I am a child of the south. I have some very fond memories of growing up in the small town of Ariton, Alabama. I am a proud, southern writer and many of my family and friends reside there, so the south will always be home for me. But similar to Countee Cullen, in his poem, “Incident,” a great deal of my memories are clouded by the sting of racism. Perhaps the racism that hurt the most was from those “benevolent racist.” They were kind-acting. Wanted the best for everyone, even if it meant the continuation of segregation. In their minds, we all would be better off if we just kept things the way they were. But if you questioned them about their “attitudes,” they would insist that they “don't see color.” Many of their close friends, they would say, were “Colored, Negro, Black, African American, etc.” My short essay, “'Lost in 1993” is about my first day of college at Auburn University. As much as I knew I had overcome to get there, it took the actions of one student to spiral me downward into the rabbit hole of self-doubt. “Lost in 1993” is my story of falling, but it is also my story of getting back up.
Lost in 1993
“Are you lost?” he asked, smiling, with an almost tender concern on his face as I stood hesitantly at the door of the classroom. I had followed the sound of lighthearted conversation and banter; sure that one of those self-assured unknowns would know where I was supposed to be in the next ten minutes. I entered the room. The room had tables and chairs arranged in an awkward circle and the view from this room on the 9th floor of the Haley Center was breathtaking. I could see Jordan Hare Stadium from the windows. I imagined my son and me there watching ballgames together. I sighed. This was my dream deferred and in spite of everything that had seemed to sidestep me from this dream through the years, I had finally made it!
I smiled at the guy who stood there waiting for my response. I guess I was in such awe of actually being in the place I'd dreamed of for so long, that his questions flowed right through me without even registering in my psche. Plus, he had a Jesus-like look of patience on his face. Like if I never spoke, he would have still waited there looking welcoming and affirming. I was relieved for his concern. I had been circling the halls of the Haley Center for several minutes and I was afraid of being late for my first official graduate class.
I had approached getting into Auburn University’s graduate school like I had approached everything else in my life—with grit, determination and the tenacity of a pit bull. I had secured grants, scholarships, housing and daycare for my son, so, the first day of class had been a long time coming, but in spite of, or maybe because of all that I had gone through to get there, I just knew I was about to live out my greatest dream.
I reached out my hand to shake his. He seemed to hesitate for a moment. I even remember him looking at my hand in a strange manner, as if something was wrong with it, but before I could withdraw it, he grasped my hand firmly.
"Hi," he said. "I'm *Court."
Although concerned about being lost, my face could not contain its smile, particularly since the young man and his friends were behaving so friendly. I thought to myself, these are my fellow comrades and they are welcoming me. My smile threatened to split into halves, thirds, and into an unrecognizable mass of teeth and gums.
"Hello," I said, shaking his hand firmly. Just like my daddy had taught me. Always look people in their eyes when you shake their hand, he had told me. The mark of an educated person is one who is not afraid to look a man straight in his eyes.
I wanted to tell this smiling fellow that my first class was medieval literature and yes, I was lost. I wanted to tell him I liked Beowulf. I had read it in high school, and when I realized that we would be studying it in my graduate class, I pulled it out and reread it, making all of the intelligent sounding comments in the margins that I could think of. I wanted to be prepared. I wanted to tell him all of those things, share with him my excitement, but before I could say another word, he quantified his question; still, with the same benevolent smile he’d had from the beginning.
“You know this section of the Haley Center is for graduate students? Right?”
He sounded so innocent. But the alarm system that people of color possess that alerts us to the fact that we have just been hit with an invisible racist hand slap started chiming in my head. Like the loud, ominous sound of church bells. Instead of the words I know he spoke, I instead heard: You know this section of the Haley Center is for White’s only? Right? I think at that moment I dropped my eyes to the floor, and tried to regain the composure that had surely slithered off of me into a limp pile by my feet.
To this day, Court does not know that his words took me back in time. If questioned about the incident, if he even remembered it, he would probably say he meant no harm. And you know, I would probably believe him. But it wouldn't change the sting I felt when he said it. In that moment, he violently tossed me into the rabbit hole that led back to the segregated south of my youth where I peed in Colored’s Only bathrooms and drank from my people’s very own personal drinking fountains that spewed out bitter streams of water.
Slowly, I looked back up at Court again. He was still smiling. I studied him. He was dashingly handsome. Like a young Dean Martin or Clark Gable. But in that moment he became ugly. Like a steely-eyed Bull Conner ordering water hoses to knock down innocent, brown faces whose only crime was the desire to partake in civil disobedience. His few words stripped me of the advances Colored people had made and I was once again reminded me that I was The Other—the story that existed outside of the margin.
Court was a benevolent racist. The kind who meant no harm. Later, he would "compliment" me by saying things like, "Well, one thing is for sure, Angela. You will always have a job" OR he'd say, still with a smile, "It's not easy getting a job if you are a white man."
When he said things like that, I would find my anger rise up inside of me like the dry bones that came to life again in the biblical story. I had run out of compassion’s milk to offer to the ignorant lips of the Court’s of the world. I had run out of prayers of forgiveness for their lack of understanding of how their words were the matches that caused invisible crosses to burn.
In that moment, I was no Jesus praying for his offenders. I was praying for that Old Testament God of vengeance to rear his head again and strike down those people like Court who continued to drape themselves in the covering of ignorance.
But on that monumental day when Court asked me if I was lost, I realized something important. That day wasn’t just for me but it was for my grandparents, my dad and mother, Miss Eveline who used to give me Wrigley’s Spearmint gum during church services, my aunts and uncles and cousins, and all those elders from my home town, alive and dead, who never even got a chance to sit at the welcome table because they were too busy serving at it.
Remembering that important fact allowed me to swallow hard and smile at Court and his merry band of men, and reply in a voice filled with confidence and pride,that even surprised my ears, “No, Court, I’m not lost. I’m where I belong. Would you mind helping me find my way?”