A Moment Of Shame

When you run at night you have to pay attention. I’ve been doing that for half of my life, and I’m still here, so obviously I’ve learned to pay attention when I’m running at night, in traffic, in serious darkness, on pot-holed roads, during encounters with dogs – in other words every minute of every run. I found out a long time ago that the moment I stop paying attention is the moment when the risks double or triple, and I’m not up for the consequences of that.

It is 11 p.m. central time. Just a few moments ago, I finished a 7.6 mile run. The confront tonight wasn’t physical. It was far more debilitating than that. Tonight a looming specter from the past, one that I could live forever without, jumped out of the darkness and got me.

Just before ten p.m., I was 3.5 miles into the run, cruising easily down St. Clair, a well-lit, street with no potholes or dark places and not much traffic. The street runs behind Huntsville Hospital, just south of downtown. I normally enjoy that stretch, but tonight I didn’t enjoy it at all.

A block before I got to the second of three traffic lights, immediately behind the hospital, I saw a family, walking to their car, stop for the traffic light. There was no traffic noise to speak of, and I could hear the father talking to his wife, and a young boy of eight or nine, who I guessed to be his grandson. It was easy to hear the man because, not only did he look like James Earl Jones, he sounded like him. Though I couldn’t distinguish his words, I could hear love and concern in every one of them. He moved with elegant grace, his arm around his wife, his hand resting easily on her waist. I imaged he was concerned about someone they had visited in the hospital, and I knew he was reassuring his family in a moment of crisis.

He reached out and pushed the button that controls the traffic light. When he did, he saw me coming down the street. He turned back to his grandson and his wife and continued talking. A casual glance at the way the family was dressed confirmed what I’d already picked up from hearing him talk, they were both successful and well educated. For a moment I was proud to just share the street with them, and if I could have shouldered some of the man’s concern, I would have. When I was just a few paces away, I said, “How are you doing?” The man didn’t turn toward me; I suspect he’d already seen enough of me seconds before when he glanced in my direction. His shoulders slumped a bit, his James Earl Jones persona slipped away, and the voice of field hand from a hundred years ago responded to my question, “I’s jest fine, Suh.”

I dropped my head and kept moving, ashamed to be an old white man, ashamed that my ancestors did something to his ancestors, or condoned something that was done to them, that all these years later makes him believe it’s necessary to pretend I’m better than he is. I am deeply ashamed of that, and of the fact that everything I’ve done to change that hasn’t been enough, not nearly enough.


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10 Responses to A Moment Of Shame

  1. David L Atkinson

    Beautiful yet simply explained Bert.
    David L Atkinson recently posted…Going back to unfinished writing – featuring Rob BlackwellMy Profile

  2. Beautiful. Succinct. Woeful.

  3. Caleb Pirtle

    What we do, regardless of what we do, is never enough. But that’s never the point. The fact that we do something is important. A moment of shame would have been to run past and say nothing. You were friendly. You spoke. He was friendly. He responded. For one fleeting moment, you made a difference. For one fleeting moment he knew that someone cared about how he was doing. All good in life takes place one fleeting moment at a time.

  4. That’s a heartache that we’ve yet to understand how much it diminishes us all.

  5. Beca Lewis

    I was so taken by the twist at the end – and saddened by it. Plus, you know I love the way you write all these experiences and take us on your journey with you.

  6. Bert

    Jo VonBargen asked me to post her comment –

    Hi Bama,

    Can you post the comment below for me on your blog, please? Once again, it won’t take. Thanks, kiddo!!

    x Jo

    “It just breaks your heart, doesn’t it, Bert? To see that pride and sense of self-worth swallowed in favor of projecting an inferior image is a hard thing to witness, but it is a defensive posture adopted as a survival technique back in the day. Unfortunately, for some, it has become ingrained habit. You have done more to right old wrongs than a thousand people I know and you have no reason to feel shame, Bama. The shame belongs to those who still secretly hold onto those old hatreds and who idly stand by and do nothing to enlighten themselves and those in their direct orbits. The saddest thing of all is that the haters turned their victims into self-haters, and while some have moved out of that mode into the light, millions more still languish in the dark holds of those slave ships.”
    Bert recently posted…A Moment Of ShameMy Profile

  7. This post made me cry, Bert. As a member of an interracial family, I’m only too aware of this type of interaction and it hurts my heart. You are part of the solution and bless you for recognizing the ages-old reasons for his response. A sadly ingrained protective gesture.

  8. Rob Guthrie

    I’m going against the grain on this one. I, too, feel INCREDIBLE shame at times, for the very same reason—-what our ancestors did forty years ago, hundreds of years ago, even yesteryear (I had in-laws who said things and words about a race that made me sick, and I was ashamed I did not fight them until my knuckles were bloodied; being outnumbered 10:1, I kept my mouth shut). I also grew up in Wyoming and visited the Wind River Indian Reservation twice every year for basketball games, and I had friends who were Native Americans. You want to feel shame, look historically at what we did to these indigenous people, who were here FIRST.

    Okay, here’s the “against the grain” part. Bull malarkey. You said hello, respectfully, as you would to any human being regardless of race, creed, color, religion, Coke versus Pepsi, whatever. YOU care. YOU feel shame. That this man did not have enough self-respect, particularly with his family there and the clear accomplishments for which they should all feel great pride (not because of the color of their skin but rather because of the accomplishments themselves!)…that is on him. (And heck, if I had James Earl Jones’s voice NO ONE would ever mess with me. EVER.)

    Seriously, Bert. There’s being human and feeling ashamed of history and there’s meeting someone part-way, regardless of the past. You went your distance, and then some. Think of it this way: he caused a gentle, friendly, caring, just, shirt-off-his-back kind of man—the kind of man who would grieve his ancestors’ transgressions—to feel horrible inside that night. THAT man should go home and reevaluate his pride and his history and his successes, not the other way around with you and the regretting of history’s failures.

    You are the finest of men, Bert, and my guess is that man is, too, a good man. But he is also a coward if he kowtowed to an older white man who was being openly friendly and colorblind.

    Again, I feel the same shames you do, and more. You should read some Sherman Alexie (“Tonto and the Lone Ranger Fistfight in Heaven”) to see how many Native Americans ridicule “white men wanting to befriend Indians and make up for history”.

    It’s a tough thing, living with our ancestors’ mistakes. Most times I just try to be me, as you did, and shrug my shoulders if another human being doesn’t want my honest, unconditional friendship.

  9. Today I was listening to a radio interview of a man talking about Dr. King’s nonviolent aggression. The interviewee reckoned that nonviolent aggression was favored over violent because black people knew that even in the face of the evil done to them, somewhere inside white people was something they could relate to, human to human. So when I consider just how much maturity and wisdom was required to think that way, it becomes very clear just how small white people have been.

  10. I gotta agree with Rob Guthrie. Kinda.

    I’ve been a black male for a long time–I’m almost 40. I’m not a grandfather; I grew up in the North, not the South. Geographical and generational disparities make my experiences different from the man you describe. But I understand him.

    That man’s response wasn’t your fault: you were a reminder of what could happen to any family of color at night. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong color is all too familiar. And still all too common. I agree with Rob in that there was nothing you could have done differently and nothing you did was wrong. You saw humanity and responded to humanity. Grandparents with their grandchildren taking a walk. That’s what you responded to and what you should have responded to. You just happened to inspire a survival mechanism that is somewhat outdated. But it isn’t your fault. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong color.

    Here’s where I disagree with Rob: I was initially mad at the man’s response, especially the “Suh” part. I was mad at that part. Thought it was too subservient. Until I thought about the last time I got pulled over by the police. That bright light and a man with a badge and a gun and a license to do whatever he pleases turns my northern-bred, college-educated behind into something instantly compliant, instantly subservient. And I teach my son to do the same.

    I don’t think you have anything to be ashamed of. I think, as a nation, we have to accept that some wounds take longer to heal.

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