Twenty three years ago I came home for Christmas after spending the fall semester in Jackson, Mississippi. I went because college was depressing and I needed something that gave me purpose. I was not someone who went into those years of my life with specific plans, I was one of the lost ones. If you know what you want to do at 18, you are so damn lucky. In the back of a magazine called Urban Family that my parents had lent me, I found a notice from the publication. They were looking for college age interns to come to Jackson to write for them, live in the community and learn about racial reconciliation.
I was in.
And then just like that, it was over and I was back home. I returned full of new ideas and things to share- so many life altering things I had learned. And while some folks were interested, some were clearly not. I was told I was just dredging up the past and making something out of nothing. Racism had been overcome and I needed to let it go. Frankly, I was crushed. I thought everyone needed to know how systemic racism was alive, well and dominated our culture. I think that they just saw a know-it-all twenty year old who thought she was going to change the world.
Looking back, I realize how little I really did know. I had no idea how much time I would need to spend unlearning so many things I was sure about and how my over excited story telling wasn’t going to change people’s views. I began to see that the power was not in me telling them, but the power was in the places I had learned. Only in those places would people ever be able to truly see how deeply broken and racist our country still was.
The places were not studies or statistics. They were not news stories or documentaries. The places weren’t even places- they were people.
Relationships, they change everything.
The past few years have been an intense learning experience for so many of us. And by us, I mean white people. The things we had long been able to let go of or ignore, they weren’t going away. In fact, they were here and more visible than ever. If you can’t see it, you are hiding.
A year ago a stood in my kitchen, head in my hands. I was overwhelmed and disturbed. I was ready to do something, but what? What does my voice mean in any of this? I know people don’t want to hear my opinion. But what about stories? Can stories make a difference? What about stories about my friendships? I thought of my friend Johnathan Perkins and all he had been through. He was vocal on these issues and he was challenging me. What was I going to do about white supremacy in this country? If I wasn’t saying something, then I was complicit. I couldn’t shake that. It bothered me to no end because I knew it was true.
I sent him a message. Could I interview you? Would you be willing to share your experiences? Are you willing to say the things you tell your friends to my friends and family too? I don’t know what to do, but I want to, I need to do something.
He wrote back and said yes.
Yes, but not yet.
See there was even more to Johnathan’s story than many of his friends and family knew. If he talked to me, he felt it would make him too vulnerable. He was willing, but he needed more time. I told him, let me know when you’re ready.
When he was here in Chicago visiting with us last month, he brought up my interview idea. He said he hadn’t forgotten and it was something he wanted to do.
Finally, last Sunday evening we did our long-awaited interview. We chatted online, not as fun as in person but it worked for the purposes of recording much of his story and his thoughts on race.
I’m looking forward to introducing Johnathan to you all. I’ve known him since he was 10 years old when I was that intern at his parent’s magazine in Mississippi. It was the death of his father that ultimately brought us from Jackson to Lancaster- to be close to his mom while she raised three young kids. Johnathan was the one who picked up the phone when the For Sale sign went up on other side of the duplex they lived in. Drew and I bought it and moved in. All three of our kids were born while we lived there next to them on Pleasure Road. We got 8 years of community living with his family that walked us all through some of life’s most joyous and painful times.
Somehow, Johnathan is a grown up now. He’s taken the adult thing very seriously. He graduated from Temple in Philadelphia and got a law degree from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Currently he is a lawyer at Harvard University in Cambridge. Knowing him and his family has changed me and I just want to share some of his story with you.
And together we will- tomorrow.
Check out Johnathan’s Facebook page for now!