Last week, I introduced the start of a new series exploring my experience of maturing as an African American in Joplin, Missouri. As I said, I believe that this reflection is important for this season of life, and as this is a series that I have wanted to write for a while now, the time is right. And now…let’s go back.
To the bumpy ride of a packed out U-Haul. We, my wife and our then 3-year-old daughter, Kaila, had traveled as much as we could during the night. We had almost been run off of the road by 18-Wheelers and had stopped at a gas station where we saw a pregnant woman go in and purchase cigarettes in her nightgown. It was a nerve-wracking drive. The straps kept slipping off of the car that we were pulling behind us, so we had to keep stopping to re-tighten it.
I remember getting to Missouri, then Neosho, then Carthage, and hitting Highway D to Oronogo. My wife looked around at the cow pastures and said,”WHERE HAVE YOU TAKEN ME?!” Part of me was bewildered too, but I had already been there for 2 weeks, so I was a bit used to it.
What really confused us, at least in the beginning, was how friendly the majority of the white people were when we saw them. People would greet us in the stores. They would comment on how beautiful Kaila was. And this was not the cursory type of interactions, but rather they appeared to genuinely have an interest. Maybe they knew that we were new? And while the white people were really kind and welcoming, the black people that we met were very standoffish, which threw us for a total loop. We would go into Walmart and see people who “looked like us” and our eyes would light up, hoping to make some kind of connection. Yet every brown person we came into contact with looked at us like we had stolen a piece of their territory; as if they were threatened. We would go out of our way to speak, or shake hands, and we would be avoided.
Talk about baffling. It was in those moments where we discovered that Missouri might be unlike any area in the United States.
But our education did not stop there. In fact, it had only just begun.
Class was in session.