I was nine when Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down, yet I understood the wrongness. Wrongness in a time of many wrongs and deaths: JFK; RFK; Malcolm X; the Vietnam War. But a man of peace, a minister? A man simply doing as Jesus would to free his marginalized people. And peacefully. (Not to diminish the inhumanity of the other killings.)
I was younger still when two very Black, very beautiful women came to our house for dinner in a Chicago suburb. They were part of our church’s exchange program. My sister and I were enthralled with them and stories of their home in Africa. It was a rare and treasured experience, imparting that even though we differ, we all love and laugh the same. As kids, skin color did not matter. Yes, we noticed, but we weren’t judging. Decades later, my father told me that the banker down the street with whom he walked to the commuter train scolded him and demanded he never bring a person of color into our neighborhood again. That really ticked off my dad; I can only imagine his response.
About that time, my parents initiated another cultural swap with a Hispanic girl, just a little older than my twin and me. We loved Martha when she would stay weekends with us or, better yet, when we visited her welcoming, inner-city brownstone filled with siblings and multiple generations, color, spices, exotic foods and smells. One of the prized possessions I uncovered cleaning out my parents’ condo recently was an address label for Martha. She had existed! No one had mentioned her in years and I’d wondered if I’d made her up. How brave she must’ve been to come alone.
In second grade, I befriended Helen, who was not a person of color, but required an aide in our classroom. She was an outcast, sitting off to the side, alone at recess and lunch except for her adult helper. She had outbursts, and today would likely have been diagnosed, treated, and mainstreamed. She attended my birthday party, probably the only invitation she received. I loved Helen’s energy. I loved her. We were friends. We all paid attention when she ran into the street and was struck by a car. I often wonder if, in this act, she was seeking the attention she lacked. Had group behavior triggered her?
There were a handful of Black kids in my suburban, white school system. I was friendly, but I can’t say any were close friends. Now, I wonder how they felt, being such a small number and mostly living in particular portions of town. One brave soul, Stacy Mitchart, now a recognized Blues Man in Nashville, crossed the racial divide for the love of music. He always hung with the kids of color not because he would gain anything, but because he loved making music with talented musicians. He often played with another now-famous musician, drummer Eddie Hedges of Blessid Union of Souls. Yeah, I went to school with them! They were a model of bridging the racial divide. I’m not even sure they saw one. Music was their bridge. I paid attention, filing their courage away for future reference when I would become more socially aware.
In high school, I worked at Kings Island with two young men I adored, both Black. I had been grounded except for eating after work with my friends, but we were late one night and I knew my mom would be steaming. Robert immediately jumped out of the car to walk me to the door and tell my mom it was his fault. It wasn’t, and he had no idea how my mom would react to a Black teen walking a white female to the door of her affluent, white suburb. He didn’t flinch. My mom was very cordial to him, as I knew she would be. I got a talking-to regarding my lateness after the door closed.
In college I had some Black friends on the periphery, but almost none anywhere I worked after Kings Island. I was still pretty much unaware. When I held a corporate job and spent a few weeks in sales training, I met a trio from Africa, Black men, Zulu kings they said, who owned a casket business. I adored them. They were a breath of fresh air amid the bland business background. During that tenure, I also visited several Black funeral homes in downtown Los Angeles and Cleveland, always more welcomed than I ever had been in white-owned establishments.
These experiences taught me the real lesson of turning the other cheek and how to welcome the oppressor as you honor individual humanity. That may be the key. I didn't feel viewed as a stereotyped group, nor did I approach these encounters as anything other than on an individual, equal level. Unconsciously, I emulated Jesus.
Something snapped in 2001 when Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by Cincinnati Police, unleashing tensions. Not another one, I thought. I remembered watching the loop of Rodney King being repeatedly dragged and beaten in 1991. This cycle of new lynchings. I was distraught and moved to action, though tethered by an infant. I responded to a call by the daily newspaper to organize a neighborhood conversation on race, which became the Milford Area Neighbor to Neighbor. I had no idea that one evening would turn into three years, new friendships, tears, anger, and a deeper understanding and awareness of racism. Our group was about 30 percent Black, which is why we learned so much together. It took a while to bond and build trust. But we did, meeting in each other’s homes, marching together in parades and studying MLK’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail. We hosted a community forum to spread what we created. I stopped facilitating after that to further my education, but the group still meets, the only one left.
I learned the most there from my friend Frank Evans. He taught me that change happens one heart at a time. I heard stories that made me sick, stories of experiences no one should have to endure. Of unfairness, prejudice, and hatred. In that listening, however, there was transformation within me and the group. We are living proof of Frank’s philosophy.
What I was learning at Neighbor to Neighbor around that time was reinforced in my exploration of Quakerism and the testimony of equality. These would be the building blocks for launching a neighborhood arts exploration for marginalized local kids under the care of Cincinnati Friends Meeting. I had spent a year in the elementary art room assisting and witnessing the power of creative voice to transform kids, many of color and most living in public housing, into confident souls who could dream and be whatever they wanted in that room making art.
I also did some crossover work with students, older versions of my Artsy Fartsy Saturdays kids, in Cincinnati Public Schools. Over and over again, I witnessed how opportunity, nurture, and safety make a difference in the lives of children and teens. I was asked many times to open Artsy Fartsy Saturdays to all kids, but I was certain this was something just for those without the options others have. A room of their own, to steal Virginia Woolf’s phrase, that captures the necessity of creativity.
In the summer of 2015, I worked on the University of Cincinnati's main campus, and was at first shocked, then appalled, to learn that university security staff carried guns, and one officer chased a Black man, Samuel Dubose, off campus, up a dead-end street, and shot him for a missing license plate. Dubose was unarmed and peaceful. I was embarrassed to work somewhere this happened.
The next summer my family spent a few days in Chicago, when my youngest and I were voluntarily swept into a Black Lives Matter march. It was so powerful, being united for a just cause—more powerful because we had just attended THE most beautiful, welcoming wedding that included every expression of self and sexual orientation on the planet. Everyone had a seat at this banquet, just as they did in the BLM march.
The 2016 election found me and my husband at the Cincinnati Women’s March, again a beautiful array of unity for the marginalized.
And since 2012, even before, I followed my muse to work with local kids to bring equity in the form of art. They have shared and taught me so much about resilience, survival, love, curiosity, humor, humanity. We did a session that began with a large tray of spices and talked about the array of colors: mustard, caramel, coffee, tawny, black, cinnamon, brown, and everything in between. As artists, we agreed the variety was a beautiful expression, acknowledging the deeper truth that all skin tones are Spirit’s magical gift.
It pained me to hear a fifth grader’s story of walking to Kroger in Clifton to get a salad, then being tailed out by an officer and asked to see his receipt. The kid was Black and guilty of purchasing a salad. For heaven’s sake. His mom had already had The Talk with him. The one where a mother with a Black son must tell him the chances of him surviving a police encounter are slim and he should be peaceful and comply. Or else, he’ll likely die. The former board chair of a major university, a lawyer, told me how he worried he’d be stopped for DWB—driving while Black. At events, people have thrown him their coats or car keys. This is an impeccably dressed, sophisticated, educated man.
My friend Frank I mentioned earlier was so wounded during a parade when he was called the N-word and no one came to his rescue. I was not at that parade and chilled by the experience. It taught me to always speak up. Silence is complicity. So, when George Floyd was killed, I needed to channel my rage into a piece of art. I cut BLM and fist stencils and spray painted them on the American flag, making it my flag, one that represented all Americans, not just the ones who roared their big trucks with flags waving in the beds around the neighborhood.
When a curmudgeon used the N-word in front of my daughter and her friend at McDonald’s many years ago, I told him that was inappropriate language. He stared blankly and walked away. On another Chicago trip, my daughter, about 5 or 6 at the time, noticed a Black woman lying in the alley and asked for money to give her. She still talks about that woman. On the same trip when we rode the L-subway, I coached my daughters to sit with each other, while I took the empty seat next to the lone man, who happened to be Black. I did not want him to think we thought he was unsafe or not worthy of sharing a seat. Spirit nudged me further as I grabbed his thumb, something I had never done, to shake hands. His demeanor changed as a smile broke out and he said: “You’re a sister.” THAT was a deep moment of connection. A definite God moment.
And here we are today, thankfully with a guilty verdict in the George Floyd case, but 65 more police-caused deaths have been reported, about three a day, in the three weeks of the trial, mostly people of color. It is a racial thing. It is wrong.
My friend posted a poem called “American is a Gun.” The stark truth of that is alarming and inescapable. America is a gun aimed at Black men and boys, now girls, Asian women, and Sikhs—anyone we perceive as different. Until we all step up to name, resist, and fight racism (as well as gun accessibility), we are guilty of pulling that trigger.
Cincinnati Friends Meeting supports A Mighty Stream: An Interfaith Initiative for Racial Justice. This program aims to organize and unite Cincinnati’s diverse communities of faith into a moral force that will take action, individually and collectively, privately and publicly, spiritually and materially, to advance the cause of racial justice through education, dialogue, community-building, and advocacy for policies and legislation which remediate systemic inequities.