From time to time, I have the chance to talk to some older friends about life. It often takes on the atmosphere of a round-table discussion, and I imagine it’s what the general store used to be like in small towns across the country – before TV and the internet. I like to listen more than talk.
A couple of the men in these discussions are black. One is a few years younger than I am, while the other is probably 20 years my senior. Both men are highly educated and experienced in the world and have told me stories about circumstances in their lives that make me shake my head with disbelief.
I grew up in Cross Lanes in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In those days, that part of Kanawha County was not exactly ethnically diverse. I never had negative feelings for people from other races or nationalities; I just didn’t know them. I had a few black and Hispanic friends, but I could literally count them on one hand.
Many people like to think of racial discrimination and oppression as being something from long ago. But it really wasn’t. Even in cases where it’s not overt, it can be astounding.
One of the men I mentioned grew up in Texas and played high school football. It was Robert E. Lee High School and their school song was “Dixie.” They had the Confederate flag on their uniforms – in the 1980s.
There is a new movie out called “The Green Book.” It is based on a true story and I plan to see it. Part of the backstory of the film, though, is a travel guide for African-American roadtrippers called “The Negro Motorist Green Book.” It identified places they could visit safely and even suggested roads and routes to take where they could expect to avoid problems. It was created by New York mailman Victor Green and published until 1966.
Next Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It is an opportunity to recognize a leader and a visionary who worked to change the world for the better. But it is also a day to really think back. Not just gloss over things with a “Happy Days” version of events from our past.
We’ve come a long way since the days of Jim Crow laws, but the job isn’t done, either. It’s time to have some more open conversations.
In the meantime, I need to go find my friends and listen some more.
Eric Douglas, of Pinch, is the author of “Return to Cayman,” “Heart of the Maya,” “Cayman Cowboys,” “River Town” and other novels. He is also a columnist for Scuba Diving Magazine and a former Charleston Newspapers Metro staff writer. For more information, visit www.booksbyeric.com or contact him at [email protected]