I have a story to share, and I have something I need to get out of my heart and off my chest. It involves hate, race and racism, and the intersection of history and the present. There will be explanations and descriptions that are inherently offensive, hopefully to all of us, so a brief warning before you continue to read. For my part in this, I humbly ask for grace if after you read this post you feel I have overstepped my bounds, or if you think I have said something false. And hopefully, at the end of it all, there’s something for all of us to take away and reflect on.
Thank you in advance for your attention, friend.
A few weeks ago, my friend and I took a trip to a small town nestled in the Hill Country of Texas, intending to stop in and say hello to our friends who work at a local coffee shop there. The landscape rolled by as a light rain fell, giving a beautiful dampness to the trees and rocks; the clouds seemed to be respectfully mourning. We had great conversations and listened to good music, really settling into the comfort zone that is a strong friendship. All in all, it was a nice drive, which I only point out because the sudden shift in my feelings and demeanor later on this particular day should be noted as an actual change, not an amplification of an already bad day. Life was good.
We pulled into the cafe, the rustic facade being a welcoming and typical sight for someone who has lived his entire life in Texas. I have always dug the little towns that are littered throughout the lone star state, and thanks to my job I get to spend a fair amount of time visiting them. However, our efforts to see our friends at the cafe were in vain; they weren’t working at the time. After striking out, my friend and I walked to an adjacent antique/home decor shop, looking to make the most of the drive up there.
Much like everything else about the town, this store was the same type of rustic, with hardwood floors and various signs that had faded red and green lettering. We worked our way between the aisles of obvious antiques, and obviously newer pieces of furniture, all the while sipping the coffee that wasn’t made by our friends. After turning a particular corner of the store, I was met with a sight that immediately filled me with confusion and a deep unsettling feeling in my stomach.
There were two wooden caricatures that had a fitting at the bottom to hook up to a hose – intended to be placed on your lawn, I guessed – but one of them was a sambo caricature, something that I didn’t think I’d ever see outside of the context of a museum, book, or some other record or retelling of America’s past. My friend said “wow” to himself a couple of times, while I tried to wrap my head around what I was actually seeing.
Now, you may be asking yourself, what is a “sambo”? Allow me to give you a brief history on this offensive term and depiction of African-Americans for the context of what exactly I was looking at.
There And Now
Way back in 1808, a man by the name of Edmund Botsford wrote a short story called “Sambo and Toney: A Dialogue in Three Parts”, which featured a conversation between two slaves. This is one of the earliest recorded instances of the negative “sambo” stereotype, which depicted black men as subservient and aloof, and only by the grace of their white masters and God could they ever elevate themselves beyond that. Then, around the 1830s, a form of entertainment called minstrel shows became popular with a big chunk of white Americans. In these minstrel shows, white men would wear dark makeup (usually by burning cork) on their face, intending to portray these negative stereotypes like “Sambo”, “Jim Dandy” and “Jim Crow”. Thomas Rice actually came up with the latter, claiming he created the character after observing an old black man in D.C. They made it a common and popular form of entertainment to portray negative stereotypes of African-Americans, and pushed to normalize the degradation of an entire racial group, through advertisements, sundries and imagery of these negative stereotypes (usually a look of happy aloofness, with skin the darkest shade of black and lips bright red). And it continued well into the 1900s.
Knowing that bit of painful context, let’s go back to 2017.
Time For An Upgrade
There I was, looking at what appeared to be a vestige of a time that isn’t as far removed as we would like to think. And without any context provided by the store… it was simply there.
While my friend and I were processing our thoughts, a woman approached us, moving with determination and a smile flashing across her face. “Isn’t it great?” She said, pointing at the wooden caricatures.
“It’s definitely something,” I said, internally scoffing. “But I wouldn’t say ‘great’…” She chuckles at this.
“Can you just imagine,” She continues, “People used to have these in their yard back in the day.”
“No,” I said, clenching my fists, “I can’t. It’s unfathomable.”
I was slowly realizing that she was trying to sell them to me… that she couldn’t understand how offensive it was, nor how absolutely uncomfortable my friend and I were.
She continued her pitch. “You could put one in your restroom; it’d be quite the conversation starter,”
“If I put this in my house, I think some of my guests wouldn’t even want to speak to me,” I told her. She disregarded this line of thinking and kept her persistent smile going. I could feel my anger boiling up inside of me, threatening to spill out.
I then noticed two little silver rectangles, one on each of the caricatures. When I asked her what they were, she said they were the price tags, informing me that the cost was $300 dollars. Racism isn’t as cheap as I always thought it was, I guess.
After sitting in a moment of silence, hate stirring up inside of me, she seemed to sense we weren’t going to buy these particular items, asking my friend and I what kind of decor we were looking for. “We aren’t looking for anything for our house,” I explained.
“Well,” She said with a grin, “It’s never too late for an upgrade.”
With that, we were done. I knew I had to get out of there before I said or did something I would inevitably regret, so my friend and I got back in the car and made our way back to San Antonio. I spent the whole drive home venting my angers and frustrations, using some very choice and colorful words to describe the experience. But you see, the hatred I had, and have, for the act and for racism, I feel that’s righteous. We have to speak out against it, and for those of us that are acting in a place of ignorance – and God knows that has been me before – we need to educate each other and ourselves. However, the hatred I was feeling towards the woman, I don’t feel that’s righteous. Hate begets hate, and I am not advocating rousing each other’s indignation and hate up. And if I had been in a better place, maybe I could’ve addressed it with grace while still speaking out and possibly educating this woman… and after going through this experience, I feel better equipped to do so. After all, our desire shouldn’t be to collect and make enemies, but rather to delve into issues and help raise each other up for the betterment of our community.
Oh, That What Now
At the end of the day, what can we do? What do we do? How are we to heal wounds that we won’t even acknowledge exist? This shrapnel that has dug itself into the very fabric of our culture, it has to be felt and seen before we can properly remove it. We’ve grown entirely too comfortable with casual racism. And I think there are some of us who turn our heads and pretend that the past is the past, that there aren’t actually wounds, crouching it in “Oh, people are too politically correct,” as if making a person feel like they are less-than in their everyday life is worth it as long as we can abound in ignorance. It’s easier to not think about hard, convicting issues. It’s easier to look the other way. And I understand that a little town in Texas populated by mostly white people isn’t going to have the same kind of perspective or education on issues such as race, but what I don’t understand is how they are successfully avoiding an education on the issue when we have access to a wealth of information, knowledge and history right in our hands. All you have to do is get on your smart-phone and ask the wise and powerful Google. It’s as easy to Google the history of blackface as it is to Google “Rustic Antique Stores in Texas” And honestly, it’s sometimes as simple as thinking about other people and other communities that might not look the same as us, or might not believe the same things that we do… or, maybe they do believe the same things we do, we just haven’t shared in that with them.
I believe it’s also important that we find a reason to care about the here and now, the here and now that has been deeply and intrinsically directed by the past. Whether it’s drawing upon your own experiences when you’ve been treated poorly, or perhaps because you have a moral code that directs your life, it’s important to find a reason to care. Myself, I try my best to follow in the footsteps of a dark-skinned man from Nazareth who said “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them,”
I don’t want people to disregard my wounds, treating me as if my feelings and grievances are less important than theirs. I don’t want people to pretend like they care about me while being willfully ignorant of what pains me. I don’t want people to ignore my history. And most of all, I don’t want my comfort zone to be only white, English-speaking Christians, and I’m thankful that it isn’t. But education never ends… and I invite everyone to join me in reflecting on this:
What’s your comfort zone?