Racism. Morality. Freedom. Justice.

The words flow so smoothly. Strung together like the ropes that bound the slaves to the plantation owners. Like the ropes used to hang the black and hopeless men. Like the ropes that bind us still to that “peculiar institution” otherwise known as slavery. Justice. Have we arrived?

Born in South Texas and bred Southern. Oblivious in my innocence to the horrors of slavery, but living in the aftermath, as are we all still today.

“Whites Only,” read the public water fountains. Where were the fountains for the blacks? No blacks at the soda fountains. No blacks in my schools. I heard they had their own school on the outskirts of town. In those days Texas A&M admitted only all white and all male students. The black students used old versions of the A&M textbooks at Prairie View Texas A&M, outside of town (as it still is today). The women had a few other choices, but not Texas A&M. I graduated from an integrated Texas A&M in 1987.

The blacks sat in the back of the public buses. One time my father and I sat in the back of the bus since there were no other seats available. Weird looks from the other whites. No blacks in our neighborhood. I visited the black neighborhood in later years, and their mud streets sloped to either side oozing with sewage. No sidewalks for toddlers to ride their tricycles oh, never mind. They had no tricycles. The little weathered houses teetered off the ground on stumps of pine. Windows without screens.

Later, living with my grandparents on the farm in central Texas during the summers, the cotton bolls looked like snowdrops withstanding the blistering Texas sun. Someone had to pick that cotton. My grandfather had black folks do the job. Zeke had no car. Zeke’s house was more shack than house. My grandfather told me, “Oh, honey, that’s the way they want to live.” My sister and I asked for a cotton sack to help pick cotton. After a half-hour, “We’re hot Pappa.” And we sat down in the shade of a tree drinking from the crock jug of cool water. I can picture still the bent and sweating backs of Zeke and his family.

Now, living in Yankee Land, I’ve learned about “White Privilege.” The privilege that allows me to shop without worrying that someone is watching me suspiciously. I had the distinct privilege of applying for any job without having to qualify myself as being black, and thus deemed less employable. I had the privilege of a good education, while my dark-skinned brothers and sisters attended schools without the advantage of a good library, a good music program, and a safe playground. When I look in the mirror, I see a white face. My black women friends look in the mirror and see a black face, and that colors their day in ways beyond my imagination.

I’ve learned about “Institutional Racism.” My first arrest for civil disobedience was in Washington, D.C. On a Saturday night, my hands handcuffed behind my back, I was taken along with 30 of my friends to a city jail in a black neighborhood. From my cell, that I shared with about 10 other women activists, I could see the intake area. The scene is embedded on my psyche. Being interviewed: Black man, black man, black man, black man, black woman (Rosie, who soon became our cell mate) and more black men. While we women sang songs of the slaves, I questioned, “What kind of society allows this hopelessness to continue?” I know the answer. Justice delayed. Justice denied. Poor and dangerous schools, so poorly educated citizens. Unemployable. Drugs, alcohol, crime. I remember that it has only been 58 years since the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till. And the two white men who committed the murder were found “not guilty.”

Can you tell I just saw the movie, “Twelve Years a Slave?” It tears at my heart. It rends my soul. I rage at the injustice. I want to withdraw from the human race. I want to change the story. I will change the story.

Analyzing the film, the reality is that whites enjoy the freedom to make the moral choices. I have the privilege, with no thought to any harm to me personally or harm to my family, to say, “I prefer not to…” The character-hero is often faced with choices where I scream for him to say, “No,” but the facts tell me that he had no real choice. He lived only for that day when truth would set him free. Had he said “No,” he would not have lived to see that freedom. After 12 years of a living hell.

Our individual actions and thought processes today reveal our past. While I lived and breathed racism in the South, my conscience now admonishes me to beware, to be aware, of my words. Yes, the ingrained thoughts come creeping in get back, get back. Do no harm. Justice, so long denied, is still a little child with years awaiting to grow.

Sally Breen lives in Windham.

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