Women’s Work: A Personal Reflection on MLK Day

I have not spent much time with the white women and girls of Middle America since fifth grade, when we sat on the school bus and sang the soundtrack from Grease, giggled through “health” class, exchanged knowing glances when a classmate carried a small purse with the classroom hall pass on her way to the restroom, when we laughed out loud at slumber parties. I grew up in what was then semi-rural Pennsylvania, where most of the other girls in my class were white. We lived near dairy farms and deep woods and open fields that led to the Allegheny Hills. In summer, fireflies lit the night, and we punched holes in glass jar tops to catch their magic. In fall, so many birds flew for the hills in “V” formations perfect and sure, it seemed like every bird in the world had taken flight. In winter, plows pushed the deep, deep snow into perfect forts for our snowball fights. In spring, gnats swarmed into clouds so thick, they got in our eyes and noses. We ran, laughing, through each season, together. We spent our glorious childhood together, so I know the culture of white Middle America. Well.

I know that Pittsburgh is the best team in the NFL, no one has greater work ethic than the Amish, good neighbors keep tidy yards, and when someone tells you who they are, you should take them at their word. This is one of the reasons I was hurt when I found out how many white, rural women voted for Donald Trump.

This is MLK Day, and I want to say to my childhood friends: I am going to need you, and I think you’re going to need me, too.

On January 21, I will march in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. and the nameless, countless multitudes who joined his movement — and made it possible for us to be childhood friends at all. Remember, I was one of just a few African American students at South Side Elementary School. And when we moved out by Linglestown, Pennsylvania, I was the only Black student at North Side. The only one. It was on the bus to North Side that I was called the N-word for the first time in my life. The boy throwing the word at me, over and over and over again, laughed as he said it. He laughed and pointed, said the N-word, and laughed some more.

So I was not surprised when I heard that, three miles from Linglestown, a group of students at Central Dauphin High in Harrisburg posted a picture of themselves in 2016, holding a hand-written sign that reads, “You stupid N*****.” The students, all girls, are all smiles as they pose for the selfie. Just like the boy who pointed and cursed at me all those years ago, they are laughing. Their image will live forever because it was posted on social media. His image will live forever because it was driven into my heart.

News of the high school girls’ post circulated in October, the same month I went back to Harrisburg with my husband and son to visit family. We went apple-picking on a glorious fall day. There were families of all hues and backgrounds walking the orchard together. The Harrisburg area has gotten browner since I was a child, and that image of my child running under a bright sun near those Allegheny Hills with a beautiful and diverse group of children is an image I want to live forever, too. The rush of wind and taste of fresh apples and the golden rays of light on my son’s face.

Harrisburg is home.

My great-great-grandfather was an army soldier in the Third Regiment Infantry organized at Camp William Penn and served the Union Army in the Civil War. My great-grandfather founded Hooper Memorial Funeral Home and served on the board of the Forster Street Y. His wife, my great-grandmother, was a schoolteacher in the Harrisburg schools. My grandmother secured Hooper’s as a family legacy and served in numerous capacities to improve the lives of all Harrisburg residents. I have a picture of her receiving a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award for community and civic service that ran in The Evening News on February 11, 1980. Her husband, my grandfather, was a Capitol Hill correspondent for the Pittsburgh Courier and became a member of the Harrisburg Friends. My Harrisburg roots run deep and strong. When I was a child, my father worked for human relations and my mother taught at Harrisburg Middle School. I went to Hansel and Gretel Nursery School before my parents separated, my mother and I moved out, past the Colonial Park Mall, and I rode the bus to North Side. My family had prepared me for the day that boy called me that hateful term. They had heard that same epithet for four generations. I was the fifth.

But I still love semi-rural Pennsylvania. Now there are strip malls where farms used to be. You have to drive farther to see cows lolling near barns affixed with hex signs to keep the bad spirits away. Like the rushing waters of the Susquehanna, home changes. But, then, there are the things that stay the same. Things that are there, as sure as the mighty, mighty Allegheny Mountains. When I drive into Lancaster, there are those Amish farms, there are those corn fields. When I drive back to the ‘burg, around The Park and over to The Hill, I can see that capitol dome that tells me I am home.

It is easy for me to love home. Not just because of the good times we shared at the Harrisburg Community Theatre or earning Girl Scout badges. But because, when I think way back to that day on the school bus I remember this, too: All of my old childhood friends telling that boy to stop. To shut up. To leave me alone. To stop using that word as he pointed and laughed at me. The bus stood up against him, for me. That is another image I want to live forever.

There is an academic word for what the children on the bus did. That word is “ally.” I have a more accurate word for what they did. That word is “friend.”

I will never forget the sound of the bus, silencing the boy who tried to silence me. It is the roar of justice. King would have liked to hear those voices rising to overwhelm hate.

I know things are not perfect in Harrisburg. Girls are scrawling epithets on loose-leaf paper, posing with frozen smiles, clicking send. Did they check comments, count likes, seek validation for what they did? And what of the child their hate was aimed to pierce? Has her wound healed? Did her friends, blonde and blue-eyed, rally around her? I ask because I know that racist hate.

But I also know that white women voters have been misunderstood. I am a Black woman who gets that most of the television pundits have the world of my classmates all wrong. This MLK Day, in the spirit of the national harmony that King agitated to try to achieve, I want to reach out to my childhood classmates and other white women in Middle America with this message:

I know you are not stupid, because our schools were excellent, but you are accepting FOX commentary as hard news. I know you are not burning crosses on your neighbor’s lawn, but you did plant a Trump sign on yours. I know you don’t hate your mother, your sister, your daughter. I know you don’t hate yourself. But you didn’t take that Trump sign down when he was caught on tape boasting of his sexual assault of women. You kept it up even when he was accused of raping three different women (well, one of them was just a girl). I know you are not crazy, but you voted for an unqualified xenophobe, even though deep in your heart you know Mexico is not gonna pay for any wall. I know you pay your taxes but, counter-intuitively, you admire Trump’s ability to not pay his. I know this is complicated. But I need you to stand with me now just as you did years ago on that school bus.

One thing is simple and true: Half of our country is in deep, convulsive pain. Think. Americans have marched and protested for many reasons, but never have so many hundreds of thousands pledged to come together in defiance of a swearing-in. This time is very, very different.

But then, when has the announcement of presidential election results coincided with such a dramatic upswing in acts of hate and rise in hate-based attacks and harassment in schools?

Will the kids who stood up in protest when I was subjugated by hate speech rise against racism now that we are adults and hate crimes have increased around the country? Where will the girls who giggled with me in health class stand now that we are women, and access to basic health care is being taken away from millions of Americans?

Because, this is the thing: Trump’s policies are gonna kick the white women of Middle America right in the part where he boasted he liked to grab. So when I march with women, children and men on January 21, I will also be marching for them.