He was Black. I was white. He was tall. I was short. He was a southern Baptist. I was a northern Jew. He was a scientist. I taught world literature. He dressed with elegance. I favored loose-fitting ethnic clothing. He lived in the city. I lived in a small community about seven miles away. He grew up in the south in a time of overt segregation. I grew up in the north in a time of mostly covert segregation. He was married. I was divorced. Outwardly we were totally different.
Sitting at a table under trees, drinking cold water to cool off after playing tennis with other people, we met and somehow began talking about education. For two hours we discussed our philosophy of education, my role as educator, his role as tutor to inner city kids. The more we talked, the more we discovered how much we had in common. Not what was visible, but ideas and feelings. What began as a friendship turned to love and then to loving after his divorce.
My parents were dead. His mother, with whom he was very close, lived in Georgia. After hearing so many stories about her, I asked if I could go with him the next time he visited her. At first he changed the subject, not wanting to think about a visit, but during a phone conversation with her, she asked him when he was going to bring me down to meet her. With both of us asking, he reluctantly agreed to a visit.
We flew down to Atlanta and walked to the car rental kiosk. The white woman in charge tried to ignore us. Then, when we were the only customers in front of her, she coldly asked for the rental agreement, reading it as if it were her life’s savings on the line. I could feel his anger. It wasn’t my first encounter with racism, being with him, but it always upset me. With no way to deny our rental, she threw the keys across the counter and left. We walked to the rental car in silence. Fortunately, it was the car he’d requested—large, clean, with no smell of cigarettes. His rage simmered.
Again in silence, we drove to his hometown where he stopped to buy flowers. There, the Black woman behind the counter gave us a big smile, created a special bouquet for us, and wished us well. We drove to his mother’s place feeling lighter in spirit, with me wondering how his mother would react when she met me.
He stopped the car in front of the senior housing unit where his mother lived. As we walked toward her door, she came out to greet us. A neighbor, seeing our arrival, also came out and said to his mother, “Babe, (that’s what everyone called her) you have company.”
“No,” Babe told her, “My children have come home.” With the bouquet in one arm, she hugged me with the other, her tears wetting our faces. “Nancy,” she said, “thank you for putting the smile in my son’s eyes.”
Before we met, I had no idea how his mother felt about me, a woman of another race, religion, and culture. At best, I hoped for cordiality, maybe even friendliness. I never imagined she would welcome me, as she did, with such love, continuing to love me for the rest of her life.
Have you had experiences with people of other races or cultures? What was this like for you?
Nancy King is a widely published author and a professor emerita at the University of Delaware, where she has taught theater, drama, playwriting, creative writing, and multidisciplinary studies with an emphasis on world literature. She has published seven previous works of nonfiction and five novels. Her new memoir, Breaking the Silence, explores the power of stories in healing from trauma and abuse. Her career has emphasized the use of her own experience in being silenced to encourage students to find their voices and to express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with authenticity, as a way to add meaning to their lives.