Looking Past Each Other

Because we look past each other, because we fail to understand the background and history of other peoples who are different than us, the movement referred to as “Black Lives Matter” has created a lot of controversy.  Sure, black lives matter, but from the point of view of many people, all lives matter.  Yes, all lives do matter, but that misses the point.  History is important, and the facts prove that black men have to a large degree been expendable following the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War after which they could no longer be owned as chattel.  Reconstruction following the Civil War brought about a backlash by white people in the South to establish, if not slavery, then at least a white superiority that became known over time as the Jim Crow culture supported by Jim Crow laws.  That very real history of Jim Crow imposed on blacks for almost a century explains why a large number of whites continue to have perceptions drawn from that Jim Crow culture even now, more than fifty years following the successes of the Civil Rights Movement.  Even today, some people of good will fail to see some of the more subtle aspects of this continuing discrimination, often failing  to acknowledge the lingering effects of second-class citizenship on people of color.

Because of this history of violence against blacks, I think it is fitting that there should be a distinction between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter”.  The slogan “Black Lives Matter” incorporates [or should do so] that unstated history concerning the ease with which black lives could be expended in the years following Reconstruction and continuing even until today.

We do look past each other and we fail to see those unstated assumptions.  If we could simply restate the slogan like this:  “Because of the history of relationships between blacks and whites in the United States and particularly in the South, there is a perception that black lives do not matter and therefore we want everyone to know that black lives do matter.”

But, as you see, that is not a slogan.  That is not a soundbyte.  Slogans and soundbytes carry unstated assumptions, and because of the fact alone, we continue to look past each other, failing to see the pain and loneliness reflected in each face.

Here is a personal example that I have fictionalized, but it reflects an event that occurred long ago in the Birmingham law firm  Berkowitz, Lefkovits, Vann Patrick & Smith, the firm I joined as a young lawyer in June, 1967. The situation I describe did in fact occur, though all the details but one have been forgotten.. A staff person visited with Jewell [a name I made up because I no longer remember her name] on the street a few weeks after she left our employment. It was the last sentence of Jewell’s account that struck me then and strikes me yet today, and though I’ve forgotten all the details of the event but that one, I have re-constructed the story, juxtaposing the version of two people who share the same event yet fail to understand.  Who would have guessed how far off the mark was Ms. Jenkins?

 

                                    Looking Past Each Other

                                         Birmingham, 1967

  1. MS. JENKINS

When the partners told me to hire a colored, I knew  it wouldn’t work out.  They’re so idealistic.  Why, it’s only been a few short years since the Voting Rights Act.  Not enough time to get things right.  But the partners wanted to hire a colored − thought it was the right thing to do.  Said they wanted our law firm to be one of the first, said they wanted to do their part.

Of course, I knew it was a mistake.  But I kept that to myself − wouldn’t have breathed a word otherwise.  But inside I knew.  Those people are not like you and me.

But, you know, I’ve never been so surprised in all my life.  Jewell was a joy − so tall and thin and graceful, always a smile on her face.  Why, everybody just fell in love with her, even me.  She would make her rounds with the mail, her smile as bright as a sunbeam.  And so cheerful.

During that six months, I changed my attitude entirely.  I thought, how wrong I’d been.

But now!  I just can’t believe it! After all we done for her, she just up and quits. Walked out on Friday, don’t show on Monday. No warning, no notice. That’s the way they are.

For a couple of days, we all wondered.  Even some of the partners were asking − Where is my morning smile?

So I telephoned her home number − guess it was her home − at least the number she gave us when she came.  They said, she ain’t here − got a better job.

So, it’s just like I always figured.  Can’t trust ’em.  Be nice to ’em, this is how they act.  No loyalty.  Well, I’m putting this in her personnel file.  Hope she don’t ever need a reference from here − she’ll be surprised.

And can you believe it? Now they want me to hire another.  They’re just so idealistic.

2. JEWELL

I’ll never forget my first real job.  I mean a job at a real business, not just domestic work.

Mr. B had told Pastor Small that his firm would like to hire someone to help out − to deliver mail and do other kinds of work around the office, you know, make copies and stuff like that.  Pastor Small knew I’d finished high school but didn’t have a job, so he asked me to call Mr. B.  Mr. B. told me to come in and meet with Ms. Jenkins, the Office Manager, which I did.

Well, she asked me a million questions. I was real nervous − never been around any white people.  Why, I could hardly talk to Ms. Jenkins I was shaking so.  You know, white people are so strange, so serious.  Even when they laugh, their bodies and heads hardly move.  Stiff as a broom handle.  I thought, there’s no way I’m getting this job.

But when it was all over, she told me I’d work out just fine, that I should come in next Monday morning at 8:30.

I was scared silly all weekend, and on Monday morning I was so nervous, jerking all over.  Felt like if I flapped my arms, I’d just fly away.  Nobody in my whole family ever had a job other than domestic or labor.  I’m the first.

Oh, I was nervous that Monday morning.  But most of them made me feel so welcome, right from the start.  I loved my job and I loved all of them, even the lawyers.

I watched the secretaries from the time I came, watched their cool efficiency, and knew that’s what I wanted to do.  I had learned to type in high school, so I went to night school to learn to type better and faster and to take shorthand.  Now I’m ready.

So I saw this ad in the local colored paper for a secretary at a small law firm.  When the lawyer learned I was working at a white firm, he hired me on the spot to be his secretary.  He asked me if I needed to give a notice.  I said what notice, I didn’t know anything about a notice.  No one ever told me about any notices.

I feel bad ’cause I didn’t go see Ms. Jenkins and tell her goodbye.  I really felt close to her and I think she liked me.  And I feel bad ’cause I didn’t say goodbye to the others, Mr. B and the other lawyers and the secretaries.  They were so good to me and I love them so much.  I already miss them and it hasn’t been a week yet.

But I don’t think I could have ever said goodbye to them in person.  No white person has ever seen me cry.

Chervis Isom

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