'We have to start being real with each other'

A conversation about race

“I guess my ancestors were slaves,” says Alfred Randolph. “I always assumed it. My grandma said she was Geechee.”

The Gullah Geechee people descended from Africans enslaved on the rice, indigo and Sea Island cotton plantations on the lower Atlantic coast.

Randolph is sitting on the front porch of his Mount Horeb home after a day working at the local grocery store’s deli. It’s hot, but a slight breeze is pushing away the gnats, and the sky is clear and painted with lush pink and blue. He, like so much of the country these days, is talking about race. But rather than slogans, accusations or vast generalizations, Randolph is primarily telling his own story. It is one of both hardship and hope.

“I’m a patriot,” he says, speaking just a few days before the Fourth of July. “I’m a black patriot.” A history enthusiast, he can go into detail about the various ways the county he loves has harmed – and continues to harm – various groups of people. He voted for Obama, and for Reagan, and he says that while he doesn’t agree with Trump on most issues, he still respects the office he currently holds.

“I don’t call myself African American,” he says. “I’m American. I was born here.”

Years ago, Randolph wished to see two things in his lifetime: a black president, and a World Series banner for the Chicago Cubs. Those two things happened in 2009 and 2016, respectively.

Today, in the sweltering summer of 2020, there is no baseball, thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. And race continues to be a problematic and painful issue, more than 150 years after American slavery officially came to an end. Most recently, the killing by police of an unarmed black man in Minneapolis sparked protests and demonstrations – as well as some violent riots – across the nation and across the world. Much is happening, but good-faith dialogue seems conspicuously absent, usurped by rage-drunk social median rants and pre-conceived media narratives. Living in a primarily white community, Randolph says he believes the road to progress lies in honest discussions, in which people set aside both their fears and their preconceived notions. He says people need to talk to one another, without pretense or fear of judgement.

“We have to start by being real with each other,” he says.

Randolph says to deny the progress of the last century is disingenuous. To ignore the persistence of continued inequities is equally dishonest. Honesty and hope, he says, are the only way forward.

“My grandmother saw hangings,” he says. “She saw all that. But she said, ‘Never hate. Hate tears you down.’”

Randolph was raised by his grandmother in St. Louis, with uncles who served as older brothers. That one woman, who took him in and showed him how to make his way through the difficulties of life without breaking or becoming bitter, literally saved his life, he reflects: “I wasn’t born in the south, but I was raised by a southern woman. I might not be alive today if it weren’t for her.”

One of the earliest and most often repeated lessons she taught her grandson had to do with getting pulled over by the police. It’s a lesson Randolph has since taught to all six of his own children.

“She told me to get that ticket and move on. ‘Yes, sir. No, sir,’” he recalls. “Let them get on with their day so you can go home. We, black families, we teach our kids how to talk to cops.”

“Paranoia gets me every time I drive,” Randolph continues. “Except in this town. In this town, the police are great. I’ve been living here 14 years and never had a problem with them.”

That hasn’t been the case elsewhere. Randolph has a long list of stories about getting pulled over, often for no reason at all. In one case he was pulled over by a county deputy. According to Randolph, he had to listen for 45 minutes as he was berated by a white law enforcement agent who repeatedly used the N-word and forced him to summon from the considerable stoic reserves his grandmother gave to him as a lasting gift.

“I’m thinking, ‘Am I going to make it home tonight?” he recalls. “All I was thinking about was my kids. All I wanted was to see them again. Every black man who gets in a car is afraid, and it’s not just people saying this. It’s been proven. And that’s what woke a lot of whites up, too.”

“There are more whites than blacks marching for us right now,” he says. “And there’s more of you. You matter.”

Randolph says individuals do not need to fix every problem in the world. But there is something simple they can do to help: “Just stop and listen.”

When people do that, the monolithic representations that they see on social media immediately break down. Individual people, of all races, hold a diverse assortment of views of social and political topics. Their beliefs do not fall squarely into tidy categories.

Randolph says the media has an obligation to show this diversity, not only of skin color but also of views and opinions. He watches the news regularly, saying he is able to take what he needs from it without buying into the cable networks’ various biases.

“The media is part of the problem,” he says. “The media has an obligation, and a lot of the time they don’t do it. They should report what’s true.”

“I know CNN don’t like Trump,” he continues. “So I don’t believe everything they say about him. And I know Fox loves Trump, so I don’t believe everything they say about him, either.”

The only way to fix it, he believes, is to “show everything.” To put on full display the many virtues and vices of people of all races. To acknowledge that every individual actor has agency in the world, but also to see the considerable obstacles that some of them face.

Randolph is about to celebrate his 57th birthday.

“That younger generation, they know what’s wrong,” he reflects. “It will be up to them to fix it.”

“For every seven steps we take, I feel like we take four back,” he says. That can be frustrating, but it still adds up to progress.

Randolph talks about the pain and anger he feels when he sees video footage of black men – like George Floyd and many others - being beaten and killed. But he feels just as bad when he sees violence inflicted on others.

“When I saw that old white gentleman knocked to the ground, that made me so mad!” he says, referencing Martin Gugino, a white, 75-year-old man who was shoved to the ground by police in Buffalo during a recent protest and suffered a brain injury as a result.

Randolph – a devout people watcher - knows people are complex. Their skin color does not dictate the content of their character.

“Those bigots love their kids, too,” he says. “And some blacks teach hate.”

“It’s not only white cops, by the way,” he continues. “There are bad black cops, too, who prey on their own.”

“I want my kids to grow up with no hatred,” he explains. “I say to them, I love you to death and I will not let that destroy you.”

For Randolph, fixing the world’s myriad problems is important. But more often than not, his focus returns to the southern woman who raised him, who traversed the fine line between tough love and tenderness, and his own children, who he hopes will, like him, live good lives, even in an imperfect world.

“There will always be racism,” he comments. “Even if we all sing ‘Kumbaya,’ it will still be there.”

“Look at the way this country was forged,” he continues. “Look at the war mongering. This country isn’t just black and white, either. It’s Asian. It’s Indian. It’s a lot of things.”

“But people also don’t realize how far we’ve come,” he continues. “It used to be, you couldn’t look at a white woman.”

Today, Randolph has children with a white woman, and when classmates ask them what color they are, he smiles and says to simply reply: “American.”

“Blacks don’t hate America,” he elaborates. “Just give us our due; acknowledge that we exist. What do we have that you don’t already have? You brought us here. Now let us do great things.”

“The [Black Lives Matter] protests are awesome. But those people, black and white, bashing in windows and stealing stuff? I don’t like it. That’s wrong. If you do that, go to jail, do your time,” he says. “But even though I don’t like it, I understand that some of it comes from 400 years of frustration.”

There are still white supremacists. There are still Nazis. There are still members of the KKK. There are still white Americans who have only seen black citizens on their televisions. “And on the news, it always seems like they choose to show the black folks who aren’t able to speak well,” Randolph says.

He goes on to say people can acknowledge their country’s sins without feeling shame.

“I’m not complaining about someone loving their race,” he says. “I love my race. That’s fine.”

So, do white Americans today have to pay for the sins of white people who came before them? “Yes, they do,” says Randolph. “They have to pay by listening. They have to pay with their time. That’s all.”

“Just see me,” he says, lightly patting his chest. “See me.”

He believes many people are seeing their neighbors, and listening to them.

“Everyone is starting to listen to us now, and that’s what scares the old guard,” he says. “That’s what scares the powers that be.”

During the first of two conversations, Randolph holds up his forearm next to mine, pointing to the two limbs with the index finger on his other hand. “Just think what we could do if these two colors got together,” he says. “The rest of the so-called superpowers in the world would be scared, because we could be unstoppable together.”

“Of all the countries in the world, this one cannot fold. I won’t allow it, if I can,” he says. “Lots of terrible things have happened, but this is still the greatest country, and we are the safest in the world. Another thing people don’t realize, is just how young this country is.”

As the United States grows up, he hopes it will look to the past with honesty, and to the future with optimism.

“We have the capacity to do great things if this country would let us,” he continues later. “A drug dealer, a black drug dealer, has to know math. He has to know fractions. He has to understand all that. A drug dealer is a mathematician in the making. But we don’t look at him this way.”

Getting a job has long been problematic for many black Americans.

“I stopped checking the ‘race’ box on job applications a long time ago,” Randolph says. “And when I did, I started getting more interviews, and when I get to meet someone in person, I have a better chance of getting the job.”

Despite such experiences, Randolph remains stalwart in the face of pessimism and outrage.

“I’m not angry,” he says. “Guess what? I’m not.”

He is simply curious why so much of the past’s hatred continues to fester, despite the progress that has been made.

“Why do you hate us so much?” he wonders aloud. “Is it because we survived?”

“We’re not here to harm people,” he adds. “If we are able to put a foot forward, I think we can be great too.”

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