Friday, June 19, 2015

I have seen the Spectre; he has been here, too

After the massacre of nine innocent Christians in Charleston, humanity is again asking:
 “God, how can you allow such things to happen?” 

and God is asking once again, as he does over and over:
 “Humanity, how can YOU allow such things to happen?”

This morning after Mass, Sister Victoria said in anguish to me: “This happened back there, where I’m from.  That’s what makes it so bad.”  

Sister Victoria and I are both from Georgia.  When we were growing up we saw and heard things that reminded us that racism is still very much alive and that blacks can’t just “get over it” because “the Civil War happened 150 years ago.”  

After we left the south we realized that racism is also very much alive elsewhere, but we never forgot that it is particularly virulent in the south.  Racism, as we know, is not naturally occurring.  It is taught to children from birth by phrases that southern children know by heart far better than any BIble verses they learn in Sunday school.  Here are some of the phrases:

“Well of course there was a shooting down there.  It’s in n—— town.”

“I have some friends who are black, but they’re different.  They’re not like those n——-s.”

“He’s one of those educated, uppity n———s.”

“She’s a n—— lover.  She’s even got mulatto kids.”

“Up there at the government offices it’s nothing but lazy black women who don’t want to do any work, so they won’t help you.”

“Black men could get jobs.  They just don’t want to because they’re lazy.”

Just typing those phrases out makes me sick.  Even honoring them by putting them on this blog makes me sick, but everyone who grew up hearing these things is nodding right now in recognition.  Our education as fledgling racists was constant.  People we loved and respected would confuse us by being kind to blacks out in public, then spouting racist hatred at home behind closed doors.  

What made me and Sister Victoria different?  Why didn’t we become indoctrinated like so many had been before us?  I can only speak for myself, and the difference in my upbringing was that I had the distinct advantage of being extremely poor.  My family was always, as we used to say “five dollars away from being thrown out in the street.”  We were always moving because we couldn’t pay the rent.  Our phone was turned off all the time.  Our electricity was turned off all the time.  My father spent all his paycheck on drugs.  My mother couldn’t afford to buy any food for us so we ate at our Grandma’s house or at the houses of friends.  There was domestic violence and a lot of chaos in our home, and because of all this I couldn’t go to kindergarten.  Back in the early 70’s you had to pay for kindergarten and that was out of the question.  My mother is exceptionally intelligent and had taught me to read when I was three. She realized that her little daughters were bright and needed a good education, and so she enrolled us in a new program called Head Start.  You can read all about the Head Start program elsewhere, but in short, it was a school program for low-income children and it completely changed the course of my life.  

We had snacks at Head Start.  We learned by playing with puzzles and doing art.  We bonded with our fellow students and I made lots of friends.  As far as I can remember - I was the only white kid in my class.  My best friend was a very ladylike little black girl named Audrey and we greeted each other every morning with a kiss on the cheek.  

When I finally moved on to first grade, it was odd to be in a class where the white kids were the overwhelming majority.  I noticed that the races in this new elementary school did not mix.  The black kids sat together at lunch and the white kids sat together.  This would continue until I graduated from high school in 1984.  My senior yearbook, as had all yearbooks in the years since the schools were integrated in the 1960s, contained a page for “Best Looking WHITE couple” and “Best Looking BLACK couple.”

I heard tales from people who had grown up amidst the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and it occurred to me that no - the Civil War had not removed all the obstacles blacks faced so they could just “get over it.”  The problems still lived on.  It was very hard for a culture that had been enslaved, denied any chance at education and been confined to the lowest levels of poverty and deprivation to rise above its past.  It was made virtually impossible for blacks to “just move on” because of the attitudes of a culture that still saw them in many ways, in that awful, constant repeating of racist phrases, as sub-human.  

My friend Michael knew a woman who told a chilling tale.  She was a schoolchild in the 1960s and for several days the school bus in which she rode every morning passed under a bridge from which a black man was hanging by the neck, dead.  She asked why and she was told that this man’s dead body was there to “send a message.”

This happened within my lifetime.  Many murders and much violence against blacks has happened during my lifetime, and in my mind the Civil War is still happening.  Why didn’t I get the message of racism and hate?  I rejected the message because I was poor.  I knew black people personally.  I went to their homes and met their parents.  One of my dearest friends in the world, Warren, is half black, half Italian.  We met when we were twelve years old and we are still close to this day. When I was a teenager I spent more time at his house, listening to Donna Summer records, than I spent at my own home.  I loved his Grandma and his sister and they treated me like family.  

In spite of my connections with a few friends like Warren, I still feel tremendous guilt that I was too afraid to go sit with the black kids in the lunchroom in elementary school and high school - especially because we were all eating the same free breakfasts and lunches from the government.  I was afraid to reach out and make more black friends because I was afraid they would hate me for what white people had done to their culture.  I stayed timidly with the pack of white kids and  looked across the chasm at some girls who had been my dear friends in Head Start, whom I assumed would despise me now.

When I was a sophomore in high school we were so poor that in spite of my doing well at cheerleader tryouts, I was told I couldn’t be on the squad because my family couldn’t afford to pay for uniforms or camp.  I joined the color guard in the marching band, thinking it wouldn’t be too costly because the uniforms and equipment were hand-me-downs.  For one homecoming game my junior year, we were all told that we had to buy a large chrysanthemum with “WR” for West Rome High School spelled out with green pipe cleaners, attached to the flower.  I asked my Mom for the five dollars to buy my flower and she gave her usual response “Go look in my purse to see if I have any money.”  I looked in her wallet and of course, as usual, there was nothing.  Not even any change.  I went to school the next day and told the band director I wasn’t going to get a flower because I didn’t have the money and I figured oh well, that was that.  

The following weekend the band and various school groups had to march in a parade before the big game, and so the band and the color guard assembled in front of the town hall, getting ready to line up and march in the parade.  I kept my eyes to the ground, embarrassed that I was the only color guard member without a flower.  The color guard captain, a black girl, walked up to me in the crowd and said “Hey, all of us girls in the color guard chipped in and bought one for you.”  She handed me a chrysanthemum and to this day my eyes still well up with tears, thinking of that moment.  In spite of my fear of making black friends, my fear that they hated me, this black girl was handing me a gift out of the goodness of her heart.  

That was an act of true love, and will never forget it. 

God gave us free will.  We are not robots.  What choice was it of ours, in the long line of choices over millennia, that led to that young man killing those people?  Why can't humanity make the choice to stop sending out messages of racism to young, impressionable ears?  Evil doesn’t just reside in the hearts of people like Dylann Roof.  It resides in all of us when we repeat those phrases - that litany of hate - out into the world.  What particular phrase was it that Dylann Roof heard that finally made him decide to do these things?  We may never know, but he heard it from one of us.


  1. Sister Monica I am overwhelmed by your honesty and love. xxxooo

  2. Beauty is truth, and truth beauty. You are truly beautiful Sister Monica!

  3. Sister Moniica - thank you for sharing your thoughts and story. Your honesty and love inspires me.

    Suzanne Kosempel

    1. Thank you so much. I think if we all share our thoughts like this, God's wisdom will come through and teach us.

  4. Thank you for your wisdom and humanity. I will pass this on.