It was 1983. I was a freshman in high school. That fall, I decided to join the cross country team at my high school. Now you have to know, that I was a slow runner. I finished the race, but I always brought up the rear.
One day we had a race in a Swartz Creek a suburb of Flint, Michigan, my hometown. I was bringing up the rear, as usual. At some point, I started to hear some shouting and I discovered it was directed at me. Some young white boys decided this was a good time to taunt me spew some racial slurs. I believe the “N-word” was used as was some reference to watermelons. I kept running, though I did tell the young hooligans to go to hell under my breath.
As I kept running I saw one my teammates, who was also African American, running swiftly in the direction of the young men. It was later that I found out that he basically stared at the young men until they slinked away.
After I finished, people commented on how I acted. I didn’t react to their taunts, I just kept running. The words were hurtful, of course, but I kept running.
My parents always taught me that as an African American I would face racism. They also taught me to handle it with some grace.
As we talk about Imus affair, I have to think of something that Alan Stewart Carl said in his post. As an African American, living in even in this enlightened age, I am going to face racism and bigotry. I have faced racism and bigotry. My guess is that a lot of African Americans have faced some situation like this. Unlike Imus’ stupid remark, what I faced nearly a quarter century ago didn’t come from some old craggy guy trying to be cute; it came from hate.
On Sunday, we will commemorate the day Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball. One the things I’ve learned about Robinson is that he faced some vicious taunts by white players and spectators and yet he never lashed out at them. He knew if he did, he would set back the cause of intergrating baseball. He knew that he had to pick his battles.
I think that Alan is correct, we need to teach people that the world we live in is harsh and that we need to develop thick skins at times. We need to teach them that there are times when you fight and times when you simply let the words slide off your back. And we need to teach that when people hurl invectives at you, whether in jest or otherwise, that we respond with dignity and grace, showing ourselves better than those who say hurtful things.
I believe that African Americans, women, gays and everyone need to stop seeing themselves as victims and instead of see themselves as survivors, willing to face the world no matter what it throws at them.