It was the second week of my tenure as pastor. She was a well-spoken, well-educated, polished woman in her 70s.
She sat down in the chair in front of my desk and said, “Dr. Kelsey, we know you, but you do not know us. You think you do, but you do not. But that is all right; we’ll teach you.”
She went on to share that African Americans are bicultural. They understand and know how to make their way through white culture. They have to, she said.
To get their kids educated, their illnesses treated and to earn a living, they have to know how to function in white American culture.
She shared there is also a distinctive stream of African America culture in our country that I likely knew little about, being monocultural. She was right, and they did teach me some things.
I learned about jazz and spirituals and the poetry of Langston Hughes. I learned what “good hair” and “passing” mean.
I was tutored in the role people of color have played in science and medicine, inventing things and writing literature.
I learned about the place of people of color in the world and American history. I learned how cooking skills brought from Africa shaped southern cooking and how this influence spread throughout the country.
I heard stories of the Great Migration, narratives as central to the character of our country as the stories of Lewis and Clark.
I witnessed how the challenges and indignities of being a minority in America fostered in them a strength and wisdom and resilience that was painfully beautiful. I saw the price they paid for this depth of character.
Yes, they gently and persistently taught me some things.
We should not see yesterday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance as a day of victory. We should see it as an encouraging landmark on the continuing road to justice in our country.
We still live in a segregated society and still live lives, to a great degree, apart from one another.
Our segregated society breeds financial poverty among people of color. It also breeds cultural and spiritual poverty among all of us. Our journey to wholeness is far from over.
And, as Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us in his 1965 commencement address at Oberlin College, “The time is always right to do what is right.”
Executive minister of the American Baptist Churches-New York State.