It was another sunny day in San Diego in the mid–1960s. I must have been about four or five years old. My mother had just brought me home from school in her big lime-green Cadillac Eldorado with the pointy fins.
“I’ve got a surprise for you,” she said enticingly.
That grabbed my attention. Surprises were a rare event in my house.
“I’ll give you three guesses,” she added.
I thought of the things I loved and wanted most.
“Chocolate ice cream?”
Tired of guessing games, I dashed up the outside stairs, through the back door, and into the kitchen, where I immediately spotted my beloved “surprise” sitting patiently in a chair. That in itself was unusual. She never sat. She worked.
“Lyn!!” I yelled. I threw myself into her lap and wrapped my little arms around her neck. Her name was Lynola Thomas, and she was our housekeeper. She’d been out sick for a while, and now she was well again. I was elated.
Black women had few job options available to them in the 1960s other than domestic work. Many whites, even middle-class whites like us, hired black women to cook, clean, and care for their children. Despite the extreme economic disparity and social inequality that existed at the time and still exists today, although to a lesser degree, extremely close bonds could develop between these women and the families they served. It’s awkward to think about now.
“Can I go to Lyn’s house?” I remember asking my mother one day.
“No,” she said.
“Because she is a different race.”
“Race? What kind of a race?” In the simple mind of a child, I thought my mother was talking about a race you ran on foot. She struggled to explain.
“It’s – she’s a different race. She’s a Negro.”
Negro? I had never heard that word before. Again, in my ignorance, I tried to picture what my mother was trying to tell me. Ne-gro. A knee growing? Was something wrong with Lyn’s knee? It made no sense.
To me, it was simple. I loved Lyn. I couldn’t understand why we couldn’t go to her house. I begged and pleaded, but to no avail. Finally, I gave up in dismay.
After my father retired in 1968, we left California, and I never saw Lynola again. No more housekeepers were hired to work in our house, and I never knew any other black people. The civil rights movement soon took hold, and as I grew older I learned to think about race in an entirely different manner. I felt the rising wave of black anger cascading through the television and the corresponding wave of white guilt, fear, and opposition to that anger. I didn’t really understand any of it. I still don’t.
I also have a sense of guilt in knowing that the woman who cleaned my house and helped prepare my meals when I was very small was probably paid next to nothing (this was before minimum wage laws). If Lynola had any children of her own, it is indisputable that I enjoyed privileges that her own children did not.
As a Christian, I must be mindful of the command of Jesus to love my neighbor as myself, but I admit that I fail miserably in this regard. Perhaps one day we will learn to love one another regardless of the color of our skins or the size of our bank accounts. Until that happy day arrives, I invite you to read some of the research being done about community and generational trauma.
We’ve all heard of PTSD affecting individuals, but the idea that oppression and violence can adversely affect an entire group of people and be passed down through the generations is less well known. If you’re wondering why the great-great-grand-children of American slaves are still so very wounded and so very angry (along with other oppressed ethnic groups such as Native Americans), understanding this psychological reality might shed some much-needed light.
On top of the historical and generational trauma, thanks to the proliferation of social media and videos, the trauma inflicted on one person becomes the trauma of the collective: it wounds everyone who sees it, but especially the community of the abused (in this case, murdered) individual. This is one reason why the video of George Floyd’s death suddenly blew up in such magnitude to become an international phenomenon. Psychologists will tell you that unexpressed anger eventually just comes out “sideways,” and that wounds must be acknowledged and hurts forgiven in order to heal. Clearly, we still have a long way to go in that regard.
Unfortunately, there are those who co-opt the collective trauma of a culture and twist it for their own egoistic goals, and many lost and alienated souls there are who will hop on to any moving train just to feel part of something larger than themselves. In every young man and woman there is something of the rebel, the need to belong to the protest group in all its adrenaline grandeur. Sadly, there are also those who are ensnared by the glorification of violence and learn to romanticize anger and social protest for its own sake. Others are opportunists and view protesting as a means to justify (and conceal) criminal acts. This may feel cathartically empowering to the people involved, but it only gives peaceful protesters a bad name and draws down push-back from everyone else. And tragically, just like at Kent State in the 1960s, death can result.
But this will all run its course, just as the riots of the sixties eventually died down and we all started hanging out at discos and watching the new black sitcoms like “The Jeffersons” and “Sanford and Son,” wearing orange polyester pantsuits and waiting for the war to end. One can only hope we come out of the current crisis with more dignity and understanding. We must remember that the decisions we make today will in many ways create the decades to come for our children and grandchildren.
I wish that I could return to that earlier time in my life when the word “race” had no meaning. But I am an adult now. Race does have meaning, and it does no good for whites to pretend it doesn’t. It does no good to tell ourselves that the enslavement of blacks isn’t our fault, isn’t our problem, and people need to get over it. We are all in this together, like it or not. Therefore it behooves us to try to find a peaceful solution to our deep differences, to ask forgiveness, and to express compassion towards one another. We are, after all, members of the same race -- the human race. I pray the day soon comes when we start acting like it.
And to my dear Lyn -- thank you, and I am sorry, and I love you.
The opinions expressed on this website are my own personal views and do not necessarily represent those of the Catholic Church.
If I have erred in any statement, whether directly or by implication, in any matter pertaining to faith or morals, I humbly invite fraternal correction.