“Some folks hate the Whites, who hate the Blacks who hate the Klan. Most of us hate anything that we don’t understand.”—Kris Kristofferson
It was many and many a year ago in a wonderland by a tree.
A 6-year-old white boy was making good use of the tire swing his grandfather had put up for him in a stately old tree in the front yard when a black girl, aged 8 or 9, wandered down the sidewalk on her way to and from nowhere in particular.
The grandfather, perched on his front steps to watch out for the safety of one child, was on that day instead provided a great vantage point to witness the interaction of two.
The boy attended school at a predominantly white academy; the girl at a predominantly black public school. Any effects of either weren’t noticeable.
Neither of those children noticed any particular difference between them, other than perhaps the boy/girl one, which at their ages mercifully remained difference without distinction.
Neither’s knees jerked. No stereotypes emerged. No epithets were uttered.
At that place, on that long ago day in each of their lives, those children were not yet old enough, indeed, not yet jaded enough to have mastered the seemingly ubiquitous human trait of hating for pigmentation’s sake.
And so, not yet indoctrinated into the self-perpetuating mindsets of their separate societies, the young boy simply asked the young girl if she would like to swing in his newest play-thing, and the young girl simply accepted.
“What is your name?,” he asked her, and she answered, without hesitation. “What is your name?,” she asked in return, and his answer was equally prompt.
Just like that.
They knew each others’ names. They pushed each other in the swing. They were, in that marvelous manner possible only with the innocent, which is to say more often than not, only the young, already friends.
(The great comedian, satirist and social commentator Dick Gregory died this past weekend, and one of the many painful observations on the state of race in America for which he will be best remembered came to my mind both as this was being observed and recalled: “I never learned to hate at home, or shame. I had to go to school for that.”)
And so, after some time had passed, one friend asked the other if she would like to come into the house. To have a Coke. Maybe to have some cookies that his grandmother had made.
So they did.
They shared their Cokes and their cookies and they talked about kid things and they swung some more and they laughed a lot. And as they did, the grandfather began to notice that within the passing vehicles, the white folks and the black folks driving by had begun to notice, too.
Some smiled and waved; others frowned and shook their heads at the sight of the two children, insulated by their innocence, as they laughed and played and quite obviously enjoyed each other’s company.
It was, of course, brief.
Following the internal watch which no child ever has to wind, the girl said she had to go. The children said goodbye and waved, one to the other, as she started back on her way to the nowhere in particular that she had been heading, and the boy then took up an extraordinary interest in the earthworms, lurking in the dark soil beneath the tree of his swing.
And as the moment began to fade along with the late afternoon’s light, the grandfather who’d spent an adult lifetime fancying himself to be a trained observer, knew that he had been privileged to watch something special as it had unfolded right in his front yard.
It had been a moment ever so lightly kissed by magic and the man was to think of it often in the years since. The perspective of retrospection tells him that on that long ago day, the enigma that is the New South encountered itself with both the promise of what it could be and the scar tissue of doubt, which like a snake swallowing his tail, has so far prevented it from becoming such.
Tennessee Williams once wrote: “I think that hate is a feeling that can only exist where there is no understanding.”
We’ve done a lot of things to attempt to gain that understanding and having failed at it miserably among self-defeating fights over flags and statues and protecting turfs and dueling marches where we sing songs and carry signs, “mostly say ‘hooray for our side,’” maybe we should try something new.
Maybe we should just ask our children.
Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork.