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Monday, January 19, 2009

I Have a Dream

I find it fitting that today's celebration of Martin Luther King Day is being followed by the monumental day that our first black president will be sworn into office. Many of the older civil rights workers have voiced the opinion that they were glad they were able to live long enough to see this day. I am, too.

A product of the segregated South, I recognized the dichotomy between blacks and whites in South Carolina. I was able to drink at the metal water coolers, while blacks had to drink tepid water from ceramic fountains labeled “colored.” I could step into large, clean restrooms labeled “ladies,” while blacks went to the back of the building to a small room labeled “colored,” if such a room was even available. I walked in the front door and sat on the ground level of the movie theaters, while blacks entered through the side and walked up the stairs to the balcony.

Even as a child, I sensed something was wrong. By 1950 I wondered why blacks never ate in restaurants. I did not know they weren’t allowed. I wondered why blacks never swam in the municipal pool, why they didn't go to our state park. I wondered why blacks shopped on Assembly Street in downtown Columbia, which ran parallel to Main Street, where the whites shopped. I wondered why blacks could only stand and eat hot dogs at the Woolworth's hot dog counter, while whites could go to the newer side of the building, sit on stools, and order a variety of dishes. I wondered, but I did nothing about it, because none of it affected me.

Everything changed one summer day in 1961 when my cousin and I sat down at Woolworth’s to have a glass of tea. She had an olive complexion that tanned evenly and quickly within the first sunny days of June. We chatted and waited for the server to take our order. After a while, people sat down on either side of us, while we waited to give our order. Time passed before we noticed that the server had taken orders and delivered food to all the others at the counter, but not us.

“Miss?” my cousin called to the woman behind the counter.

She turned away and did not make eye contact.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Could we please get some service here?”

The woman looked away, busily wiping the counter.

My cousin’s eyebrows shot up and she turned to me. “Why hasn’t she taken our order?” she asked me.

I looked at my cousin, tanned and lovely in her sundress, and I looked at the others all around us, pale and white, and it dawned on me. The clerk thought we were civil rights workers trying to get service where blacks were not allowed. She thought my cousin was black.

My face flushed. I felt discrimination firsthand. There was absolutely no logic in it. Why couldn't we get service? What had we done wrong?

In an instant I became an advocate for civil rights. No more nonchalance for me. The movement finally hit home and made sense to me. Why were our schools segregated, when the black schools were so obviously not equal to our new, fancy ones? Why were blacks required to stay in the back of the bus, even if the only seats available were in the front of the bus? What gave anyone the right to refuse service to anyone else, based on skin color?

I tried to do my part to talk up civil rights, but many of my friends thought I was crazy. My high school and all others in South Carolina stayed segregated until forced to do otherwise, but by then I was in college. In my sophomore year at the University of South Carolina, it finally integrated, with much protest and hoopla, when three quiet and studious blacks were “allowed” to matriculate. I gleefully went to meet and greet the first female black at USC, Henri Monteith, but later my house mother chastised me for bringing Henri into our dorm, where she "was not allowed."

Some fifty years have passed since I was refused service because I was sitting with a person of color, even though her color was the result of a tan. I’ve seen steady but seriously slow progress over those years, and for a while I thought I would never live long enough to see total integration. The election of Barack Obama gave me hope that we are finally becoming the melting pot America has long claimed to be.

Martin Luther King Jr. and I had a dream, and although we still have a way to go, we are finally seeing some of that dream coming true.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sight Unseen

Dear Readers,

What a eye-opening experience I had last week! Literally! I went to an exhibition called Dialog in the Dark in midtown Atlanta, and although I would have spelled the word dialogue, I quelled the editor in me long enough to appreciate the essence of the program. It allows people to experience total blindness for an hour or so. My group had ten participants; each group is small for reasons that become obvious once the lights go out. We spent the next hour and fifteen minutes guiding ourselves through a maze of scapes using nothing but canes and our senses other than sight. Our canes allowed us to sweep the floor a little and use the sounds and feel of the canes hitting objects, to avoid obstructions and determine where to walk. For the first time in my life I really heard the difference between a wooden boat, a sodded lawn, a rug, a cement floor, and an asphalt street. I understood the embarrassment and frustration of hitting other people's shoes with a cane or even getting turned around and walking in the wrong direction.

Through a park we went, where I knew we were in a park only because I felt tree branches and leaves, low fencing around plants, and uneven grass beneath my feet. Birds twittered in the distance, and I smelled rich soil and greenery. Greenery? The word turned into a description, not a color, in total darkness. We experienced trees, plants, grass, an herb garden, rough ground, and a little bridge, seeing with only our noses, hands, and ears.

A blind guide led the way, using her voice to call us toward her, so we knew where to go next. We stumbled, bumped into each other, stubbed our toes, and touched things that we could not identify, but we still moved through the areas calmly. We walked into another scene, where we were asked to identify our location. I reached out and found round baskets with objects in them. The outside of the objects were a little soft, and the object itself gave, slightly, when I squeezed it. As I felt further, it was not perfectly round, but a little oblong. Could it be a mango? It had no smell, but I think it was a mango. "We're in a vegetable stand," I said. I found another basket, reached in, and pulled out a smaller object that had equal indentations all the way around and a skin that flaked off in my hands. I raised it to my nose. Oh! Definitely garlic! I found a calculator and a counter where, if the scene had been real, I might have paid for my purchases. We felt a cylindrical container, and when we shook it, we all determined it held oatmeal.

We left that scape and walked up a plank and found seats on a wooden boat and took a soft, rocking "cruise" to the sounds of water splashing and seagulls calling. We then left the boat and entered a cityscape, complete with mailboxes, trashcans, cars, and curbs we had to negotiate around without hurting ourselves. We went to a mock cafe where I ordered and paid for apple juice, in trust that I gave my money to the right person, used the right dollar bills, got the right change, and received exactly what I ordered.

First, though, I had to get the money that my friend had carried for me in his pocket. I called out, "Al, where are you?" He called out to my right, "I'm over here." I reached out to find him, but instead I found his hand in the air with my dollar bills in it. We transferred the dollar bills carefully from his hand to mine; dropping the money in the dark could have spelled disaster. I then turned to the counter, where I found the hand that the clerk held out from the other side. In the same hand-to-hand exchange, I gave her the money. She returned, touched my outstretched hand, slipped my change in it, and then, nothing.

A few seconds later, she said, "Who ordered the apple juice?" Oh, she must have left to fill the orders. Whew!

"I did," I said, and again held out my hand. Her hand found mine, and she slid a box into it. A juice box? Thankfully I had seen them before, so I knew a straw would be attached to the side. I felt for it, but at first did not know how to remove it. Once I figured out how to get the straw off the side of the box, I had to open the sleeve it was in and then find the pointed end of the straw as well as the tiny soft spot where the straw would poke a hole into the box. I thought I would never accomplish all those tasks, but I did. Apple juice never tasted so good.

The Dialog in the Dark exhibition changed me. I personally experienced how small your world becomes when you do not have the luxury of sight. The only things that exist for sure are those you can verify with your hands. The bird sounds and car sounds did not seem real, because I could not see the birds or cars. The car sounds would have been vital to me, however, had I been in a true city, with real traffic, and without sight. On a smaller scale, a thing as simple as a lamppost or a trashcan can become a danger when you can't see them. A curb is a serious hazard. A row of cans in a supermarket spell only confusion, and many fruits and vegetables feel alike, and you can tell them apart only by smell, if they have a smell at all.

I am fortunate to have a long-term close friend who was blind from birth. For some twenty-five years I have had only the slightest glimpse into his world, though, and it always fascinated me. My eighty-five minutes of mock blindness could barely equate to his lifetime of genetic blindness, but for those few minutes I did grasp a small part of how he perceives the world. I appreciate him more than ever. He has often told me that the only time he feels handicapped is when he needs to get somewhere and can't find a ride.

As a result of my experience in Dialog in the Dark, I'll be even more helpful to the blind, plus I will be careful to use more than mere visual descriptions when I write. I appreciate my sense of sight more than ever, but I also know that losing it would not end my world, whereas I used to fear that it would. The guide, who lost her sight to retinitus pigmentosa about twenty years ago, answered our questions about blindness and about her life after losing her sight. She never made us feel sad or sorry for her, but instead enlightened us.

The purpose of the exhibit is, of course, to increase our understanding of the world of the blind, and it works. If this exhibit or a similar one comes to your area, please go. It is not scary; it is educational, and chances are it will make you a better, more descriptive writer, as well.