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  • Reverend James Squire

Lessons on Race: Awareness and Access

As a young person growing up in a working-class community, I lived in a mixed-race world, went to school and played sports with black people. Then worked in a steel mill during the summers in college with black and white people, and attended a mostly white series of educational institutions. In those elite institutions back in my younger years there were many more white people than black people. I did not notice that at the time.

Years ago, when my children were small, I was asked to serve as a member of the staff in of St. James Parish in Montego Bay. It was a time when revolutionary ideas and actions were moving around the Caribbean. St. James was a large parish that served the tourists who represented 99% of the Jamaican economy and the people who lived year around on the island. Jamaicans of African descent represent 92% of the working population. Those of non-African descent or mixed race make up the remaining 8% of the population. It was my first experience of a predominantly black nation. I wondered where the white people were.

Jamaica is like a Hollywood movie set. The tourists are just exposed to the absolute take your breath away beauty of the island and, for us, the nearby Negril Beach. On Sundays the church staff including me would travel into the hinterlands by jeep to take Eucharist to the people. My colleagues were black. We were greeted warmly by the Jamaican people. It was life behind the façade of what the tourists see. It was poverty.

I learned first-hand what was causing the ferment of revolution. There was an estate down the hill from the apartment in which were living that we shared with the cockroaches that seemed as big as your fist. If you turned on the light at night, it was as though the floor was moving. They were that plentiful. Next to the estate were people living in a hovel where they slept at night and put the chickens in during the day to keep them out of the blazing sun. Each day the poor could not avoid knowing how the white people were living. Poor black people and white people were juxtaposed. It was like salt in a wound for those black people. Then, came the revolution.

Fast forward a few years, and I was asked to be priest in charge for two months over two summers at St. Paul’s Paget in Bermuda. Bermuda is pristine. Poverty is virtually non-existent. Black people and white people lived together as equals. It was regarded as an ideal example of total integration with shared jobs. That was because black and white people came to the island on the same social footing. There was equal access. St. Paul’s was the largest parish on the island. The first week that I was there, one the of the black maitre ds (head waiter) at a local restaurant died. The island shut down to honor this person. A thousand people attended his service and then followed the casket and me out to bury him in a graveyard that surrounded the parish. I didn’t know that this was the custom for everyone to come to the interment. Malcolm Gosling whose name you will know if you traveled to Bermuda, was my lay assistant. He owned Gosling Liquors across the island. All that he wanted to talk about was how he was saved by Billy Graham at Yankee Stadium. That changed his life.

I saw my first integrated commercial on TV which was more the norm than the exception. People’s identity was not based in race. It was based in being a Bermudian. If you were born there, you were referred to as a birthright Bermudian. If there was a job opening, native Bermudians got the job over others. They had more rights and a national pride that was palpable. I learned later that race and injustice became an issue and caused division. But then it seemed pretty idyllic.

Many years later when my children were young adults, I was asked to be priest in charge for a month for two summers at a parish on Peaks Island in the Casco Bay of Maine. The island was a mix of interesting people including the editor of the Boston Globe and lobster fishermen who lived off the Bay. It was diverse in socioeconomic ways. Our first summer there we stayed in a coastal “Maine Cottage” which provided breathtaking views. Our family did runs around the entire island. During the time there during that first summer, I missed something, and I couldn’t figure out what it was. On our trip back to Pennsylvania, we stopped in Hartford for gas. Like a thunderbolt, it hit me. There were no black people in Portland or on the Island.

Fast forward to today. I have a black family member. Earlier in the week, I went to a large concert with many thousands of people present. When I sat down and looked around, something was missing. It was a white event. I turned to Vicki and asked out loud not expecting an answer, “Where are all the black people?”

Diversity is about awareness and access. I began my journey in racial awareness in my younger years playing sports and working with black people and then in institutions of higher learning where they were in fewer numbers. On my first island visit I asked where are the white people. In my last island visit and at a recent concert I asked where the black people were.

What I have learned about racial awareness is that ultimately you must move from theory to lived experience to make it real. It is found in the question, “What is missing?” I also learned something about race and access or lack thereof which is really at the heart of Critical Race Theory, “What access was missing for black people in our history?” I learned this in a different way while walking around the city of Portland, Maine. I had never seen so many people with disabilities in one place. They seemed to be everywhere. So, I asked about the nearest facility thinking that there must be a large one nearby for disabled people. The person I asked said there wasn’t such a place, but there is something special that I learned while there that also applies to our history of black people’s experience. Portland transportation systems have built in accessibility as well as stores and sidewalks. There are not more disabled people. There is more access for them.

Racial awareness means to learn it, to live it, and to provide access for those who don’t have it! You don’t have to live on an island to learn it or experience it. You do, however, have to have experiences that change the question in your heart. It must evolve from “Where are the white people?” to “Where are the black people?” Look for this attitude and question where they may be missing.

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