Updated: Jan 8, 2022
Taking a deep reflection on racial diversity in my life
Above Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY
Over the past year, I've traveled down a personal, introspective journey, striving to dig deep, bare my soul, and reconcile with whatever I might find. Writing has been a key vehicle for such reflection.
To improve my writing and perspective, my writing coach encouraged me to read books in my genre, memoirs. While I gathered tips and examples to help expand my writing skill set, I also discovered such a mission could help me be a more enlightened person.
I chose to read a broad array of memoirs which provided some insight into other people, their cultures, and their own personal struggles. Some stories shared some similarities with mine, but most stood in stark contrast.
I grew up in the '70s and '80s in Mountain Brook, Alabama, a rather posh, middle class suburb of Birmingham. We may have been ten miles from the lingering civil strife of the city, but we were a world apart. In the early '60s Birmingham was considered one of the most racially divisive cities in the country. I was born just a few years after the days of "Bull" Connor, SCLC and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. protests that landed MLK in jail, and the KKK bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four girls and wounded twenty-two others.
Ten years later, Birmingham was still suffering and the only African-Americans in Mountain Brook were maids bused in from the city. Even the schools' janitorial staff was white. So I was quite insulated from the injustice and violence for which Birmingham was a pivotal backdrop. Hence, my personal exposure to African-Americans and race was quite distant.
My family were members of the 4800-person strong Jewish community of Birmingham, perhaps larger than one might expect in the deep South. We were exposed to some bullying, name-calling, and an occasional swastika on the streets or in front of the high school, but the Mountain Brook culture tended to limit most of the blatant displays.
My dad owned a clothing store in nearby Bessemer. Most of his customers were African-American and I believe he was a role model in treating people honestly and respectfully. So I hope some of that affected my ethos as I grew up. Yet the first African-American I probably ever talked to was in college, and likely not reflective of the struggles of most in the South.
As an introverted, shy, reserved man consumed with what others thought, I took solace that my story was simpler than African-American people, since I could walk down the street without anyone recognizing my minority status. Though that didn't solve any problems, perhaps it helped me escape from any awareness of the racial divide or any role I should play.
For thirty years, I worked with others and managed many diverse teams. I believe I was respectful and inclusive, encouraging diversity of experience and thought. Yet it was neither 'politically correct' nor within my comfort zone to open up discussions about race, so I remained largely ignorant.
Recently, after my writing coach recommended Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mothers' Garden, I realized this was perhaps the first book I'd ever read by a African-American author. It was so personal and shared such pain, grief, and sometimes anger which pervaded her whole family. I had to read more. Kiese Laymon's Heavy: An American Memoir shared a more modern story of his personal struggles in the 'hood of the South. Charlamagne Tha God's book Shook One: Anxiety Playing Tricks on Me shared his struggles dealing with anxiety within a proud, African-American society. I expanded my reading to include Alexander Chee's How To Write An Autobiographical Novel about his own raw experiences within the LGBTQ community and, most recently, Terese Marie Mailhot's Heart Berries about a Native American woman's struggle with depression, alcoholism, and recovery.
These are all great books that left an indelible impact on me. I highly recommend each one. I'm not trying to take victory laps or receive accolades for reading diverse books. To the contrary, I found myself confused yet curious...
ESSAY OF TRUTH - 4/24/2019
Confusingly, I’m not sure I should be writing this. But infused with curiosity, sadness, and remorse, I need to explore this with myself.
After reading several pieces by prominent, modern day African-American writers, I am compelled to pick up my pen.
It is perhaps easy for a white male to be racist and sexist in America, even today. It is slightly more challenging to vilify racist words and language in support of diversity and acceptance from a sofa or office chair.
But my reading experience compels me to stand up and try to understand more.