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Chapter 1: Small Town Iowa

November 9, 2017

“You know he is black, right?”

The Reverend was sitting in his office on a Thursday afternoon when Betty marched into the church. He saw her put the umbrella down that she was carrying. She placed it by the door as the water dripped off of it to make a puddle on the linoleum. He then saw her walk up to the secretary and speak to her about the rainy morning. Finally, Betty made her way into his office and sat down in the big brown chair that many parishioners had sat in before. When Betty sat down the Reverend knew she was settling in for a long conversation. He did not know if it would be a pleasant conversation or a conversation full of complaints and demands, but either way he was ready.  In his head he was thinking about all the things that might have gone wrong over the last week. Maybe she wanted something fixed around the church. Were the coffee hour volunteers showing up on time and doing the needed work?  Were the Wednesday night youth club kitchen volunteers not washing all the dishes again or putting them back in the correct places? Or, maybe she had a question or complaint about his sermon? Whatever it was, the Reverend had his usually jolly smile spread across his face to welcome her into his office. “Good afternoon Betty, how are you this rainy day?”

Betty was a short, sassy, older women in the church who made sure everything ran smoothly. She was in charge of the kitchen when the kitchen was being used. She was in charge of organizing and making the lunch when there were funerals. And, she was in charge of making sure people were doing what they were “suppose” to be doing. Betty took this all on herself. She was also a mentor to multiple middle school youths throughout their time in the youth (confirmation) program. She viewed herself as a Godly woman doing the work of the Lord in the church. All of her actions and comments came from a place of love, however sometimes her actions or comments got her in a bit of trouble with other people.

Betty was of an older generation. A generation before school integration. A generation when Blacks and Whites did not converse, work, or even look at each other in polite company. She carried with her an older, outdated mindset based on the history and experiences she had as a child and young adult. That was her background and mindset when she entered the minister’s office that rainy Thursday afternoon. The first thing she said when she sat down was, “You know he’s black, right?”

The Reverend had an idea of what Betty was talking about, but he decided to probe a little deeper into her comment. “What do you mean? Who are you talking about? We have many Black people in our community and they are all more than welcome to attend our church.”

Betty huffed and said, “Well, Reverend, I am talking about your daughter. You know that boy she is dating is Black, right?”

“Oh, I see,” the Reverend calmly responded to Betty. Although his exterior was calm, his head his mind was racing. What is the right thing to say? The first thing he said was, “I understand that you see him as Black. But, I want to point out to you that is mother is White, she lives right by us. They are a very nice family.”

The Reverend was a white, middle class, educated 40-something that had been the head minister at this church for several years. He and his wife, the other minister in the church, raised their two daughters in the community. The Reverend grew up as an only child in a Central Illinois city. He was poor as a child. His parents had limited education and both received their GEDs later in life. The Reverend however, had a strong foundation that allowed him to graduate college, not one time, but three times. He received his professional doctorate in his mid-30’s. He was able to leave his neighborhood to attend college, see other parts of the nation, and widen his view of people.

On this Thursday afternoon in his office the Reverend was taking his knowledge and experience of living in poverty, along with knowing different viewpoints to engage in the conversation with Betty. He understood that the people of the church, especially older women in the church, feel it is their duty to make sure the preacher’s children are taken care of and raised “right.”

The conversation with Betty continued. “But he is Black,” Betty said again as she whispered the word black. “You are not going to let her keep dating him are you? Do you know what that means? She is dating a Black boy. You don’t want black grandchildren in your family do you? That is disrespectful to let your daughter date that Black boy. I don’t care how nice he or his family is, it is wrong.” The Reverend could tell Betty was getting more and more agitated as she sat in his office telling him how to raise his daughter.

Very calmly the Reverend said, “Betty, I thank you for coming into my office this afternoon, however I support my daughter in her decision to date him. The color of his skin does not matter. He is a nice young man who makes her happy. But, again, I thank you for voicing your opinion.”

Betty was now fully agitated. How could the Reverend not agree with her? She said again, “But Reverend, he’s BLACK.” The Reverend appeared unfazed by this attack on his family that rainy Thursday afternoon in the early 2000s. Betty’s eyes locked with his and, as he explained it later, he could see Betty finally understand this conversation was not going to end how she had hoped. She changed the subject to her frustrations with the volunteers in the kitchen, and the afternoon conversation continued from there.

I heard this conversation relayed to me by my mother nearly 10 years later as I was helping clean out boxes upon boxes of my childhood memories during one of my mom’s famous “mass clean out, get rid of everything” sessions. I held up one of my favorite baby dolls from when I was younger. It was the size of my palm, hard plastic, black curly hair, and brown skin. On the upper left chest there was a small button that stuck out in the shape of a heart. When it was pressed, the baby doll said, “I love you. I love you,” in a small, sweet voice. This baby doll was my pride and joy growing up in a white, rural Iowa town. While I was listening to the story of my father and Betty, along with other childhood stories told by my mother, I continued to clean. When the story of Betty came up I stopped cleaning and looked at my mom. I was in shock. Betty had been a mentor of mine when I was growing up. Once I asked questions and got a better understanding of what happened that Thursday afternoon I began to feel quite upset that the conversation even happened in the first place. I was also mad that my parents had never told me. Yes, reflectively I can understand why they never told me. I was a moody, feisty, outspoken, stubborn teenage girl. They were probably afraid of what I would say to her if I had found out while we still lived in that town or while she was still alive.

After learning about the conversation between my dad and Betty from years prior, I kept digging. At the bottom of one box that was filled with toys, baby dolls, clothes, and all my pocket rocker cassettes I found my one and only American Girl Doll. My grandmother had bought her for me many years earlier. She also took the time to make and sew many pieces of clothing for my beloved, and expensive, American Girl Doll. The doll I asked for as a child, and still have in my basement as an adult, was the Addy Walker doll. The Addy Walker books describe the life of a nine-year-old girl who was born into slavery and escapes to freedom with her mother during the Civil War. These books intrigued me as a young girl. They made me think. They made me question. And they made me begin to look around at my surroundings and constantly think about the history of people and their lives.

I pulled Addy out of the box and said to my mom, “I think I had more Black baby dolls than I did White baby dolls growing up. All of those White dolls were my sister’s.” My mom quietly laughed and said, “Yeah, you always wanted the darker skinned baby dolls. Your dad and I didn’t care either way. We did not have a lot of money while we were raising you, so if you wanted a doll that made you happy, we bought it for you when we had money.”

I kept digging through the boxes and thinking. I was in a point in my life where race was something that I questioned and wondered about a lot. I had just returned from living in Kenya for a few months (more on this later).  I had my first experience as a minority. I was questioning many things. As I continued to think a memory came to me clear as day. I looked up at my mom and said, “I remember when I saw my first Black person in real life.”

My mom laughed slightly then looked at me surprised and said, “You do? When was that? You must have been pretty little.”

I went on to tell her the story, as I remembered it from the view as a young girl. “There was one day that your friend Tom came over. I don’t remember if he was visiting for the weekend or was just stopping by for dinner on his way to somewhere else. But, I remember seeing him. I remember thinking he was the coolest person I had ever seen or met. I felt like our family was on top of the world as we walked with him around the town square (in our town of 2,000) to the pizza place for dinner. I wanted all my friends from school to see me with that man and our family.”

My mom stared at me blankly for a few minutes. She finally said, “I don’t remember that, but I know who you are talking about. I think that was the only time he came to visit. I haven’t seen him in years. But you know what? I think around that time is when we got you that baby doll that says ‘I love you.’

Reliving my childhood through the boxes I was cleaning out with my mother that day was therapeutic. My reflection and therapeutic feeling continues to this day.

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