“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was the first novel we read the first semester I attended college in 1974. I wanted to be deep, a writer, successful, earn good money and had absolutely no direction in life.
I became a teacher because the field was available to me. I recognized that for a woman, it paid well. I also enjoyed the students, parents and teachers along the way. I have been relatively lucky. I've had to swallow bitter pills along with amazing amounts of grace along the way.
Maya Angelou was gifted in giving us insight and words to make the passage through “this veil of tears”. I watched the local PBS station and taped the 6 or 7 episodes depicting the travails of African Americans.
I grew up in a military town in the South. I'm a mix of Appalachia with the Deep South. The military town introduced people from around the country. The African Americans were heavily influenced by the Air Force. Culturally, it was a watered down Southern culture. I would enter that culture as a young adult and not belong.
What I have learned about race is that it is so complicated with variables. Every variable is a person. Their attitude, their experience, their resolution, their degree of flexibility all merge into one seething pot of an endless vortex that will suck you into the hinterlands of hell.
My dad did not want us to refer to people as black or white. What one race did, the other had a reflection. His focus was on people. Was my dad exceptional or a freedom fighter? No, my family made it from payday to payday. He was also a man of his times.
Forty years later, I remember a scene in the book when one the characters who is probably Maya is told by her employer she will call her another name. It went over my head until the professor pointed that out the indignity of not possessing your own name.
Not possessing your own name has many forms that we all bear witness. I had an incompetent boss who harassed the hell out of me. He wanted to see me beg. He had the power to black ball me from teaching. Make me go without a job for awhile if I spoke my mind. I had people depending on me. Plus why should I give up my retirement, the purchase of a home, just for some short-lived satisfaction.
This is why I have so much respect for African Americans who fought for their civil rights or the coal miners in West Virginia striking.
White guilt – Yes I have a lot of it. I've experienced people who abuse their power. I can imagine how awful the cruelty of some people. I don't minimize their experience with the difficulty of others. No suffering is any less because more than one experienced it. It is a shame that people who have lived in this country before it was borne have been treated as second class citizens. The greater shame is that it is still a battle.
I know African Americans are discriminated against. They may have twice the ability and do twice the work but they will somehow pale against a friend's son or a colleague's friend. What's worse is that the secondary barrier of class is a greater hindrance to upward mobility for some young people.
The world is a difficult place and we all have a choice whether we contribute to it being a better or worse.