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6/14/2006

RAILROAD TRACKS

I grew up in a town laid out like a diorama of Civil War America. Through the approximate center of town ran a railroad track and a major thoroughfare: our Mason-Dixon line. North of the line brown faces drove past billboard ads for liquor and cigarettes, down potholed streets to poorly supplied schools. South of the line my white friends and I enjoyed shopping at the one mall in town, riding our bikes down smooth roads and learning in well-stiocked classrooms. Their high school was named after the notable Union general, John Tyler, and ours after Confederate general, Robert E. Lee.

I remember only a handful of kids darker than me before my teen years. Only knew one by name. By high school there were four or five non-white students in my classes. The lack of diversity bothered me I guess but I still kept my relationship with even those few minority students I knew of about as close as Baptists in a liquor store: Nodding as I passed but finding reasons not to avoid conversation. I had the biggest crush on an almond-eyed African-American girl in my computer science class but stopped short of asking her out, afraid of what she and everyone else might think of me - of us. At church an older white woman shouted in a business meeting, upset about "colored" people from the neighborhood visiting our services more and more. "I come here to be with people like me!" And I didn't want to be one of them when I grew up.

I walked out my back door this morning to laughter. Fourteen kids of every shade in my yard: Swinging each other in my hammock, playing catch with my football, riding their bikes in my driveway, and sitting at my folding table rolling snakes out of Play Dough mounds. Fourteen hot and sweaty kids a couple hours later circled Becky and I and a tray of cantaloupe, strawberries and crackers brought out from our kitchen. Becky's face radiated contentment, and mine awe, as dirty hands clamored for helping after helping of snacks, no one seeming to notice the peculiarity of what to me is a miracle.

People my color only crossed over the tracks back home because they got lost, to go to church or to throw a parade. And we weren't apt to make friends while we were there. Every year Tyler, Texas still gathers for the Rose Festival. I remember it well. The richest eighteen year old white girl in town sits on a float as "Rose Queen" and rides through the streets of the North side. The white haves parade across the tracks and flaunt their wealth before the mostly non-white have nots, leaving them no better off and no better friends when they head south again.

When parade day comes around this year I'll be a decade and seven hundreds miles away from it - in my front yard with a pile of fruit, some crackers, Play Dough and fourteen friends. Just like every other day, far from the railroad tracks.

15 Comments:

Blogger GrovesFan said...

I remember the "era" well. I grew up in a fairly large city, but very well divided between north and south. South was the "colored" part of town though. Zoning changed for schools in the spring of my third grade year. Busing of students would begin in the fall so as to completely "integrate" schools. My parents take on that was "great, OK, here's where you'll catch the bus." I had a friend though who's parents promptly pulled her out of public school so she would not have to "associate with those people." There was a huge uproar in the whole city about it, but since federal funding for schools was tied to integration, we integrated of course.

I started fourth grade with a bus ride some 20 miles each way to the oldest elementary school in our county. Two classrooms for each grade. No AC (in Florida mind you!), wooden floors, an occassional working ceiling fan and a white principal who drove a red corvette. I attended Glen Oak Elementary for two years then the decision was made to close the building rather than repair it. They were the best two years of my grammar school days! I had friends of all colors and it never dawned on me to really notice or treat anyone differently.

Then came the big day when I wanted to ask my best friend to spend the night. My parents wrote a note so she could ride home on the bus with me. We had big plans. Our parents agreed and we rode the bus home. Carolyn was smart, pretty, funny, and the best friend ever. When we arrived at my house after school, we played, swam, rode bikes and drove my older brother nuts with our antics.

Then my mom came home from work and my life changed. I introduced her to Carolyn and she was very polite and friendly. Then she asked to see me in the bedroom for a minute. "How come you didn't WARN me" she asked? "Warn her about what" I thought? Did she forget my Carolyn was coming over that day? Carolyn was black. Different. And my mom was actually scared that she was in our well-ordered, white, upper middle class home.

My dad didn't seem to notice the "difference" at all. I didn't know there was one to notice. I was very concerned to think that my mom may be predjudiced. That she would be guilty of the very thing she'd spoken out against so many times before. Our weekend continued and my dad and I drove Carolyn home on Saturday evening. We met her mom and her aunt and her three younger siblings. I asked if it was OK to give her a bike. I had gotten one from my brother for Christmas and had my old one that wasn't being used. They were grateful and all went well.

On the way home from her house, I asked my dad if I'd done something wrong by not telling my mom that Carolyn was black. He explained that when they were growing up, there was no integration, they rarely interacted with those of another race. My mom grew up in an orphanage. 500 kids, all white. All white school, church, etc. After talking with my mom about it too, she said that it was completely foreign to her to have a black person in our home that wasn't there to perform some service. (We had a lady that came daily to clean and do laundry when I was younger and my parents both worked. She was awesome! She'd send me to the store everyday after school to get her a 7UP and a popcicle for me.) My mom then sat down and had a good cry, asking God to forgive her for her predjudice, and more importantly, for giving me any idea at all that it was to be entertained in the first place. That was the day that I learned my mom was fallible, less than perfect, and boy did it burst my bubble so-to-speak. A hard lesson to learn, but harder for my mom I think to come to the realization that she was indeed steeped in old ways of thinking. She changed though. It took time and wasn't always a smooth transition, but she did change.

Since we've been stationed in many different places during our 18 year military stint, our 4 children have been in a cultural melting pot their whole lives and we are so grateful for it. My kids do not describe someone according to race. They are more apt to say "the guy with the red shirt, or the skinny kid or the tall kid. Our church is as diverse as our community as a whole and the nice thing is that no one thinks it should be any other way.


Beth

6/15/2006  
Blogger Bruce said...

Having grown up in Amarillo, I can so relate to what you are saying. But even today, living in Burleson TX, there are still those tracks that run through our communities and our hearts. Will it ever change?

B~

6/15/2006  
Blogger Shaun Groves said...

Thanks for that, Beth. Great story.

6/15/2006  
Blogger Shaun Groves said...

Will it ever change? One fruit tray at a time, bruce. ; )

What have you guys seen work to bridge the gap between races in your communities?

6/15/2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1000 Miles Apart

I wonder when this poison seed made a root and grew a weed
I wonder when I taught my feet not to walk down certain streets
I want to feel what I believe: that we are all the same
It’s not our houses, it’s our hearts 1000 miles apart

You stay there, and I'll stay here, into our corners we disappear
And we don’t ever have to talk, 'cause you like hip hop and I like rock
But sometimes thoughts hurt just as bad as striking cheeks with hands
It’s less our homes and more our hearts 1000 miles apart

When will we have eyes to see?
When will we learn?
Will we ever have eyes to see
That from our colours we learn?

A change of heart, a change of tune, can we forgive each other’s wounds?
Can we cut down this fence of weeds, and neighbors, close as brothers, be?
Cannot love conquer even when we don’t look the same?
'Cause we don’t have to keep our hearts 1000 miles apart

downhere
Wide-Eyed and Mystified

6/15/2006  
Blogger Joey said...

Darn! I thought this was going to be a blog about your underwear!

6/15/2006  
Blogger Loren said...

I think true community is diverse, young and old, dark and light, man to woman, educated to non...The only way I have even remotely seen this accomplished is through the age old human technique of mimic...if you see your parents do it, you probably will to, your teachers, pastors, professionals...then from the bottom up...your peers, the youinger generation...and most importantly you(me)



Loren
praying for a humble community

ps love the poetry

6/15/2006  
Anonymous laura said...

I was going to post that song! i guess you beat me to it! Good song.

Laura

6/15/2006  
Blogger Kat said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6/15/2006  
Anonymous mb said...

Shaun, I was a few years behind you at REL and in the youth group at FBCT and also experienced that Mason-Dixon effect there in Tyler. I remember marching in a parade for the historically black college in the north part of town. Up until then I didn't even know that such a college existed, and yet it was just a few miles from where I grew up. Just marching through those neighborhoods made me nervous at the time.

If you had asked me I would have denied being a racist in any form. I was friendly with people of all races. But, friends? No. As I look back now, I know that I didn't have any friends who didn't look like me. My heart didn't start changing until I went to college and God blessed me with an African-American roommate.

In my daily interaction with this roommate, I would have thoughts that would then appall me. I realized then that I had absorbed so much racism and distrust from the people in my hometown.

Now I live in Central Asia and I experience what it is like to be in the minority. Every day here is another struggle: for me to be seen as a person and not a foreigner. I also struggle to remember that my new neighbors and friends are also created lovingly in His image, even though our cultures and our religion are so different.

I'd love to say that I never think of people as "us" and "them." The lines may not be drawn based on color all the time, but it is still in our human nature to allow differences to divide us. I am grateful that God sees past these differences and that He calls us to as well. It's definitely time for all believers to stand up against the silent racism that still permeates so many cities in America.

Thanks for calling attention to this topic. I'd love to return to Tyler in 50 years and see that divide dissolved.

6/16/2006  
Blogger Kathy said...

As a mother of 2 adopted girls from El Salvador we continue to see the stares, the "they must be dumb" and all that goes along with brown skin. When I look at them I only see my daughters. One died at the age of 3 so she is waiting for me where there will be no division because of color!

6/16/2006  
Blogger Mustard Packet Pelter said...

AWESOMENESS!! I understand the railroad tracks thing totally. So here's a question for ya.
Do you think that interracial marriage is a sin?
I am from the south. (A side from thinking dancing is okay and one drink won't kill you)I am a southern baptist and my parents believe that interracial marriage is a sin. Is it? I don't think it is but what do ya'll think?

6/18/2006  
Anonymous Nick Liao said...

a book that should be required reading for every American Evangelical:

Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Rroblem of Race in America by Michael D. Emerson

another helpful one:

The Heart of Racial Justice - Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson

6/18/2006  
Anonymous nick liao said...

oops - "problem of race"

6/18/2006  
Blogger Shaun Groves said...

Being against interracial marriage has nothing to do with being baptist and everything to do with conforming to tradition over all else. No, it's not a sin.

Nick, thanks for the reading tips. I'll go get those right now. What or who got you reading these books?

SG

6/19/2006  

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