A Little Sugar Goes A Long Way
January 6, 2016 Leave a comment
It seems we can’t go very long in America without having conversations about race and all the tension that inevitably comes along with it. Someone is constantly stirring up trouble. Yet the U.S. is frequently called a melting pot and has a history steeped in immigration, according to BBC News. So why can’t we see past our differences and simply get along?
Last January, white adults doused Native Americans with beer and allegedly tossed out racial taunts at a Rapid City Rush hockey game. In December, KOMU reported that students at the University of Missouri are transferring to other schools because of racial tension. And just after Christmas, two young men jumped out of a car and beat a 68-year-old Sikh man in Fresno who was simply waiting for a friend to take him to the fields where he works.
But these race-based stories are nothing new. I grew up in Southern California following the race riots in Watts, where racial tension between black, white and Latino gangs was still rampant. Then when my family relocated to the small town of Texarkana, Arkansas in 1980, we frequently saw hate and fear divide our small community. I remember seeing the Ku Klux Klan burn crosses in Jefferson Park, was beaten up and berated by certain classmates for having black friends, knew of others who were asked to leave restaurants because of the color of their skin, and warily avoided nearby communities like Fouke that had reputations for being sundown towns. (Since then, some residents have worked to change that perception of Fouke. See my article from Sept. 2012.) I didn’t grasp why people were so hung up on race in those days, and still don’t, but then I was raised to see people rather than the color of one’s skin.
For a white boy in the South, I usually found that the only people who had a problem with race were other white people. The black people in my life were much more accepting of me, and in many ways adopted me into their families and taught me about their heritage. I was lucky of course, because I do know people of all races hold deeply buried prejudices. Still, I was blessed to have my best friend, Monica, live down the street, and we grew up going to classes together, eating lunch at the same table (which was kind of rare even in the 80s), and rarely gave a thought to our difference in skin color. I have so many fond memories of hanging out with her and her mom, sister, aunts, uncles, cousins and other extended family members, so much so that they are still like my family even today.
One woman, Thelma Fort, lived next door to Monica’s aunt in Mandeville, a tiny suburb just east of town, and she was particularly dear to me. (Her death last Saturday is what actually inspired me to write this blog post in the first place.) The thing I loved about Thelma is that she rarely knew a stranger, and she never let a difference in race keep her from making a new friend, sharing a laugh, or embracing someone new into her life. One of our mutual friends, Tommy Jo Peden, said after Thelma died, “My favorite expression of hers [was], “come on over here and let me give you some brown sugar.” It is the same thing I recall Thelma saying time and again, as she threw open her arms, always ready for a hug, no matter where your ancestors came from. In fact, her readiness to share her ‘sugar,’ her genuine warmth and compassion for other people, is probably her greatest legacy, and I know it is what I will always remember best about her.
I’ve thought about it frequently over the past few days. If more people could have encounters like the ones I had with Thelma and Monica, if we could all work to disperse and accept ‘sugar’ a little more readily, it would go a long way toward tearing down the walls that divide us. Thelma was a devout woman whose faith in God was integral to her very being, and I know that she firmly believed the words found in the Bible at 1 Corinthians 13:8, where it states that “Love never fails.” Thelma lived those words every day.
Today, those words are still applicable for all of us and find their way into the fabric of our culture. Dolly Parton found that adage to be true and made it a theme of her recent autobiographical television movie, Coat of Many Colors. Humorist, cowboy and vaudeville performer Will Rogers was known for saying he’d never met a man he didn’t like. (His words even prompted lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green to write a song based on that quote for 1991’s The Will Rogers Follies.)
The older I’ve grown, the more I’ve moved to different parts of the country and made friends with people from far flung corners of the globe, the more prescient this idea has become for me personally. When I moved to Ohio I met a Jordanian woman who loved to share her Middle Eastern recipes with us. Working in Arkansas, an Iranian/Canadian singer and his band shared their wonderful music with us and gave an impromptu performance at an event we were throwing. In Massachusetts, Portuguese neighbors shared produce over the fence. And since returning to Texas, immigrants from various parts of Africa have shown me once again what brotherhood and friendship really mean. In all these instances, two strangers on opposite sides of the fence have, like Thelma and so many others I’ve known, cast their sugar out with a generous hand. All that sugar does what hate never can. It fortifies and nurtures us. But most of all, it reminds us the importance of giving just as much as we take, to live with open minds and hearts, and to celebrate the differences that give us our individuality. If we could all do that, the world would be such a better place to live in.