I grew up in the South – in Tampa, to be exact. A lot of my friends in childhood were racists, in large part, I believe, because we white kids who grew up in the South in the 60s didn’t know any better. That’s not to make excuses; it’s just reality that kids adopt the views of their parents and tend to hold to those views while they remain children.
My dad was a racist. He used to make fun of black people on TV. He would act disgusted when he saw a black man and a black woman on TV kissing. The “N” word filled the air in our home often.
As the child of my father, I believed him when he told me that a black person would never look you in the eye, that you never wanted to find yourself in a dark alley with a black person, and that all black people carried knives. I didn’t really have any experiences to help me see the error in such statements. For the most part, black people lived in their part of town, and we whites lived in ours. Black kids went to black schools, and white kids went to white schools.
And yet, while my dad’s heart was racist through and through, my own heart, if the truth be told, was a mixed bag. I can remember on some occasions countering racist talk with statements such as, “They’re people, too. They just have a different skin color.” But while saying that, I could laugh at my dad’s “black” impersonations. I remember being with some friends one time when we had a radio on, and Gladys Knight and the Pips’ song “If I Were Your Woman” came on. I ran to sit by the radio, expressing how much I loved that song, and the friends I was with laughed at me for liking “N – noise.” But at the same time, I could sit in my eighth grade science class where Mr. Taylor, a black man and one of my favorite teachers, was telling us about how school busing was going to be implemented the next year; it was not going to affect me, but it would affect my sister, who was a year behind me, and I said to those sitting around me, “My sister ain’t gonna go to school with no “n – .”
Now, it’s important to understand that I was a Christian at that time; in fact, I have been a Christian for as long as I can remember. I cannot recall a time when I did not know that I was going to heaven when I died, not because of good things I have done, but because my sins have been paid for on the cross by Jesus. As a Christian kid in a racist environment, I believe the Spirit of God was drawing me to see the sin of racism while the environment in which I was raised was telling me otherwise. Thus, I was a mixed bag. But all that would change the year after the busing plan got implemented, which happened in my ninth grade year.
Prior to busing (or, as we called it, forced busing), our junior high school (which at the time was grades 7-9) had only two black students, as I recall. They were both girls. I did not know them, but I remember seeing them walking together to class from time to time. They were quiet, and they seemed to me to be nice. That’s all I knew. But when busing happened, our junior high school was suddenly 20% black, and, frankly, that scared me. The thing I didn’t realize at the time was that it might have scared them, too. But sometimes, you figure things out when you get older. During that ninth grade year, my perception of things did not change much. But then came high school (i.e., tenth grade).
In high school, I met a black male student named D’Andre. I don’t remember how we met; it was probably out on the basketball courts after school because that’s where we would go on to spend a lot of our time together. D’Andre became one of my best friends, and in hanging around with him, all the stereotypes I had learned as a child began to crumble. He wasn’t “some black guy” that I knew; he was my friend. And though I have not seen him for decades, I still cherish the friendship we had and hope that someday we might reconnect. God used my friend to turn my heart toward what the Spirit of God had been telling me all along regarding the racism in which I had been raised. I even wound up going against my own father, standing up for D’Andre when he had made a joking comment to my sister that my dad had not liked and for which my dad had banned him from our house. Though my dad has been dead for many years now, I still love him and miss him dearly. But he was dead wrong on that one.
Speaking of my dad, I’m glad to report that he did not leave this earth a racist. In January, 1988, at the age of 56, my dad was diagnosed with cancer that had spread throughout his body and was given months to live. Throughout his life, he had paid lip service to God (once in awhile) but had really had nothing to do with God beyond taking His name in vain. Nevertheless, I took Dad during his illness with me to see the elders of the church I attended in Tampa so that they might anoint him with oil and pray for his healing in accordance with James 5:14. I joined in the process of laying hands on my dad and praying out for him, and while the Lord did not heal him physically, Dad told me later that that was when everything my mom and I had tried to tell him about Jesus clicked and Dad believed on Him; God healed Dad spiritually. And that healing showed up in a way that I never would have believed might happen: Dad suddenly stopped being a racist and even verbally repented of the racism that had been so much a part of his life.
I wish those who deny that there is a God and who deny the power of God could hop into a time capsule and go back to 1988 and see the proof in my dad of the power of the living God to change a heart – even a racist heart.