Yesterday I reached Owen Sound, Ontario – my destination since I left Mobile, Alabama on my virtual travel more than 4 months ago. I honor the day with a dawn walk on familiar streets close to home. Home.
Photo: sunrise at home on Oct 10
On my parallel trip, as a freedom seeking slave in the 1850s, I have a new home. It is amid other Black Americans, now Black Canadians, forming a community where we can thrive and prosper. It will take many days for my tense shoulders to relax, for my heart to stop racing at each noise behind me, to edge toward darkness thinking of sleep rather than flight.
I have spent four months putting Blackness/Whiteness in front of me — travelling an historic route that leads through America’s darkest days and along the divide we have created for ourselves.
My thoughts this morning are personal. I was probably ten. Our family was on a Sunday car ride, one of our most pleasurable rituals. As we skirted the Black area of town Dad told a racist joke. I am horrible at remembering jokes. I remember his every word. He said it in a tone that was sheepish but inviting, intimate. My sisters, brother and I knew the words were cruel and we chided him gently, as he expected. But I grappled with it – maybe in ways I can only now understand and articulate. I was at a brink. Do I decide my Dad is a bigot and alienate myself from him? Or do I accept the call into the club he was offering to me, a relationship where we could exchange code –glances, gestures, jokes. This is what kids want – to be ushered into the inner circle of adulthood by people we love. He wanted what every parent strives for – to shepherd children he loves into a maturity that becomes shared adult lives. The context could have been any mutual “secret” like we hate broccoli together, or we will always love 6:00 a.m. runs, or we will never listen to Beethoven.
But this was about racism. Dad was not maliciously intending to raise prejudiced kids. It was the world he grew up in and that his parents exposed fully, not sheepishly, using racial slurs as ordinary speech. I held Dad’s invitation from that day in the car at bay, inviting myself to forge a path toward something else that I came to understand as tolerance and justice.
This was quiet work growing up, not bold and courageous action. Grappling in a world torn apart by race. I cringed inside when Dad blasted Jesse Jackson’s speeches that we heard on the news or maligned various people of color we encountered. Over time we carved out our shared adult lives in many ways, but not on this. We never had a conversation about race.
In the end we did not need to exchange words. I spent hours on vigil at his bedside in the nursing home. He was curled up in a cocoon, holding on to this world with erratic, raspy breaths. Aides began stopping in – one after another. Addressing him by his given name or by an endearing nickname he had earned at the nursing home, they came to pay respects. “Goodybye, John. Thank you for letting me take care of you.” “You made me laugh.” One turned to Mom and me and said, “He was my favorite.” I was moved beyond measure. It was true that Alzheimer’s did not destroy his personality totally. He still flashed a ready smile, played tricks on the nurses, and raced through the halls in a rig that staff devised after he broke his hip. He forgot many parts of his life, of course. Most profoundly he forgot that he regarded people with skin darker than his as beneath him. Every aide who came to his bedside with heartfelt condolences and gratitude was a person of color.
This is the inner circle he and I now share.
Our journeys are long, convoluted, mysterious. Some by choice. Some by circumstance. All of them are ours to claim.
So grateful to be home. And still, riding on.
Note: Epilogue and more thoughts to follow.