Excerpt: You're Probably Racist
It’s a long haul to Rosedale, Mississippi, which your map declares has a campground. Fueled by indignation and the cheap turkey sandwich, you roll into town in the late afternoon to find a police officer directing traffic away from Main Street. He waves the car in front of you to the right, but upon seeing your bicycle he pauses. You’re about to turn and follow the car when the policeman motions you forward.
You’re now biking on the main route through town, along a tree-lined street with absolutely zero traffic. People on the sidewalks turn to look at you. You wave pleasantly and keep riding, resisting the urge to weave your bicycle playfully back and forth across the empty road.
As you near the center of town, the sidewalk grows more and more crowded. An eerie feeling comes over you, and you reach for the brakes. On either side of the road, facing towards you, is what appears to be the entire population of Rosedale. They are standing, sprawled in folding chairs, and sitting on the curb. Many of them are staring right at you. And every single person that you can see is black. Alone in the middle of the street, in your bright spandex and pale skin, you are sticking out like the sorest thumb ever.
You try rolling over to a group of kids, smiling at the oldest boy. “Hey, what’s going on?” you ask gently. His eyes go wide and he reels backwards as if afraid. Embarrassed, you glance at the other kids. “What are you all waiting for?” you press, searching the faces of their parents. No one offers an explanation. You’re somehow being stared at and ignored at the same time.
Bewildered, you pushed on, until a woman’s voice shouts from the crowd, “You better get off the street, Miss”.
You turn your bike towards the curb, relieved that someone is finally addressing you. Your search the faces for the one that spoke. “Why?” you blurt out.
The woman huffs and jerks her eyebrows upwards. “ ‘Less you wanna be the start of the Homecomin’ Parade”.
You pull over just in time. There’s no room to wedge your bicycle into the crowd, so you lean her against a fire hydrant and nestle yourself next to her on the curb. The beat of a bass drum tumbles through the air. A marching band approaches, announcing the arrival of a parade that would make any small town proud.
You watch the Homecoming King and Queen roll slowly by, clad in their respective white tux and white gown, seated in their thrones on a float decorated in blue, white, and gold. The bright fabrics sparkle against their brown skin. More royalty follows: a Miss English, a Miss Science, and even a Miss Gifted are seated in the back of various pickup trucks, wearing more gorgeous white gowns. You giggle, recognizing that glowering, self-conscious expression on some of the girls’ faces. They’re honored, and excited, but bashful up there in front of everyone. Little girls in bright leotards turn somersaults, a dance team throws down moves that make the audience roar, and throughout the entire spectacle you see just three or four faces as pale as yours.
A tremor of joy sweeps through you, and you hug your knees to your chest. Your face hurts from grinning. This is amazing! What are the odds that you’d be watching a Homecoming Parade today, in Rosedale Mississippi? In the back of your mind you feel the time passing. You try to guess how long it would take to find the campground on the edge of town. But you’re stuck here until it’s over, and there’s nothing left to do but enjoy the show. Fishing some tortilla chips and a couple of protein bars out of your bag, you resign yourself to dinner on the curb.
When you look up, some kids marching in the parade are gazing at you. Their eyes linger. Are they glaring at you? Or just squinting in confusion? You can’t be sure. You smile at them, and wave, because kindness is the only weapon you have to combat that crummy feeling of being scrutinized. But you know that however uncomfortable this may feel, it’s good for you. You’ve been the minority plenty of times, on solo travels in South America and Germany. But you’ve never been a minority in your own country until today.
After the parade, people begin to flood the street, and soon cars are creeping through the crowd. You ask two women walking past if the State Park is up ahead. “Yup, just a quarter mile up there on your right,” says the younger one, “but it’s flooded. Park’s closed”.
Uh oh... you glance at the sky. It will be dusk soon.
The other woman suggests you go to the next town and get a motel. She clearly doesn’t comprehend your average speed. Fighting the panic that’s rising in your chest, you inform her that you’ve pedaled all you can that day, and you’ll be staying the night in Rosedale whether there was a spot to camp or not. The two women frown. You’re not their problem, and you know that. But the fact is, you need help. You ask them if they know anyone who’d let you camp on their lawn, secretly hoping they’ll offer.
They don’t. Instead, the two women turn to each other and debate whether you’d be able to spend the night in the juvenile detention center. Spend the night... in jail? You’re surprised, but remain silent. You don’t have a better idea. And it sounds like an adventure.
The younger woman calls to a policeman directing traffic in the aftermath of the parade. He’s not the one that waved you forward earlier that afternoon. He shakes over his head when they asked about the detention center. “No, no, she can’t spend the night in there. Best thing to do, Miss,” he says, turning to you with authority, “Is ride on to Cleveland and get a motel room.” Your heart sinks.
Cleveland is too far, and the sun has set. When you explain this, the younger woman has a hurried conversation with the policeman, then turns to you and introduced herself as Dorothy. She mumbles something about following her. You’re full of questions, but in lieu of asking them, you hop onto Miya and pedal behind Dorothy’s car out of town. It’s starting to get dark. You have no idea where she’s taking you.
You follow Dorothy’s tail lights into a parking lot. A large, low building sits on the edge of the lot, with a cheery light shining through the windows and spilling onto the lawn. The contrast between the bright windows and the quickly darkening night sends a jolt of adrenaline through you.
“I’d be happy to pitch my tent in the back here, if that’s okay,” you venture to Dorothy. She’s just gotten out of her car. You don’t even know what this place is yet.
She shakes her head grimly, guiding you to the front door. “Folks from all over are here for Homecomin’ tonight. Ain’t safe for campin’”. She offers no alternative, but you don’t pester her.
Once inside you’re introduced to Dorothy’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Shore. You learn this is a church, and the two women run a daycare together in this same building. It being six o’clock on a Wednesday, there are no children present, but you see evidence of them everywhere: shelves of picture books, lumpy art projects, crinkled white papers full of stick figure families and children’s hand prints.
Mrs. Shore stands next to the stove in a tiny kitchen that’s hidden around back of the children’s room. This church seems to be large and sprawling, to contain a daycare, a kitchen, and somewhere a chapel. Mrs. Shore is stirring the contents of an enormous metal pot, and pauses to smile and nod at you when Dorothy makes the introductions. Dorothy rushes off to attend to something, and you’re left alone with her mother-in-law.
“What are you making?” you ask, smiling in what you hope is a sweet and gentle way. You appreciate these ladies who’ve offered you sanctuary. The last thing you want is to annoy them.
She replies, but her murky Mississippi accent is incomprehensible to you. Inside, you wince. You’re worried it means you’re racist, that you can’t understand her.
“What’d you say?” you trill, leaning forward and peeking into the giant pot. It’s full of meat. You’ve never seen so much meat in one place in your life.
“Hogsmo’,” she says again, her voice deep and resonating.
“Hog’s mo?” you do your best to copy her. Your voice is shrill and crisp next to hers. Again, you cringe inside.
“What’s hog’s mo?”
She laughs. “It’s hogsmo!”
Demoralized, you’re ready to give up. It’s been a long day, and making conversation is hard work in the South. The sound of bubbling meat fills the small kitchen, surrounding Mrs. Shore in her stained apron and you in your spandex and bike shoes. You fight the urge to fidget uncomfortably on the worn linoleum.
After a few minutes, Mrs. Shore begins to talk. You can’t catch all of what she’s saying, but you gather that she’s cooking for some kind of Oktoberfest-themed fundraiser the next day. She tells you that her famous, sought-after specialty is a $10 baked potato, stuffed with shrimp, pork, chicken, cheese, onions, and bell peppers. She points to a second pot on the stove, filled with neatly-cubed chunks of pink flesh, looking raw and unappetizing. “Chitlins”, she explains, “the insides of a hog”. So far, everything in her kitchen seems to be the insides of a hog. You wonder if you missed something, but you love listening to Mrs. Shore’s voice. Every syllable she utters helps you to relax. Maybe it’s okay you’re here. Maybe she doesn’t mind.
After a while, Mrs. Shore’s words stop flowing, like a creek drying up. You can’t stand the quiet that follows. You excuse yourself, saying you’re thirsty. Miya’s back in the children’s room, leaning against a low table. Yanking the water bottle from her downtube cage, you nurse it while thumbing through the kids’ books. You love picture books. You always have. But you’ve never seen them like this before, never noticed how white the main characters are. Their pasty, little-kid faces grin unashamedly out of the worn pages. You picture little brown hands holding this book, turning the pages, not seeing anyone that looks like them. You feel culpable.
You wander around the room, sucking at the bottle, looking at things but not seeing them. You’re remembering how you felt at the parade: excited, but afraid to show it. A properly color-blind, progressive agent for social justice wouldn’t have been hugging their knees giddily as the parade marched by. You should’ve restrained yourself. After all, would you have been that stoked about a parade with mostly white people in it? You’re not sure. Parades are pretty exciting, all around. Being in an unfamiliar small town, in an unfamiliar state, surrounded by unfamiliar people always makes your heart flutter. But maybe your fluttering heart is racist.
Resting your hand on a stack of tiny chairs, you sigh. You suck absently at your bottle, but it’s empty. It strikes you that you’ve done nothing to prepare for this situation, that you thought being a guest in a culture where racism thrives would be no big deal. Your plan was simply to roll through the South and be a good example. You were going to treat everyone equally, stick to your ideals, and ignore anyone who was racist to you. You nod, liking the sound of that. It still seemed like a good plan. Why did it feel so complicated now?
In your hometown, there were very few black people. Ketchikan was populated by folks with varying degrees of Alaskan Native, Filipino, Mexican, and White European heritage. Most residents were pasty white. There’d been so few black people when you were growing up that you didn’t consider them to be a “group”. They were a handful of individuals, with names and personalities all their own. They didn’t get lumped together, at least not that you were ever aware of, until that day in History class.
You were a kid, maybe as old as thirteen. Your class was seated in rows of desks, facing the teacher who was reading from a textbook about slavery and the Civil War. You all were supposed to be following along in your own books, but there was a moment when, wordlessly, all eyes fell on the one black kid in class. You don’t even remember who that person was, now. But you do remember how they suddenly seemed foreign. The kid had hunched their shoulders, shrinking under the weight of all that attention, the weight of a brutal history. The room was full of kids who didn’t yet know how to be racist. Nobody said anything.
Standing in the children’s room in Rosedale, you try to remember the black people from your childhood: Joe. Harrison. Shawnda. The blind man with the smooth voice who DJ’d at the radio station. The fellow who’d been a refugee from some war-torn country in Africa. Oh, and Elizabeth. You’d forgotten Elizabeth because her skin was light, and you’d met her as a toddler, before you learned to notice things like that. Elizabeth, you realize, might not even consider herself to be black. Shit.
The problem, you decide, is that you don’t know how to be racist. If you knew how to be properly racist, you would also know how to avoid it and be the opposite. But since you don’t know anything, and you’ve had no practice, you could be making mistakes right and left. Maybe that’s why Mrs. Shore stopped talking all of a sudden in the kitchen. Maybe that’s why those kids glared at you during the parade. Maybe you’re doing all the wrong things because you don’t know they’re wrong. There’s a lot of history here in the South, and you don’t know it. You are completely oblivious to any red flags and sore subjects that should be avoided. All you’ve got is that cheesy grin and your pasty, pasty hand reaching out for a handshake.
You don’t realize that other people have arrived at the church until Dorothy ushers you out to the foyer. She introduces you to members of the congregation, and you smile and shake hands and try to hear through the accents, wondering silently what everyone is doing here. You don’t remember anybody’s name, except Mrs. Ida Gabel’s.
When Dorothy introduces you to Mrs. Gabel, a woman who looks to be your mother’s age, she takes your hand and looks you right in the eye. “You stayin’ in ma house tonight,” she says warmly. It’s not an offer. It’s a command. You grin helplessly, wanting to fall on your knees. After two long hours of not knowing where you’d sleep that night, Sister Ida Gabel just came to your rescue. This is your favorite, when you travel alone: having some kind stranger take the reins. You can’t thank her enough.
“I’m ready to go when you are,” you say brightly. Fatigue tugs at your body. After pedaling eighty miles that day, all you want is to be horizontal on some mildly soft surface.
Dorothy and Mrs. Gabel don’t move. They don’t say anything. Silence falls over the three of you. You look from one face to the next, but they’re impassive. Or maybe you lack the skills required to read the expressions of Southern black women. Do they really have different facial cues? Should you even be wondering that?
After standing in that awkwardness for what feels like a long time, Dorothy tells you that church service is about to begin. Ah ha, you think, and your dim brain finally understands why everyone has been gathering in the foyer of a Baptist Church at 7 o’clock on a Wednesday night.
“Won’t you join us,” says Dorothy. She doesn’t ask it.
“Oh. Ummmmm…” You’re stalling.
“You have somethin’ else to wear?” rumbles Ida Gable . Her eyes sweep over your breasts, which are probably too visible through your thin blue shirt, and settle on your shorts. You can read her face now. It’s disapproving.
“No m’am,” you reply, thinking of the one pair of pants you own. They’re ripped in three places and forever stained on the right thigh from that day in Chile three years ago, when you spilled gasoline on yourself and spent the rest of the day terrified that you’d burst into flames.
Sister Ida Gable makes a huffing sound. You’re catching on that this is a sign of reproach in the South. “Ain’t nobody wearin’ spandex in the House o’ the Lord,” she declares.
The women burst into action. Within fifteen minutes, several phone calls have been made on your behalf, and a young woman with a shoulder-length curtain of black hair arrives in the church doorway. You can’t remember if that hairstyle is called a “wedge” or an “A-line bob,” but it looks stunning on her. When she’s introduced to you as one of Mrs. Flore’s grandchildren, she smiles, revealing straight white teeth, and hands you an armful of neatly folded clothes. You’re admonished to go into the bathroom and put them on. Service is starting soon.
You change in a bathroom stall, pulling the long colorful skirt over your shorts and buttoning the corduroy jacket over your blue top. They fit you like a glove.
You attend your first Baptist church service that night, standing with your hands on the pew beside Dorothy. The minister pounds the podium passionately, raging and preaching the gospel as if he’s addressing thousands instead of the 8 parishoners present. He repeats the words over and over, as if he’s pulling them down from heaven by hand. “In Jesus’ name... in HIS name, in his NAME... in his NAME we pray.” From all sides of the small chapel come calls of “Amen”, “Speak the word!”, and “MM-hmm” from his agreeable churchgoers, most of whom are women.
Mrs. Gabel, who has donned a large, wide-brimmed black hat with a big flower on the side, is particularly vocal. She and a few others fan themselves as a microphone is passed around. You’re fairly certain this ritual is called “giving testimony.” Each woman takes a turn speaking, offering updates of her personal life and recent struggles, and the murmurs of support are like a tide, carrying us all towards redemption. Everyone asks God to watch over their families and to help suffering loved ones.
To your surprise, every single person ends their testimony by thanking you for being there. They ask God to watch over and protect you. “And bless that little white girl,” one man says, gesturing at you. He's the only man to give testimony tonight. Your flush with delight, grinning sheepishly at him. “I don’t know what she’s doin’,” he adds, and peals of laughter break like waves against the walls, “but bless her on her way”.
During the first song, Dorothy hands you a tambourine. You’re stoked. Glancing sideways at her, you copy her movements, swishing your hips in the borrowed skirt and banging the tambourine as she claps her hands. “Hallelujah!” shouts a woman behind you, cheering you on. Your laughter is swallowed by the big sound of the song, by all those voices and the two men you notice in the corner, playing drums and electric guitar.
Three songs and many testimonies later, Mrs. Gabel is belting a melody into the microphone. Her strong, low voice gives you goosebumps. “Get back, Satan! Leave me alooone. I get my strength from the Looord!” She waves her hand in the air like she’s crooning to Jesus himself. Soon her singing dissolves into melodic wailing. Her face scrunches up, and her body pitches wildly back and forth in time to the music. Then Mrs. Ida Gabel, in her nice dress and big hat, begins to shake her head and thrash around like a toddler having a tantrum.
You glance around nervously, but everyone seems at ease with this behavior. Mrs. Gabel's pew-mate politely steps aside to give her some room. The band plays on, looking surprisingly bored in their corner near the podium. You shake your tambourine and dance until the last notes fade to silence.
Suddenly everyone is looking at you. A microphone is pushed into your hand. “Young lady,” booms the minister from behind the podium. “What brings you through the humble doors of our church, to visit the house of the Lord on this day?”
Your body prickles with heat. You probably look as red as a tomato right now. “Uh, hello...” you begin, your voice tinny in the speakers. What can you say? You’re exhausted from an 80 mile bike ride, blown away by the congregation’s generosity, and a born-and-raised atheist.
Here you are, with a microphone in your hand and a small crowd of people staring at you, and you’re caught between loving this moment and hating it. Everything was much, much easier when you were banging a tambourine and caterwauling hymns next to Dorothy. She steps back from you now. You’re alone at the edge of the pew, right next to the aisle, and across the way is Sister Ida Griffin. Her smile catches your eye. “Go on, Child,” she rumbles softly.
“Thank you,” you start. Because that’s always the beginning. It’s the beginning, and the middle, and the end. There is nothing else to say, but you draw it out. Haltingly, you find words that fit. “I feel so… blessed to be here.” You continue: Guided. A miracle. The congregation murmurs their agreement, and you feel like you’re doing it right. “I will never forget the generosity you’ve shown me tonight,” you say, and the dumb smile on your face isn’t the right expression at all. You should be weeping. You want to. But your tough-girl pride is too strong, and though a familiar heat is boiling behind your eyes, you keep it together.
Looking back, maybe you should’ve fallen apart. There’s no better place to wail and fall to your knees than a Baptist Church service. But it might’ve looked wrong, for a white stranger to mimic these rites. You should’ve paid more attention in Anthropology 101. You should’ve buried yourself in philosophical text books about race and culture in preparation for this trip, instead of forcing yourself to read boring travel journals about white people on bicycles.
You find the end. “Thank you,” you say, and lower the mic. The nods and smiles surround you, a bobbing sea of approval. For the first time in months, you don’t feel like an imposition. You’re not a bother tonight. You’re proof of their faith. Somehow, in this small chapel in Rosedale, Mississippi, you fit right in.