There are rites of passage, and Rites of Passage. Some are planned, some come to you when you arrive out of the blue. They hit you like a train.
I got my driver’s license right as soon as I turned 16. My mom and my stepmom tried to convince my dad it was a bad idea (which it really might have been), but he was sick and tired of carting my extroverted self all over rural South Carolina. I, myself, was all for this plan because it meant freedom and fun. It also meant I had to have a job to support car insurance, gas, and the running money I needed for said fun. I lived in the tiny town of Timmonsville, SC. A little more than 10 miles outside Florence, SC. There wasn’t much of anything for a teenage girl to do for running money in Timmonsville. It’s the kind of town that has a hard time keeping the schools up. Florence is one of those newer small cities. It doesn’t have the Old South charm of Charleston; it doesn’t have the university vibe of Columbia. Back when I was there, a whole bunch of us worked at the movie theater in Florence slinging popcorn and goofing off for the two hours between shows. I had about a half hour drive home, and sometimes dropped off a friend who lived halfway between work and home. I got my driver’s license in May.
There was this one particular fall night I had dropped off my friend and was driving along blaring the new Jane’s Addiction tape I’d picked up (Ritual De Lo Habitual). I wasn’t speeding, but I probably was a tee tiny bit distracted (as I am want to be) when an opossum ran out in front of me. I didn’t know what to do, so I cut the wheel (too sharply) and lost control of the 1978 Corolla I was driving. I skidded into the swamp, the car cantered up and the roof hit a tree less than a foot from my head. These were the days before cell phones. I turned the car off, and then thought “what if the cops see that I was listening to Jane’s Addiction and they think that’s why I wrecked” so I turned the key back to give power to the radio and popped out the tape and put the radio to the NPR station playing classical music. Panic does weird things to your brain. I wasn’t hurt. I was freaked out and scared, and on a back-swamp road somewhere between Florence and Timmonsville South Carolina at 11 pm on a weeknight. There wasn’t any traffic stopping by to check on me. The only thing I could figure to do was to start walking home.
Walking down that swamp road, I kept telling myself to keep it together, just to get home. I don’t know how far I’d walked or how long I’d been out, but a car did come up beside me. It was a middle aged black man in an older model car. He said “I saw that car wrecked, was that you” “Yes sir” “Do you need me to call the police?” I’ve always thought of the police as something that happened when you got in trouble, not something that happened when you needed help. It’s just how I was raised. So I said “no sir, I don’t want to call the police” “do you want a ride home” “yes please, sir” – so I got in the car. I figured he probably wasn’t an axe murderer or rapist, and that I’d had a bad enough night that I was getting a little bit of good luck. He was so nervous picking me up. Black men didn’t typically pick up white girls to take them home in South Carolina in the early 90’s. I’m guessing not now, either. He held the wheel tight and tried to be sweet to me as I tried to not completely fall apart in this poor man’s car. He got me home and asked if I needed him to do anything else, I declined. Getting out of the car I told him thank you, thank you, and God bless.
I get so dang awkward trying to talk about race. But I guess the only way to get less awkward is to do it repeatedly.
I don’t know why I’m writing this right now. There seem to be fewer deaths of black men at the hands of police these days, although I can’t speak to this as a reality, and either way these last couple years have been, simply said, awful ( #saytheirnames), but right this minute I’m thinking a lot about race. And I’m thinking a lot about that time I was picked up by a nervous black man when I was in trouble. I’m thinking about how there have been these moments my whole life that have been overtly or subvertly about race. I’m thinking about when my 9th grade Civics teacher gave us a list of 10 things you had to be to become president, and “white” was one of them. I am so ANGRY that we have a world in which my black and brown friends and neighbors aren’t safe to walk outside their doors. And even with the “10 Things White People Can Do to Be Allies” I still feel impotent. At the micro level, I’m being clumsily friendly to strangers in public. At the macro level, I’m researching newly elected officials’ policy platforms. How do they address issues of racial justice? Do they have an equity platform? For the love of Pete, do they stand up for gun control?
This isn’t enough, this isn’t enough . . . And I pray to be brave enough to seek out the work that needs to be done and to engage. To be risky and courageous alongside my friends and neighbors. I want to take back the promise of our country, a promise that seems further away ever since November 9. I want the children that I taught when they were little more than babies to go to college and feel safe walking across the quad at dark, I want them to know there are adults who are working to make the world better for them, and I want them to feel safe getting into a car with a stranger because we live in a world that safe is the default. I want my black and brown friends to feel safe leaving their homes. But that means I have to leave my home, too. To get something new, you’ve gotta give up something old. We can give up the old, we can. I was at the Women’s March on Washington. But that was just a token. My work will be every day. My work will be to call out injustice bravely and consistently. Once again, y’all gotta keep me honest. Don’t let me get soft or scared or complacent or too busy doing other bullshitty things in my life. That man in the swamp in South Carolina was a good and brave man. He helped me out when he didn’t have any reason to except that it was the right thing to do. The very least I can do is this. What will you do?