Lessons from a Parking Lot Just North of New York City: 1975

By Antonia Messuri, Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs/Director of Accessibility and Academic Support

 

“If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” - James Baldwin

I’d just arrived for the holidays from freshman year of college, eight hours by Greyhound and Trailways and Amtrak from North Country, New York, and my mother had to pick up some groceries before heading back into the thicket of traffic toward NYC and home. The lot was jammed, so we parked quite far from the entrance to the store. As we got out of the car, I couldn’t help but notice a large group of men — black men, big black men — under the street lamp up ahead. They seemed to be enjoying themselves.

As we headed in their direction, I put my head down.  But as I was cowering, my mother was flowering. With a full and open face, she waved, shouting in her loving voice: “Woo-hoo — good evening, gentlemen.  Good evening.  Blessed Christmas, kind sirs.” 

One of the men raised a toast in our direction with what I, in horror, imagined to be an open bottle hiding in the brown paper bag. Together, they hollered back, “Same to you ma’am. Happy Christmas.”

As she and I reached the store entrance, I yelled under my breath, “Mom. Mom. What were you thinking?”

And that’s when she said, “Antonia, I don’t like this change I see in you. What’s become of you? I don’t know who you are. Has that place up north already changed you?”

Though never trained as a child to seek out groups of strangers in dimly lit lots, I knew what my mother was talking about. With what seemed to me no thought at all, she’d broken through the silence I was holding.  And in that split second, too, she put back together our fragmented world.  


“A man’s character always takes its hue, more or less, from the form and color of things about him.”  - Frederick Douglass

That night, I was put on warning, and I’ve been placed on high alert ever since: to always remember how unconsciously sabotaged we are by our environment, by the attitudes of the majority around us. Up in North Country, I’d been sequestered in a white culture where stereotypes and preconceptions and misperceptions dominate. In isolated communities, I’m convinced that we are less apt to see the other who is not part of the daily repertoire of our perceptions.    

My mother kept a watchful eye on northbound me, as she lived between her hometown of Cleveland and New York. This better angel of our nature graced the world with bolts of awareness that came from a mighty and well-informed heart.  It seemed her heart was steeped in  a hunger for love. I am ennobled by my good fortune as she demonstrated and demanded that we are one, even in this fragmented, fragile soul of a nation.   

Some forty years later, I still see the dangers in living where I live. I feel the ever growing urgency to stay awake in these selective corners of a broader world. We do not see the other. We cannot see what we do not see. We have screened the other out. In this dark awareness, still, I pray to Jesus Christ that I shall always know the divinity in others and that I shall never hesitate in expressing my nobility as a human.

I pray, too, that our divided nation collects itself. I ask that we collect ourselves and these broken pieces together. In the face of all the horrors of bigotry and bias, intolerance, one-sidedness, white privilege and cruelty, inhumanity, savagery, color blind barbarity, — help us to put this brutal world back together, if but for one moment, one greeting, one “good evening, kind sirs,” at a time.  Please God.

“The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.  It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. . . . It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return.  It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.

“When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” - Jimi Hendrix

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