On a winter day in 1975, a young John Cave Osborne had an announcement for his mom. “My skin is beige, and I don’t like it. I want pretty brown skin like LeRoy.” LeRoy was my buddy, a little African American boy who was in my Kindergarten class. It was a proud moment for my mom as she viewed it as the first indicator that I saw nothing wrong with people of color, something that my parents hoped for all five of their children.
A few years later, I remember sitting in the front seat of Mom’s car. I was miffed for some reason or another, so miffed that I decided to give the next person I saw the meanest stare I could possibly muster up. That person happened to be a black woman waiting patiently on the street corner for the light to turn, and suddenly I was conflicted. After all, I didn’t want this woman to think I was shooting her a mean look because of the color of her skin. But I also didn’t want to treat her any differently because of that skin color, which meant at age 8, I was in the throws of an internal reverse-discrimination debate.
Race was something I was in touch with at an early point in my life, and it started with my parents teaching me all about a man named Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
My parents loved Martin Luther King. They considered him one of the greatest Americans of all time, and rightfully so. Neither my mom nor my dad had a prejudice bone in their body. They were staunch believers in the Civil Rights Movement. The same could not be said of everyone else in my southern community. I never understood why. As a child, I believed that all men were created equal. I believed that racism was wrong. As an adult, I believe I thought that way because my parents introduced me to Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement before one of my friends unknowingly introduced me the hatred he’d heard the night before at his dining room table.
I eventually left the Southeast in the early 90s and moved to Seattle. I was surprised at people’s perception of me in light of my southern heritage. Many considered me a racist simply because of where I grew up. Some even took words I said and twisted them around to paint me as such. The irony wasn’t lost on me. Racism, like all forms of prejudice, stems from unenlightened assumptions instantaneously made about a class of people. By deeming me a close-minded myopic, the politically correct Washingtonians were guilty of being just that, themselves.
Still, it was hard to blame them for their assumption. The South, for many, is synonymous with racism. And though it’s a bitter pill for an enlightened Southerner to swallow, given the atrocities that went down in our area of the country, it’s a pill we must all swallow whether we like it or not.
I moved back to my hometown for good in 2002 and was relieved to find that the vast majority of the racism that still lingered about in the 80s was completely gone. I now appreciate better the context in which I was brought up. The 70s and 80s weren’t that far removed at all from the 50s and 60s. But by 2002, some of Dr. Kings dreams were starting to come true. Like this one:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Thirty-plus years removed from my first thoughts of race, I’m now the one who hopes to raise five colorblind children. And thanks to the drastic change in southern culture, my job won’t even be as difficult as my parents’. For that, this Southerner is forever thankful, just as he is that his parents taught him about Martin Luther King at a young and impressionable age. Goodness, it turns out, makes the best impression of all.
God bless you, Dr. King. Thank you for all you did for your race and your country. My parents were right. You remain one of the greatest Americans of all time. May everyone continue to pay your message forward, particularly those of us who hail from areas where your words initially fell upon deaf, blind and dumb ears.