I was 10 years old, in 1955, when I had my first violent racial encounter.
I had gone with my grandfather to a three-day all-black tent revival in Lake City. On the second day, six boys and I walked to a nearby convenience store. A pickup appeared suddenly, its horn blasting, the white boys in the cab and bed screaming racial epithets.
We ran. I saw a boy in the bed raise a belt with a big shiny buckle. The buckle came down and struck the bridge of my nose. The pain was excruciating. My nose had been broken, exposing bone.
I returned to Lake City 49 years later as part of a Florida Humanities Council public reading titled Parallel Lives, which I coauthored with Florida novelist Beverly Coyle. Ironically, the reading was about race relations during Florida’s Jim Crow era, when blacks and whites were legally separated by skin color in nearly every part of daily life.
Beverly, who is white, and I read to an ethnically diverse audience of nearly 200 from our essays we had written for FORUM, the Humanities Council’s magazine.
As we read, I noticed the agitation of a white man in a middle row. After the reading, Beverly and I conducted our routine question-and-answer session. The man raised his hand and acknowledged that he was the boy who had hit me with his buckle. Only someone who had been there could have described the scene in such accurate detail.
After the reading, the man said he had waited all those years to apologize to his victim and to ask for forgiveness.
I am writing about this long-ago experience in light of the Florida Legislature’s recent decision not to fund the Humanities Council’s request for $500,000, which represents 25 percent of the council’s annual funding. Lawmakers rejected the funding even though the governor supported it.
Parallel Lives, with its focus on racial understanding and reconciliation, was a quintessential Humanities Council program. It would have been difficult to produce without state funding.
Ann Schoenacher, former director of the Florida Center for Teachers and staff member for the Humanities Council, was a creator of Parallel Lives.
Prior to the program, she said, the council typically let local nonprofit community groups attract audiences for events. Predictably, those audiences usually turned out to be over-the-age-of-50 white people.
Council staff sensed that the Parallel Lives program would be different because it was about race, one of the nation’s most enduring and critical issues. Organizers were certain Parallel Lives would inspire deep discussion among attendees.
“We realized, however, that the discussions would be more meaningful if we could create audiences that included a wider demographic than usual,” Schoenacher said. “Since the objective of the program was to build bridges between cultures that historically had intersected only through societal inequities, indignities, violence or commerce – whites and African Americans – the task was daunting.
“Our brainstorming sessions resulted in the idea of forming ‘curious coalitions’ in each town or city that requested the program. The phrase worked in several senses of the word ‘curious,’ for not only did we want groups that were eager to learn something, were interested and inquiring, but we wanted groups that had never even thought of working together before. At first it might feel strange to them or unsettling. So, we required that each request for the program had to be submitted by a partnership between a ‘curious coalition’ of two entities: maybe two churches, one black and one white; maybe two volunteer civic groups that usually divided along racial lines.”
A pleasant surprise was that audiences were larger than usual, more engaged and more passionate, Schoenacher said. Attendees began to see racial situations and people from perspectives never considered.
Beverly shared stories about her learned contempt for blacks. As a child, she was glad that blacks sat in the balcony of the local movie theater while whites sat downstairs. ‘‘Colored only” water fountains and “White only” fountains were the way of the South.
A white store owner in his right mind would never let a Negro woman try on a dress. White men wearing blackface in debasing skits was considered innocent fun.
Beverly’s candor, as she read and during our question-and-answer sessions, gave whites the courage and freedom to describe their own racial experiences. For more than two years, no matter the venue, from church to college campus, our audiences had no volatile arguments, shouting matches or caustic recrimination.
Instead of denying the Humanities Council funding, now is the time for the Florida Legislature to fund programs such as Parallel Lives that give citizens safe spaces to examine the problems and issues that are ripping Floridians apart. #