For friends from other cultures

On the 26th day, I’m grateful for other cultures, and how they have influenced and shaped me.

In the 1830’s, Jonathan Hollowell and his wife Clara and their children Edwin and Calvin moved to Marshall County, Mississippi from around Goldsboro, North Carolina. They were one of many families that moved here after the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830, which removed the Choctaw and other tribes from the State and across the Mississippi River to western territories.

In other words, I am a Mississippian directly because my ancestors profited from the coerced removal of a culture and a people.

I grew up in Byhalia, MS. I had friends who lived in Pontotoc, MS. Went to Senatobia, MS all the time. They are all Chickasaw names. I never learned anything about the Chickasaw people in school. Never knew a Chickasaw person.

The main street of my home town was actually part of the road that was the Trail of Tears. I learned about the Trail of Tears in school. I did not learn it happened less than 500 yards from where I sat.

I learned I was not guilty. I did not yet know that I was, however, responsible.

Growing up, my world was very Black and White. Literally. I knew a (very) few Latinos, and no Asians. We went to Memphis occasionally, and there was a Chinese restaurant Dad liked up there, and he would eat with chopsticks like he learned how to do when he was overseas in the Air Force.

We ate Mexican food, but really, it was the Old El Paso taco kit with ground beef and refried beans from a can. That and bean burritos from Taco Bell was the limits of our ethnic food.

Of course, that wasn’t true. We ate copious amounts of sweet potatoes, summer peas, and greens, all cooked in ways passed on to White people like me from enslaved Africans generations ago. Likewise, the chitterlings and fatback and blackstrap molasses were all foods enslaved people ate because the wealthy landowners didn’t want it. The turnips we prized were originally food for pigs, but enslaved folks learned to make them taste great, and they taught the rest of us.

We didn’t count any of that. It was our food now.

I was sixteen and in Tulsa Oklahoma on a school trip before I would ever have a real conversation with someone who was not Black or White.  She was Chinese, and was there from another school up East.

Mark Twain said something to the effect that travel was fatal to prejudice, and while I want to argue with him, it certainly helped me. As I traveled and met and worked with Mexican and Guatemalans and Brazilians and Serbs and Croats and Indians and Chinese and Koreans, I learned we are far more alike than different, and that at the end of the day, we want the same things: To be safe, to take care of our families, to have hope tomorrow will be better than today, to leave a legacy in the hearts of our loved ones.

My curiosity has served me well, and my desire to hear their stories. To learn about their lives, to eat their foods, to share mine with them. This requires a level of intentionality: I have a relation who lived with her husband for 2 years in Germany while he was in the service, but she learned zero German, only shopped and ate American food on base, and used every chance to tell the rest of us about how much she hated Germany.

I don’t ever want to be like that.

A few years back, I spent a week in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I would love to go back and explore more, but one thing that struck me was how they actually had an indigenous culture there – White culture was not the default. The beauty, diversity, and richness that came about as a result of that was striking.

I have come to believe that all of us are smarter than any of us, and to be grateful for all my friends from cultures different than mine, who took me in, who fed me, who loved me when I made that hard, and who have enriched my life in innumerable ways.

Thank you.