Happy Black History Month!

My family is white, and during my early childhood, we lived in small towns in Illinois and Missouri where nearly everyone around us was also white. I knew black people existed, although I had never met a “Negro,” as they were known then. I was curious about them. However, the adults in my world never mentioned or acknowledged them and I never asked. The adults’ silence vaguely suggested there was something wrong with black people.

I started kindergarten a few weeks after Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” address. I know this only because I looked up the date of his speech online. I’m sure I wasn’t aware of it at the time. After all, speeches were “news,” and only grownups were interested in news.

When I was in the first grade, we moved south, to East Texas. We saw a few black people around, mostly very old ones. I knew nothing about them. Did these odd-looking people even speak English? How would I know? I was well aware of an invisible, unspoken racial barrier. But please note that I didn’t put that barrier in place. Nobody put it there on purpose; that’s just how things were in my world.

In September 1967, I moved up to the big elementary school for fourth grade. Try to imagine my shock when, on the very first day, I reached my classroom and found a black boy seated at the desk in front of mine.

My heart sank. I was painfully shy to begin with, particularly around boys, and here sat the first black child I had ever been near. I simply did not know what to expect. I would never have been deliberately rude, but I sure felt uneasy.

The moment came about an hour later, as I wrestled unsuccessfully with the stiff brown book covers we were issued. Bobby, the boy in front of me, had finished covering his books, and the teacher asked him if he would help me with mine.

Bobby quietly turned and showed me how to fold the edges, clip the corners and tuck in the ends.

Still frozen with shyness, I watched him add a bit of glue for good measure. The exact words going through my surprised little mind were, “Well… well… this isn’t so bad.”

Really, what had all the silence and mystery been about?

I don’t even recall thanking Bobby, but I was grateful for his help.

Seven months later, Dr. King was assassinated. Again, I had to look up the date. Even this tragedy was just “news” and didn’t filter into my world.

Yet I had shared a bit of King’s dream, in the form of a young boy willing to help a fellow student who was too shy to even speak to him.

It only took some ordinary kid-to-kid interaction to start crumbling that barrier. Bobby’s kindness paved the way for me to relate to other children of different races. In the years–okay, decades–since then, I’ve become much more outgoing and now enjoy meeting new people. Regardless of race, I find that people’s actions and attitudes tell me much more about them than their skin color does.

Besides–we can, you know, talk.

Thank you, Bobby.

What an honor... I've been 'tooned!

A version of this essay appeared ten years ago in The University of Texas at Arlington’s student newspaper, The Shorthorn. The editor titled it “Breaching the Barrier” and student artist John Henderson illustrated it with this great cartoon.


As near as I can figure, everyone is a product of the culture in which he/she grows up. What appears to be a bigoted attitude might change with only a little ordinary friendliness.

It’s worth a try, anyway.

Your turn: Have you ever breached a cultural barrier? Has someone else breached a barrier to reach you? Did you find a friend, or at least open up to new friendship possibilities? I’d love for you to tell us about it in the “Leave a Reply” box below the post.

Thanks for reading,
Jan

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