When my parents moved to Columbiaville, they said it was hard to integrate into the small, tight-knit community. Then, John and Nancy Durden knocked on their door, invited them to the Columbiaville United Methodist Church, and changed my family’s life forever.
The Durdens were one of only a few African American families in Columbiaville at that time. Over the years, they became role models and mentors to my parents. The Durdens were there for my parents when they lost all four of their parents, one after the other. When I was born, knowing I’d never have grandparents, they “adopted” me. I called them Grandma and Grandpa Durden, like many others in our church, but for me, they were the only grandparents I knew. I loved them so much. Lately, I’ve been wondering what they would make of this election and this era we’re entering.
Admittedly, I grew up isolated, in a bubble. The Durdens were part of my family when I was growing up. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but for years I thought racism was largely something that happened in the past. Yes, there were isolated events that poked holes in my bubble - the Rodney King riots and O.J. Simpson trial, but it wasn’t until I started working for the Michigan Legislature that I began to understand that racism is still very much alive.
In the Senate, I’d sit in the press area and look out at a sea of white faces. Directly across the street, at the courthouse, I saw mainly minorities going in and out of those doors. It was disturbing on many levels. On a personal level, it made me feel “other” when I had once felt a sameness. It made me feel ashamed of my race. It made me paranoid that I might be perceived as racist because I’m white.
Steve and I were living in Williamston at that time and there was a small library with a very nice classical literature section. I started reading 2-3 books a week and was primarily attracted to novels by African American authors - Black Boy, Native Son, Their Eyes Were Watching God, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Bluest Eye. I thought a lot about the struggle of African Americans and about what my Grandma and Grandpa Durden may have experienced. That’s what I love most about literature, that you can walk around in someone else’s skin for a while, see what they see, feel what they feel.
This election, this chasm we’re experiencing, is an inability to empathize; it’s a failure of the imagination. Some dismissed what it might feel like to have others condone a man who’s said, among other things:
“Laziness is a trait in blacks.” (1991) and “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
On the other side was a failure to empathize with those who felt disenfranchised and desperate for change.
The only positive I can see about all of this is that it feels like we’ve started a very long conversation. If we can listen to each other’s stories without judgement and try to have compassion, we could potentially move in a better direction.
More importantly, we must expose future generations to other ways of life and of thinking. We can do that through literature and art. We can also do that by being brave enough to knock on our neighbor’s door and open-minded enough to let our neighbors in.