arm against the white wall. It certainly wasn’t that, especially in August, when I was brown as a chestnut. But what color was “colored”? Back at the table I pulled my mother’s elbow, and now yelling with urgency, asked, “Mom, what color am I?” It seemed like every knife and fork clattered to the table before my ears were filled with silence. Then the roar of my grandfather: “How you raisin’ that girl not knowin’ what color she is?” and mother yanked me away. It is hard to convey the terror that was imparted in that event. The entire restaurant seemed to seethe with a malevolent force that terrified me with its intensity and bewildered me because I didn’t comprehend how I could have evoked that response.
“Because that’s the way it is.” —the parents of John Lewis
When I asked my folks why Alabama was different than New York, they answered: Because that’s the way it is. But even as a child, I knew it was wrong. There was something wrong, too, with all those shacks where black children played in dirt just down the road from the whites, who had nice yards full of flowers. My grandfather often drove up to one shack, where black children ran up to accept a bucket of our swamp catch. I saw those faces, and I shuddered as we drove off. Psychologists say that a child’s moral sense is formed by the age of six, and I know that mine was. During subsequent summer visits to Montgomery I witnessed systemic racism, on the buses, in the coffee shops, in living quarters. The impact of these experiences combined with tv images of brutality and the literature I devoured developed into a kind of trauma that I couldn’t dispel. As Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. describes James Baldwin’s experience in “Begin Again,” “his own feeling of being trapped by it all weighed heavily on how he navigated the world.” Even in my own privileged skin, I felt that way, too.
As I approached fifteen the summer of 1968, my father decided it was “high time” I stopped reading “those N-word books and get interested in boys.” He and his pal Al, who worked for George Wallace and bragged about casting graveyard votes, decided the pal’s son would be a good first date. Al, Jr. picked me up in his daddy’s yellow caddy and raped me on the floor of his family’s living room with impunity. I was ordered to keep my mouth shut to protect the rapist and his dad.
In 1969 I attended Sydney Lanier High School in Montgomery, along with Al, Jr. and George Wallace, Jr. Police lined the hallways. Although the classrooms were integrated, the cafeteria wasn’t. Miscast as a mulatto because of my swarthy Welsh skin, I was unwelcome at white and black tables, but I finally befriended a black girl and went to her home. When we entered the house her mother called, out of sight: “Henrietta, is that you? You better clean that filthy room right now. You lazy as a white lady!” And suddenly she stood before us, staring at me with a bewildered look. I laughed. “You know what? My grannie says the same thing about you folks!” And the three of us laughed our heads off.
I wish that more white people had the experiences I’ve had, both with black people and with white bigots. My experiences left no wiggle room for identifying the malevolent forces at work in America, what Baldwin and Claude refer to as “the lie” upon which white America marches on, pretending not to know. But once you have been awakened, you can’t go back. Like admitting you’re an alcoholic, you can never again pretend that you’re just a social drinker. So too, you can never lie to yourself about that white man who expected your granddaughter to pick up something he dropped on the supermarket floor because she’s black. You can never pretend that it’s a coincidence that the security guard who has seen you a dozen times follows you when you’re with your black girlfriend. You cannot pretend that the cab light went off because it was time to go home, not because you’re with your black boyfriend.
Speak up, speak out…find a way to create the beloved community… a world of peace. John Lewis
Being witness to social injustice, being the object of sexual assault, being betrayed by people responsible for protecting you, can light the fire of rage inside a soul. Ta-Nehishi Coates speaks of menace in “Between The World And Me,” an omnipresent threat embedded in the very atmosphere of America, sometimes manifested in gangs that might sneak up from behind, but more insidious by the unknowing of how it might next appear. I know that my familial trauma is fundamentally distinct from being subjected to a prolonged, nation-wide attack on an entire population, but because I identified with the “ingrained sense that something major … had gone wrong” as Coates writes in “The Beautiful Struggle,” my moral responsibility is to be engaged in change.
The more I read to make sense of an insensible system, the more intolerant I became, and there was no outlet for my rage at white men. The death of the civil rights movement before I graduated high school meant I was alone to atone for my father’s and my grandfather’s and my great-grandfather’s sins. I sat in the back of the Montgomery bus, I gave my outgrown clothes to the black children near our fishing ground, and I poured over books by James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison for guidance. I too, felt invisible, betrayed, and powerless. I too, experienced the hypocrisies of mean-spirited Christians and left the church of my childhood. And I found no direction in their words, only the solace that I was not mistaken in my view of the world.
Eventually, I went to work for the NAACP LDF, word-processing stays of execution and reading about systemic racism in briefs filed against the Memphis and New Orleans police departments. I studied to become a public interest attorney at City College and became a vociferous union member at NYU. For a time, I managed a legal services office where righteous white lawyers defended black, poor and female clients. But my rage interfered with getting into good trouble and was increasingly directed at the well-meaning middle-class white folks who just didn’t believe there was any more racism in America. It drove me wild. I simply could not believe that educated white people did not see the evidence of racism in banks, education, housing, employment and society at large. They seemed worse than my poor, uneducated Southern ancestors because they weren’t just ignorant, they were collaborators.
As a middle-aged college returnee, I was offered the possibility of redemption, although I didn’t know it at the time. A friend asked if I wanted a job teaching ESL at night, and I discovered for the first time in my life that I had something to give to others. It made me weep in the parking lot and work harder than I had ever worked in my life. In order to serve adult immigrants better, I went back to school and earned a degree in teaching TESOL to low-literate adults.
“Use what you have, use your education…it is your time.” John Lewis
Through teaching, I have become a better person. Over the last fifteen or so years, I have found purpose in facilitating learners’ process of finding agency to change their lives, to question the status quo, to become voting citizens, and to discover the pattern of racism in America and speak out against it. One of my students was recently part of a MOFAD and Eat Offbeat collaboration called Food for Thought: Exploring the Experiences of Black Refugees in America, in which she talked about the racism she encountered upon her arrival from the Central African Republic. Many of my West African and Haitian adult students name racism as the most challenging obstacle to their adjustment to a new country and their inability to find safety as immigrants and refugees is heartbreaking.
I was a witness to racism and social injustice in America as a youth, and to racism and social injustice for the past six decades. Now, free of bitterness, I am witness to the possibility of the redemption of this country. I have labored for the freedom of others, and I have a moral obligation to continue to do so, out of the abundance of freedom and privilege I was born with, as a white American. Thank you, John Lewis, for the orders you left us, to walk with the wind. Because I live in the land of the free, I will fear no evil.
Nan Frydland, MFA, MEd TESOL, is an educator who practices culturally responsive pedagogy in adult education as it pertains to low-literate immigrants and refugees.