You were the friend of my youth. You are black and I am white. When we became adults, we drifted apart. You served in the military. I served in the ministry. You died too soon for me to tell you this in person, so I’ll tell you now. You endured more than you should have, suffered more than you deserved, and were held to the unreasonable expectations of white culture, yet still you were my friend.
You came to my white church. You stayed in my white home. You ate at my white table. Yet I never stayed at yours. An occasional visit to your world was all my whiteness could warrant, yet you were expected to live in mine.
I was in your presence when the n-word was used, on multiple occasions. I said nothing. You ignored it, while others laughed at your expense. You were teased by folks in the church, mocking your blackness, pretending to be welcoming. We wore our whiteness that arrogantly paraded unceasingly before you. We expected you to conform to our culture because we thought it superior. We saw ourselves as the savior your community needed, that you needed. We deceived you with pictures of a white Jesus, and never told you the truth that he was black. Jesus was more like you than he was like us. Yet we pretended otherwise. Because to do differently would have elevated you above us. And we couldn’t have that.
People shook my hand and patted me on the back. “How good of you to befriend this black boy!” they said, without even acknowledging you standing there. My white world treated you as anomaly, a novelty, tolerated only as long as you were obedient, subservient, and didn’t try to date any of the white girls in the youth group.
In retrospect, I now know that my white world abused you, stifled you, truncated your growth and experience. Long before Eric Garner or George Floyd cried “I can’t breathe” all us white folks were stealing your oxygen. You sung our songs, read our bible, believed our gospel, all of which were stolen 100 years earlier from another black man at Azusa Street. We never told you his story, only ours.
Perhaps it was a saving grace that you were spared the turmoil in our world today? Had you been given time to reflect on the harm brought to you by my culture, you may have justifiably lost your mind, leading to a compounding of your suffering. You would have been justified in your anger at how you were treated, marginalized, ignored. You were present in my world, but remained largely invisible. Only seen on the occasions we wanted to justify our sins by pointing to your body as a token of our righteousness. We were hypocrites and fools. You were patient and endured our taunts longer than you should have.
Ironically, many white folks reading this that shared our history, will remember all of this differently. They will recall how kind we were to you. How we payed your way to youth camps, bought you meals, had you in our home, and were gracious enough to include you in all our activities. “We treated you like family” they will protest. Refusing to reflect on the motivations of why we chose to do so. Refusing to confront the arrogance of assuming that you should come to us to learn, because we know better than you.
Roy, I’m sorry man. I’m sorry that I didn’t know better. That I didn’t do better. I’m sorry that I’m just now saying this, years after your death. I’m listening now. I’m learning now. I’m speaking up now.
I hope you can hear me.
I love you.
(Please note: Follow up your reading by seeing this critique as well.)