European Tourist, Black Churches and Race

A few weeks ago a friend and business colleague of mine posted pictures on his Facebook site of European tourist standing in line to enter black churches. My colleague was enjoying a vacation in New York while sending back photos of interest. The churches, doubling as tourist attractions are located in New York City (NYC). My mind, being what it is, first thought was…this a wonderful idea. As long as church members didn’t mind, why not accommodate the visitors?

Obviously, I wasn’t the only one who had not heard of this practice. By the time I saw his post, my vacationing friend had dozens of comments. They ranged from surprised, befuddlement, and suspicion with most in agreement to let the visitors see and learn.

It immediately sent me into research mode. Well…how long has this been going on you ask? If you are not familiar or heard of the practice, it seems to have caught a few national journalist attentions in 2012. The actual practice began in early 1980 and has become part of NYC Tour Company’s itinerary. Some of which are selling tickets at charges up to $55 per person, and providing most participating churches a cut of the profit. Plus you can be sure each church goes through their donation process to take advantage of all these visitors.  Naturally it brings about several questions, problems, and issues. What are the pros and cons? What do the church members think? How about the Pastor and Deacons? What do they think about this practice? Do the financial gains outweigh members or church officials concerns? Oh yes…there is that word again, finance. In other words is everybody concerned getting their fair share of the cash flow?

After taking a look at the NYC European tourist history and current practice, for me, there is a deeper issue. It is centered on how we as a people are portrayed in today’s media. Better yet, how much time should we give in an attempt to balance out the tendency of our white owned-managed national and local media? Those tendencies are targeted to an overwhelming majority of white readers or electronic viewers.  It reminding me of another recent headline, that went something like, is it the black folks responsibility to educate white people about race issues?

And…taking into account the past Memorial Day, it brought back another old memory for me. Back in the sixties, I took a Greyhound bus ride home from a US Army post (Fort Carson, Colorado). I could have taken a plane, but the bus ride wasn’t a long trip to Milwaukee. I was just getting out of basic training and wanted to save a little bit more spending money.  After all, I was looking forward to a little R&R with assorted partying on the side.

Anybody who has been on a bus knows that it stopped at every little nook and cranny town and corner bus terminal on its way to Chicago ending up in Milwaukee. One of our stops was in some little godforsaken spot south of the boonies. I got out and went into the little bit larger than a bathroom sized terminal to get a candy bar. We had already been told by the bus driver that lunch could be bought further on up the road.

The moment I walked into the little outlet, all eyes were on me including somebody’s dog that started barking. Since I was still a little groggy from just waking up, it finally dawns on me what was going on. I was a dark black man in a full US Army dress uniform, shining metal coat buttons, and spit-shined shoes. Keeping in mind I was also the only black person on the bus and certainly in the little bus stop.

As I made my way to the vending machine, one little blond hair girl was staring so long, I could actually see the fear in her eyes. I walked forward toward the machine which was to the right of the ticket window. She began to back up, feeling for her mother’s leg who was transacting business at the ticket agent’s window.  Her eyes were wide and fixed on me. I smiled and waved to no avail. For a second, she reacted in kind but evidently thought better of it and decided to take the cautious route. The girl let out a low whimper and turned to grab onto her mother’s leg. The mother was temporarily startled by her daughters’ action. With an annoyed facial expression, while attempting to reassure her daughter, the mother turned around to see what or who caused such a reaction. By then I must have been about six feet away from them. She placed her arm around her daughter and called out her name advising the youngster to “settle down and be quiet.”  Looking directly at me, she immediately understood what had almost set off her little girl. She smiled at me and admonished her daughter telling her “that soldier is not going to bother you.” Still fondling her daughters head pressed against her leg she returned to transacting her business with the ticket agent. I bought three candy bars and gave the little girl one of them. Her mother immediately took the candy out of her daughter’s hand and saying “you can have this later.” She nodded to me with a smile and turned back to taking care of her ticket window transaction.

As I settled in my seat, I remember thinking, I was probably the first black person that little girl had ever seen up close and personal. That was why I made the conscious effort of offering her the candy bar. I wanted to reassure her, as did her mother, there was nothing to fear from me.

Back in the early sixties while traveling as a soldier, there were similar incidents. Believe it or not, most odd reactions and staring came from adults rather than kids. At the time, a soldier must be in a full dress uniform when traveling to get a servicemen ticket rate. My family use to tease me. They wondered why the only time they saw me in uniform was when I arrived or was leaving home. I avoided wearing it during my R&R times because…sooner or later somebody in the hood would always want to challenge a uniformed soldier to a fist-fight. Sometimes all they needed was to hear you were in the military. They always wanted to test your toughness. I don’t know, I guess it was just a street thing.

As for the stares and the little girls’ reaction, remember this was the early sixties. Besides Amos and Andy, several appearances by Nat King Cole or Sammy Davis Jr. on the Ed Sullivan Show, blacks on TV were null and void. Where else would white folks come in contact with black people? Not in those small towns and rural areas.

Too much you say. Again, why should we act as educators on race issues? I say, because like it or not, we are ambassadors for our race when we are out and about in public. And frankly, it doesn’t matter if we are in mixed or non-mixed company. Remember Chris Rock’s rant, “I love black people but I hate (you know the word).”  We, as do all races, including white people always represent our race-ethnicity in dealing with the public on a daily basis. Why because, every time someone begins talking about an incident they observed, were involved in, or heard about they always mention the person’s race. If they don’t, somebody listening to the story will ask…was they black, white, Hispanic, Asian, etc., etc. It’s because we, especially in this country are obsessed with race.  I don’t necessary like it either…but somethings are out of our control. People are going to look at people through a racial microscope, good or bad. We are just trying to project who people of color really are, not somebody’s twisted imagination of who they think we are.

Just as some of you hate reading these race issue articles, I hate writing them. But then, I am compelled, no…not forced, I enjoy acting as a counterpart to the Bill O’Reilly’s, Sarah Palin’s, Rush Limbaugh’s of the world? Add an occasional slip of the tongue by some politician, entire political parties that thrive on creating a hostile “we against them” environment. Or attacks on our voting rights by Republican Governors, there is no shortage of voices needed to combat these forces.  These people need to be checked, rebuffed and corrected every time they voice an ignorant opinion. We all need to be involved and aware at all times.

We ought not to display our talents to others as if we are in a zoo, but rather on stage. When someone wants to see us at prayer, play, or exercising our abilities in the Arts, we should accommodate them. We should be glad to education those who have a natural inclination to see who we really are in our natural habitat, so to speak.  Anytime that black folks can have a real teachable moment or event that contradicts stereotypes, we should take advantage.

We are a people born with special qualities that some may not possess. That does not mean we are better than any other race. What it does mean is we are and should be responsible caretakers of our heritage and customs. These are very special traits that should be passed on to our young. Our children, who are smarter than we were at their age will have the same responsibility. They will pass it on to their children. If the History of Race in America has taught us anything, it’s that we can never become complacent. That just the way it is my people.

Peace, make it a day in which Jesus Christ would be proud of you,

Codis Hampton II

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