Today we’re going to talk about race. It’s a sensitive subject, I know, but when have I not been the soul of sensitivity?
Growing up there were no black farmers in Cane Hill. Still aren’t today. Probably never were. In nearby Stockton where I attended K-12 grades, there were no black people.
To be fair, there were no Hispanics, Asians, Jews or Muslims either. There were some Mormons, a few Catholics and a wide variety of Baptists. Look up the word “white” in the dictionary and it will point you directly at southwest Missouri.
The closest I got to knowing a black person back home was by becoming one. My freshman year we put on “Finian’s Rainbow” for the school musical. No, we didn’t import black people to play the black roles — we actually put on blackface. Hey, it was 1977. I played Henry, a young black boy, and Howard, a butler. Blackface does wonders for teenage acne.
We weren’t completely ignorant about the black experience. We had television. There was “Sanford and Son,” “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times,” “What’s Happening!” and “Roots.” Was it accurate? What did we know? But Redd Foxx sure was funny.
The first black person I met was named Ron (Is that irony or coincidence? I can’t tell the difference anymore). The University of Missouri had put us together as roommates the second semester of my freshman year. He was a nice guy. Quiet. He had a job as well as classes so he wasn’t around much. We got along fine but we didn’t really bond. At the end of the semester he went his way and I moved across the street to Hudson Hall. I spent the next three years in Patterson House where there were no blacks — at least not in the wing where I spent all my time.
I left college and worked for two years on a small newspaper in Stanley, Kansas. There were no black people in Stanley. I then went back to Columbia to earn a teaching degree. It was here that I had my first taste of being a minority. I took a class on African-American history. There were maybe five white people in the room. At the time I wondered why there were so few white people studying black history and so many black people there. I think we’d be better off today if white people had to take black history.
The next stop was Springfield– third largest city in Missouri. I spent a year on the copy desk at the city’s daily newspaper. That’s right, there were no black people.
A year later we wound up in St. Charles where I live today. I’m told St. Charles is where the white people ran to when they wanted to escape the “urban-ness” of St. Louis. We just came for the work. I wound up at the St. Charles Journal. There were no black people when I started. During the next 20 years we did hire a black person here and there but they rarely stayed around for long.
Then came the Great Recession and the years of unemployment and the career move to Direct Support Professional for the St. Louis Arc. My first day I looked around and there was one, two, three… there were almost as many black people on staff as there were white people. Working together. I’d heard rumors of such a thing but had never witnessed it firsthand.
I’ve mentioned before that it takes special people to work with the developmentally disabled and that’s true regardless of color. I learned a lot about black people over the next four years — mainly that they’re a lot like white people. Some are loud and boisterous, some are quiet and shy, most fall in-between those extremes on the spectrum. It’s like we’re all human beings or something.
One of my favorite people — black or white — is Janaye. She was fun, she spoke her mind, she didn’t take crap from anybody, and she always said “good morning” to me — or she’d hear about it.
Janaye has a lovely young daughter named Monae. I believe we met at a pool party. She was very attentive to my son, which always earns people points in my book. Most young people shy away from the autistic. Whenever I would talk to Janaye after that, she would say that Monae was asking about Andrew.
Monae graduated from high school recently and on Saturday her family held a party for her at the Ferguson Lion’s Club. I was told to bring Andrew.
“Ferguson? Why is that name familiar?” I says.
“Because it’s been all over the news the past year,” The Wife says. “The shooting. The rioting. The protesting…”
“Oh, right. Right. We’re not going.”
“Yes we are. Janaye’s your friend. The riots ended months ago. Ferguson is fine.”
And so it was that Saturday night we made our way across the Missouri River into St. Louis County and then up I-270 into Ferguson. Kids riding bikes, people mowing yards. Looked pretty much like any of the other 237 small municipalities that make up St. Louis.
Found the Lion’s Club. Went in and it was just like being back in African-American History class all over again. But with good food and music instead of lectures. Tina and Chris showed up so we weren’t the only white people there.
Had a nice visit. Wished Monae well. Decided Ferguson wasn’t a bad place. Realized I’m a long way from Cane Hill. Wish we could all just get along.
Fortunately, as horribly cliche as it sounds, the children are our future.