I have had a tough week. My husband has been working non-stop; there have been lots of really heavy kid issues.
There was a dead mouse stuck to the intake valve on my fountain, and I had to get rid of it. Did I mention it was dark when I stuck my hand in the fountain to clear what I thought was leaves stuck to the pump and grabbed the dead mouse instead?
There was a dead opossum to dispose of as well. Can I just say that there are no words for how bad a dead opossum smells?
So, I decided to take part in a rare luxury for me- I disengaged my brain to wander aimlessly around an antique store near my home. As soon as I walked in the door, I saw on the wall of the very first booth a large, ornate wooden and glass sign which read, “WHITE RESTROOMS”.
Stunned, I walked over to it and just stood there for a moment trying to process what I was seeing. When I recovered a bit, I focused in on the price tag below which read, “WHITE RESTROOMS COURTHOUSE PIECE $245.00”
This sign, so fraught with oppression and abuse once hung in the the very place justice was supposed to be dispensed. I wondered just how much justice the people of color received in the courtrooms of that place. How many of them faced white judges, and all white juries?
Then, I stepped back from the sign and looked around me to find that it was no anomaly. All around it, and flowing over into the booth behind it were “segregationist memorabilia”. There was photo after photo of the KKK: men with white robes and hoods gathered around signs that said “muscle”, children in miniature versions of the garb proudly displayed as “the children of the KKK”, there were women standing tall as they flanked signs with KKK slogans labeled “the women of the KKK”.
There was a picture of a little black boy drinking from a water fountain beneath a sign that said “colored”.
And it went on, and on….
I was angry, and nauseous, but just one questioned burned in my mind, “Why? What is the motivation for this? Is this to remember lest we forget what was suffered, or was it to glorify the acts?’
The motivation makes all the difference.
I wandered the store thinking about it, wishing there was some way to know. I thought of my daughters and how I would hate for them to see those photos, and sign. I made a note to ask my black friends if they ever went antiquing and how they would feel if they came across something like that.
Then, I saw an older African American man opening one of the cases. I approached him and asked if he knew who owned the booth up front. He said that the man was not there at the time, and offered to help me.
“I just have a question,” I said quietly.
“What is it? I’ll help you,” he said.
We walked together to the booth. I pointed to one of the photos and said, “I just want to know what the motivation is for having this here.”
He gazed at the picture silently, then said falteringly, “Well, for history…”
“To glorify that history?” I asked
“No, not to glorify it,” he said, his voice fading away. “Well,” he said sadly, “It is not the history I particularly like to think about.”
“It made me feel sick,” I said “I have been in here before, but I guess I just never looked up at the walls.”
He laughed softly and said, “Do you live here?”
“Yes,” I said.
“All your life?”
“Not all my life, but a long time.”
He sighed and said, “Well, you have to develop kind of a thick skin around here.”
Yeah. A thick skin.
I thanked him and began to walk away, thought better of it and turned back to him.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry you have to deal with that.”
He nodded and went back to his work.
I looked around some more, all the while praying about what I could do. Then, in a booth toward the back I found a coffee mug I liked and as I picked it up, I knew. I carried it to the front, praying that the Spirit of God would rule in my heart, and not my anger. I prayed for courage, and the words to say.
The older white man who owns the antique mall rang up my purchase, while making pleasant small talk. When he was finished, I took a deep breath and began.
“I want you to know that I find the segregationist materials in those two booths very offensive.”
Without hesitation he replied, “But they sell. You wouldn’t believe how much people buy that stuff.”
I was all the sadder. I told him that it was offensive to me, and that I was sure I was not alone.
He went on to defend the merchandise by saying that a lot of black people buy it. Maybe that was true, maybe not. It was not the point.
He made it quite clear the point was money.
And as I walked away, I thought how much things have stayed the same.
The Dream remains….
“This is our hope. This is the faith that I will go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, the “I Have a Dream” speech, March on Washington, August 28, 1963