Life as a stranger in one's own land

February 08, 1998

Life as a stranger in one's own land

You stop at a convenience store for gasoline, a pack of cigarettes or a soda. But when you go into the store, the clerk, who's never seen you before, watches you carefully, as if you might steal something. When you pay, he snatches the money from your hands, as if an accidental touch of your fingers might burn his palm. Your cigarettes and your soda are pushed toward you on the counter, and if you ask for a bag, the clerk sighs as if he's been asked to do something unpleasant.

Such things happen to me occasionally and when they do, I write off the clerk as a jerk. I never think about the possibility that it's because of my race. But some black people in this community do endure such treatment, which shouldn't be a surprise to those white folks who don't. We have the luxury of not thinking in racial terms, of not being reminded, as one black woman I talked to this week is on a regular basis, that we are different and somehow not welcome in our own country.


In some of my recent columns, I've asked readers to share their feelings about race, 30 years after the passage of major civil rights legislation. My feeling is that too many of America's white people accepted it as the law of the land, but not in the hearts. Last week Randy Changuris, a Pleasant Valley resident, wrote about his family's decision to stop classifying anyone by race. They even refuse to list their race on forms they must fill out.

I've had other responses. Another man called to object to the coverage of Lawrence Freeman, the black man arrested Dec. 23 for sitting on a bench in front of the Washington County office building with a small sign alleging that the county government won't hire black men.

Some black people - and he assured me that he had some black friends - want to make everything racial. Denied a job for what may be legitimate reasons, their first reaction is that it must be a racial conspiracy against them. Look at ex-state Sen. Larry Young, my caller said. Even though the charges which led to his expulsion from the state senate had nothing to do with race, many of his fellow black politicians in the General Assembly rallied to his side. Right is right and wrong is wrong, he said, and if something is wrong, my caller said, the wrong-doer shouldn't be protected by those of his race.

Now it's important to note that Young has not been convicted of anything yet, but as Young himself has said, in the more than 100 years since the last expulsion from the state senate, has there been no white politician who has strayed from the straight and narrow?

The show of solidarity with Young and earlier with O.J. Simpson, seems like the '90s version of what I heard as a reporter covering campus politics in the late 1960s: During a rally in favor of adding Black History to the curriculum of Prince George's Community College, one black student began to criticize a black trustee of the college. Another black student interrupted him to remind him that was something that shouldn't happen when white people were present. The message was: We must stick up for each other, because we can't count on anyone else to do it.

The other comment came in a letter from a Hagerstown man in his 70s, who said that he grew up in Washington County in a family which didn't discriminate.

"All adults were Mr. and Mrs., regardless of nationality," he said. It was only a move to the Washington, D.C. area in the 1950s that changed him.

"It was there that I learned the difference between black and white, and to this day I have a problem with my feelings," he said.

"I confess I have two standards for black people - two extremes. Those whom I like and greatly respect and others that I see through contempt. Only the black race did this to me, not my heritage," he wrote.

His solution? One start would be to stop the references to "African-American," he said.

"We do not refer to ourselves as German-America, Polish-, Italian- or Jewish-American. We are Americans, period. When the blacks recognize the fact that they are Americans and forget the African title, we will move forward."

To which the black woman whose everyday experiences began this column might reply: If my fellow Americans, no matter what their color, would accept and treat me with respect, that would be a step forward as well.

So will continuing to talk about the subject. If you have a constructive thought, send it to Editorial Page Editor, The Herald-Mail., P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, Md., 21741. Please note whether you'd like it published as a letter, with your name attached, or excerpted in a column like this, with your name withheld.

The Herald-Mail Articles