Giving Up a Little Bit of Me So You Can Be You

Giving Up a Little Bit of Me So You Can Be You August 27, 2017


That’s me in that picture. I was about 18 then and I was in the height of my glory at that moment. I was in the place I loved the most, East Tennessee. The place of my father’s birth, the place where my grandparents had a small farm in a beautiful valley in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Although I was born and raised a flatlander in a small farm town in Central Indiana, it was Southern Appalachian culture that I claimed as my own. I ate it up and it ate me up. I spent every moment I could down there in the mountains, and when I was back home in Indiana, I found ways to stay connected to them. I read the Foxfire books until I wore them out–I listened to bluegrass music–and, yes, I wore that hat I’m pictured with up there. I wore it often. I was very proud of my Southern Appalachian roots and heritage and I wanted people to know it.

I was also very naive about a lot of things.

My town and high school had no blacks. I could wear that hat or place a Confederate flag license plate on the front of my car and drive around my town with impunity–nobody would bat an eye. I even have another picture of myself (I couldn’t locate it to share here) wearing that hat while playing in a church league softball game. The level of ignorance I displayed then makes me feel ashamed now–but I assure you, it was all done in innocence. It’s why I can still feel a level of empathy for those who display that flag today and claim that it stands for “heritage, not hate”–I understand those feelings, on some level, because I used to subscribe to them. I stopped subscribing to them not long after that picture up there was taken.

My first day of class in college ended my naiveté about what the Confederate flag means. I woke up too late to shower and had to hurry off to my first class. I was sporting an impressive coif of bedhead, so I grabbed my Confederate flag cap and headed off to class. My professor for that class was a black man. I saw him take a long look at me when I walked in, but didn’t think anything about why–that just goes to show how innocent and naive I was…I was wearing a Confederate cap in a class taught by a black professor and it didn’t even cross my mind that he might be offended by it. After class, he pulled me aside for a chat. He asked me what my hat meant. I made an off the cuff joke and said that it meant I didn’t have time to shower that morning. I don’t remember if he laughed or even smiled at that, but I do remember that he went on to explain to me exactly what it meant to him and most other African Americans. He wasn’t mean or intimidating as he spoke, he just laid out for me the cold, hard facts of life from his perspective. I threw my hat in the trash that day. I have never supported that symbol since then. I still have Southern Appalachian heritage flowing through my veins, but I don’t need a symbol of oppression to show it.

Occasionally, the sticky topic of reparations makes headlines. Someone will suggest that African Americans are owed some monetary compensation for the years of slavery and the ensuing years of Jim Crow, segregation, and institutionalized racism. I have never believed that is a realistic solution. I also don’t think monetary reparations alone would be all that helpful. After all, money doesn’t last. But there are other kinds of reparations.

Isn’t the lesson in empathy I learned from my college professor that day, and the change I made in my life as a result, a form of reparations?

I realized on my first day of college that, sometimes, I may have to give up a little bit of me so that you can be you.

This goes beyond black and white.

I also have to give up a little bit of me when I relinquish the notion that my view on my faith is perfect.

Even a cursory understanding of the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence should make it easy for Christians to give up a little bit of ourselves so that others can be themselves–it comes with living in a society based upon the creed that all are created equal with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness–but we continually try to forcibly weave our often flawed understanding of our own faith into the fabric of our government and society. In the process, we come out looking to those of other faiths like my naive 18-year-old self up there under that awful hat. We marginalize other religions. We marginalize those who have different sexual orientations. We marginalize other Christians who have a different political slant.

We marginalize–we divide–we besmirch our message–we defeat our own purpose–we sin.

What if we all decided to give up a little bit of ourselves in order to let others be themselves?

I threw away my Confederate hat when I found new empathy from my college professor.

Giving up a little piece of me so that you can be you is a small price to pay.

Those kinds of reparations make sense.

I should probably search myself to see if there are other naive “hats” I wear that need reexamining.

I would invite you to do the same.

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