All the directions I had included:
1. Go past the Sawyerville Store about a mile.
2. Look for the white tires in the yard.
3. My police car will be on the hill.
4. Stop and ask the man who lives at the house with the tires.
This is what the kind police officer at Flava Restaurant in Greensboro told me when I asked him and the two women working there if they knew anything about the plantations and people I was seeking.
So I followed his directions. Past the Sawyerville Store . . . but where were those tires. . . oh, wait, there’s a police car on the hill. I pulled up and parked across the yard, trying to keep the driveway clear for each of the three houses up there.
I knocked at first one house -no answer. Then, I walked over to the brown trailer and knocked. I heard footsteps and then a voice shouting, “Mom, there’s a white lady at the door.”
I smiled to myself. On this, my fourth day in Alabama, I was getting used to being the white lady.
As I write that last sentence, I realize how odd that is to think – that I was getting used to having the skin tone I always have – but it’s the truth. In my every day existence, I don’t think about being white at all . . . I don’t have to.
But in the communities I was visiting in rural Alabama, my whiteness stood out for everyone, including me. Suddenly, I wasn’t the majority . . . and if I’m honest, that made me really uncomfortable. I’m glad it did. I need to be uncomfortable.
I’d walk into a restaurant as the only white person, and the room would get very quiet. Black people reacted to me with courtesy and a bit of caution. It wasn’t that anyone was rude – not in the least – but there was a distance, a wariness there . . .
For good reason, it seems. I have never seen the kind of racism I saw in this part of rural Alabama.
It lingered when white people gave me directions that mentioned I wouldn’t be interested in those Bordens because they are black or in that black cemetery. It reared when a white man told me that he was so sad that sharecropping had failed as an institution because the failure had been hard on his rather wealthy family, or when the same man described Civil Rights activists as “rabble rousers.”
I heard it in the voice of the black woman who ran the desk at the hotel as she told me the fine for vandalizing my room and then held her breath to see if I would get angry at that stipulation. I saw it in the eyes of black people when I pulled into their driveways to ask for help and only watched it drop away when I explained I was looking for descendants of enslaved people.
My whiteness made people assume things about me – that I wasn’t interested in black people, that I carried the same racist thoughts as some other white people, that I was to be innately trusted or that I was not.
I still don’t quite know what to do with this new experience. It certainly has changed me and helped me know – in a way I didn’t before – that race is both a construct and a reality, something to be broken down at the same time it is acknowledged . . .
On my final morning in Alabama, I ate breakfast in a little Bohemian neighborhood in Montgomery. There were theaters and coffee shops and tiny little restaurants – it was my kind of place, I thought. . . .
Then, I realized that all of the faces I could see were white. I started to feel horrified with myself – had I learned nothing on this trip?
Just then, a black man pulled up on the street beyond the window of the coffee shop where I was eating a cheese biscuit. He came in with his thermos to fill with organic coffee, and I heard he and the white owner exchange information about when they were getting together. They were friends.
In that moment was the lesson – race doesn’t define who we are or who anyone else is, unless we, as individuals and a society, let it. I needed to learn that, me, the white lady at the door.