My family didn't travel off the farm much during my kid years. There was an occasional trip to Maryland to visit my mother's brother, and we ventured into Montgomery, WV, once in a while when a relative was recuperating from heart surgery at Montgomery General Hospital. But our experience outside Nicholas County, WV -- all-White Nicholas County, I should add -- was extremely limited.
(I should add briefly the excitement I felt as a kid traveling into Montgomery. The Murphy's Department store there, with it's escalator, live pet shop and in-store cafe felt positively cosmopolitan. The few Saturdays I spent there as a pre-teen were thrilling.)
I was about ten years old when, during a road trip to visit my uncle in Maryland, my dad became lost while driving through Baltimore, and ended up taking the family into a very urban part of the city. To a kid from the holler, the tall buildings and as-far-as-the-eye-could-see pavement was as close to a big-time city as I'd ever been.
It was late, as I remember. Or early, depending upon your perspective. It was after midnight, and I remember finding it odd that everything was still lit up. Street lights were glaring, and people were everywhere. Kids were playing, and people were standing on the streets talking.
Most of the people were black.
In the Chrysler with me was my father, mother, grandmother and two siblings. (You could pack a bunch of people into an American made car before the invention of car seats.) Dad saw a police cruiser parked along the street, and decided to pull over and get directions back to the interstate from the officer.
The rest of the family sat nervously in the Chrysler.
While my dad talked to the officer a dozen or so feet from the car, several young African American teens walked toward our car. As a group they stood beside our car, talking. A couple of them even leaned against the car, as if we weren't in it. Suddenly, my grandmother raised her hands to the sky and blurted out:
"Dear Lord, if they're gonna kill us, let them kill us quickly!"
(I recall immediately questioning why she would pray for a quick death. If I were to pray, I reasoned, I would pray to God to deliver us safely from harm's way.)
My dad finished getting directions, jumped back into the car and we headed back to the interstate. We didn't talk about how anxious we were while sitting there, but we all knew.
It took several miles for that anxiety to decrease.
My grandmother wasn't a racist. She was a kind, loving woman who was generous and friendly to everyone she knew. She was a woman who had little power in her life, and very little experience with people who were dramatically different than she. The social inexperience that comes with geographical isolation provided her few clues about what to expect from those who were different, and how to best interact with them.
She wasn't a racist. She was "uncomfortable."
Something about that sounds familiar.