October, 2017, Rosemary Wood, Board of Trustees, Member-at-Large
“It is the honest to God’s truth.” In my youth, that is how we punctuated our most important truths. We really knew little of the truth, only our truths, and that was all that mattered in our world, a world of middle-class whiteness. I frequently hear people, white, older people, speak about the joys of a childhood in the 1950s. The truth — we are only speaking of the white 1950s. We didn’t worry about little things like going to the University of Georgia, as long as our grades allowed. But, across town, there were kids our age who assumed that they would never go to UGA. They were not the “right” color. Did my friends and I worry about the inequity and prejudice they faced. We might have, to some degree, had we thought about the problems of others, but we had our own problems — could we talk our parents into letting us have the car tonight, could we fix our hair like Carmen’s on American Bandstand, would he ask her out, or as our gender truths existed in the 1950s, would she accept, if he asked her out? Just a world of worry. That was the 1950s, and that was our truth.
By the time I graduated from high school in 1965, an age of enlightenment was upon us. It had been there for quite some time, but, you know, we were teenagers and we were busy with other things. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., took the stage, my awareness began to peak, and I began to experience a stirring of compassion for my African-American friends. (Even today, I had to think about what to call my African-American friends — black, African American, friends, brothers and sisters? I’m still tethered to my white world.)
In 1966, I openly and warmly welcomed the first African-American employee to our office. Looking back, I was thinking what a wonderful person I was, not to be a bigot, but was that for her or for me? In truth? She was more aligned with who I was than any of the other women in our office. She was born in Athens, so was I. She was early 20s, I was late teens. She had a college degree, I was working on my degree. Yet, even though we enjoyed our convivial conversations, at the end of the day, she went to her neighborhood, I went to mine. I still have warm and caring feelings about her. I used to see her occasionally around town, and we would chat, and still we would go our separate ways.
Just a few years ago, I had the opportunity to welcome an African-American woman to our neighborhood. When I saw that she was looking at the unit next door, I rushed out to say hello and by doing so, “let her know” that I would have no problem with her living next door. Again, was this liberal, non-biased display for her or for me? She was a wonderful neighbor. She did all the right things, things I have recently realized were “white culture” things. It was only when she could not sell her unit and allowed her sister and her sister’s family to move in that I saw the difference, in them, certainly not in me! The sister only lived there a couple of months. Perhaps she saw our complaints for what they were — cries of “Don’t change our world.” She and her family lived, or as my former neighbor said in chastising me, “walked in life” differently. The sister and her family moved out, a middle-aged, white couple bought the unit, and we are back in a world we know and understand . . . a white world, where we don’t have to change . . . a world reminiscent of the 1950s.
The issue with my neighbor and inspiration from the pulpit have led me to question my truth. I have looked back over the years and wondered, was I a welcoming spirit or was I simply attempting to present myself as a welcoming spirit? One is true, the other is pretentious, and so I ask, what is my truth?