It’s because I’m black, isn’t it?
I had just refused his request for money outside Barnes & Noble, my daughter in one arm, my son at my side, our arms laden with their new gift card purchases in the form of a zoo Playmobil and a Lord of the Rings lego set, compliments of their great grandparents.
No, I can assure you that’s not the reason, I had answered, more amused than off-put.
This week I’m grateful that the reminders of Martin Luther King’s legacy- both the achievements of this great man and the hurdles still left to scale- are all over the place where I live and where my children go to school (in downtown Atlanta).
Several times a week, I drive down Joseph Lowery Blvd and turn left on Martin Luther King Blvd, making my way to a 50 meter public pool in a gritty section of southwest Atlanta, only a few miles from my neighborhood. If not that long ago blacks and whites would not have been able to swim in the same lanes or undress in the same locker room, now we trade pleasantries and words of encouragement as we peel off layers of clothing or adjust our caps and goggles, bracing ourselves for our initial submersion.
The drive to the pool and back can sometimes be a different story- no matter that the main drag lines the campus outskirts of the highly regarded Morehouse College or the new condo developments waiting to be occupied, no matter that it is always broad daylight when I venture through this part of town.
The other day a young black man- he must have been only 18 0r 19- walked by as my car dallied at a traffic light. We exchanged a brief but meaningful look. His eyes seemed from somewhere within the recesses of my own fear to challenge my very existence at this traffic light in southwest Atlanta: the privileged white woman in her Toyota Rav-4 waiting for that traffic light to turn green did not belong here, in his neighborhood, on his streets. He kept staring back at me as he walked by, his pants hanging below his underwear, the lines of contempt, distrust, resentment, even hostility so clearly etched across his face.
In those short moments, it seemed as if the light could not have changed more slowly.
I wonder what Martin Luther King would say if he were alive today- about our cities and communities…about a black, homeless man convinced he’s poor because of the color of his skin…about a young black man with a look that could kill and the white woman in her Rav-4 feeling scared because she might be in the wrong place at the wrong time. What would King say about how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go in reaching “that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!”
Maybe he would say yes, we’ve come a long way and we’ve got a long way to go- but that the journey starts with a God who makes the rough places smooth and men and women who with this trust are simply willing to travel there.