Did Sharon and I experience racism during our seven weeks travelling through the USA, from the deep south of Alabama and Louisiana, to the rolling hills of upstate New York?
The answer to that question would be yes, but surprisingly, not in the way we may have expected.
The Racism We Saw
The large number of civil rights museums and tributes to Martin Luther King Jr throughout the USA almost suggests the struggle for racial harmony in America is something confined to the history books. Sadly, the reality of the black and white divide is as evident outside as much as it is inside among the sombre, air-conditioned museum displays. It’s not just my opinion; the fact is documented and acknowledged at every level in American society.
Yet films and TV programmes from the US often fail to reflect fairly the reality of this cultural wound that continues to blight the self proclaimed “land of the free” even as the country’s first elected black president nears the end of two terms in the White House.
What we saw (motel reception counters, supermarket checkouts, cafes, etc.) was a series of social interactions laced with tension and impatience. Encounters that never quite escalated into full blown confrontations as such, but uncomfortable to witness where on each occasion the only aggravating trigger seemed to be a difference in skin colour.
We drove through a succession of cities, suburbs and small towns from New Orleans on the south coast to the shores of Lake Michigan in the north, stopping many times a day along the way. It was hard to ignore the invisible boundary lines in many of those places dividing residential areas by colour into affluence or apparent poverty.
That’s what we saw.
As President Obama said in an interview while we were travelling through the states: “Racism. We are not cured of it.”
Random Acts Of Kindness
What we experienced personally in terms of exchanges with all colours/people was nothing but warmth and friendship.
How do we explain the difference? Perhaps living on St Helena and in the UK helps; we don’t seem to carry the same racial baggage as people in the states? Perhaps.
For sure, I know in all interactions we felt genuine acceptance, free from discrimination. From the tiny Alabama country town of Rutledge to the honky tonks of Nashville; from celebrating 4th July in Missouri to being the only non-white faces at a rodeo in Pennsylvania.
There were many occasions when we were surprised by random acts of kindness; either a motel room upgrade, a spontaneous gift of homemade relish and dill, or the three Tennesseans who started a conversation by the riverside and recommended the city’s barbeque ribs!
While visiting the state capitol building in Nashville we got chatting for 10 minutes to a family from Illinois who were fascinated by our journey, coming all the way from St Helena. A few days later we received an email offering us a place to stay if we needed it when we reached their state.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the National Historical Park Atlanta
These things happened up and down the country leaving me to draw the conclusion; people are essentially good, however, America within has simply lost its way and allowed mistrust to take root. It might seem an overly simple assessment, but there it is.
Today, as America marks Martin Luther King Jr. Day, there is usually an event at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park Atlanta, Georgia, which tends to attract a large crowd.
This is a picture story of our own visit to the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historical Park Atlanta, in 2015.
(Many of the photo captions here are the text extracts taken from plaques on the exhibits and displays)