It is a Thing You Would Not Understand

Rated PG

A blogger buddy and I got into a short debate during a comment about the statement, “It’s a Black thing you wouldn’t understand.” Before I go any further, let me state that I make no claim to special insights and I certainly do not pretend to understand the life conditions of any minority, majority, creed, race, belief structure, or persons other than myself. No disrespect is intended by any of the comments I make here. This is purely an intellectual exercise.

That said, when one of my co-workers at the university would make this statement to me, I always felt kicked back. While she may have felt a ton of resentment and bias in her life, it felt insulting to know she believed I could not muster at least a little empathy if there was an attempt to explain. Frankly, we could all use that statement with just a twist. It’s an American-Indian thing you wouldn’t understand. It’s an Irish thing you wouldn’t understand. It’s an old white guy thing you wouldn’t understand. It’s a ME thing YOU wouldn’t understand. Yet we all spend our lives trying to explain and express our experiences in the hopes of some understanding, or at least some empathy. That is what communication is. Blanket statements shutting down all communication because I simply do not want to seek the possibility that you may have a clue seem to go against the grain. Well, my grain anyway, and to that let me relay a story from my past.

While I generally hung around with my clique in high school, I did have other friends. One of them was Johnny. A great guy. At times I shared more personal stuff with him then I had shared with my most long-term friend, Smedly.

During high school I would not have called myself religious, but I was spiritual and I was seeking some sort of path. I was born Presbyterian. I read up on Buddhism, American Indian religious beliefs, attended a Southern Baptist church, a Lutheran church, a Greek Orthodox church, and a host of others. One day Johnny invited me to attend his church.

Bright and early on Sunday morning I went over to Johnny’s house and he and I rode over to the church for Sunday School and then the sermon. The church was more than 100 years old. The very classic design, a large block building, wood structure, with a tall steeple, all painted white. There were the main sanctuary, and a couple of side rooms for offices and classes.

Sunday school class was nice. There were only about five of us, Johnny, me, Johnny’s sister, and a few others. When I was in the sixth grade I had been told that Johnny’s sister had a crush on me, but I never saw any evidence of it. After Sunday school we went up to the sanctuary and took seats in the middle pew to the left of the main isle. There were a few congregates already there. When Johnny and I took our seat, they moved to the right side of the church. I didn’t pay it much mind though.

Slowly the parishioners began to arrive. Johnny told me that it looked like a small crowd. The word had gotten out that I was going to be attending. Oh, the church you ask? AME, African Methodist Episcopal, right in the heart of the deep south. I was the first white person to have crossed its threshold since it was built. Well, one other white guy had been in the building during its construction, but none had attended a sermon in its century-plus history, or so I was told.

As people filed in, they all took seats on the right side of the church. Before long there was a descent crowd, all huddled together on the right of the church, with myself, Johnny, his sister, mother and father sitting pretty much alone in the middle of the left side. Johnny kept shooting looks back toward the entrance, and suddenly whispered to me, “Shit.” I whispered back, “What?” He said, “My oldest brother just came in. He’s a golden gloves boxing champ.” I said, “Good, we’ll have more people over here.” He said, “No, you don’t get it. He hates honkies.” His brother scowled in our direction and sat on the right side of the church, in the back, near the door.

The sermon was an amazing experience. It started out rather slow. The preacher and the crowd seemed a little uncomfortable. But eventually things got rolling. The preacher was doing his best Reverend Jackson, his voice RISING-A, and then crashing down into a slurry of quick wordz-a. The Deacons behind him would shout out Amen and Praise Be, while the ladies in the congregation, in their fine, large Sunday hats would stand and sing out Praise to the Lord. It was a far more involved and emotional experience than any Presbyterian sermon, I can tell you that.

After the sermon itself, there was an awkward pause from the preacher. Then he says, “I see that we have visitors today.” Duh. “But friends, this is the house of the Lord. Our doors are open to everyone, no matter who they are. No matter their belief or color. Let us welcome everyone here.” For the very first time I saw a smile or two from the right side of the church. Not sincere smiles mind you, but attempts at least.

The preacher closed with some prayers and the congregation began to file out. The preacher shook my hand and thanked me for attending. A few of the other parishioners also shook my hand. Johnny’s brother made it clear he would not. All in all, it was a wonderful experience though.

So, have I ever felt isolated? Have I ever had an experience that could give me a hint at what it might feel like to be singled out, ostracized? Might I have some experiences that could give me a clue into bias? Maybe. Maybe not. Certainly I cannot know what it is like to live in someone else’s skin. But can any of us? I think it is a shame when we decide to hide behind a phrase that basically says, I do not want to take the time to find out if you have any experiences that may help you to understand mine. I don’t think you are worth the trouble. It’s a me thing you wouldn’t understand.

Johnny and me - 1974

Johnny and me – 1974

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