Confronting my racial self

Physically, I've logged more than 4,000 miles traveling between Dallas and the tiny town of Jasper, Texas. Mentally, it's been a sobering journey of a million miles, a spiritual excursion that has brought me full circle with my racial self.

After a black man was dragged to death in a pickup-truck lynching three years ago, I was so conflicted over the state of race in America, I intentionally distanced myself from the horror.

But several months later, there I was, covering the trial of the first defendant accused of dragging James Byrd Jr. three miles down a backwoods road in east Texas.

Voltaire once said, "God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh." At first I thought giving the assignment to a black reporter simply reflected my boss's wicked sense of humor. Unresolved issues about race, law enforcement, and delayed justice lingered from my youth. I had grown up being pulled over at the whim of small-town Southern sheriffs and police. At every turn there lurked an endless supply of put-downs.

Now, as an adult, those years of ugly name-calling have fueled a queasiness I felt at the trials of all three defendants, which were riddled with sorry words they used for black people. I was filled with unanswered questions, but one was uppermost: Why are we still dealing with this?

Inside the empty Jasper County Courthouse on the eve of the first trial, I came face to face with a big, scary white man. Gun and cowboy hat made him an easy stereotype. Later, at a media briefing, I discovered that "Wyatt Earp" was actually the assistant district attorney. I had labeled him no more than a good ol' boy. In fact, he came to crave justice as much as anyone associated with the case.

Over the next year, I not only formed an everlasting bond with the Byrd family, I also embraced the sheriff who had delivered the tragic news to them that Sunday in 1998. I learned how he cried with them. I lived the case and covered the second and third trials, too, bringing all of it home. It meant nightmares about the clanking chain, thoughtful discussions, and a yearning for something unexplainably absent.

When all three trials were over, the racially charged testimony left my spirit tired, hunting for more than closure. Wounded by the powerful impact of a vicious crime, I needed months of therapeutic investigation to unwrap layers of my own exiled pain.

The Bible says, "Let a man examine himself." So I looked deep inside and discovered a desperate focus on how to heal others racially, when it was my own heart that needed mending. It has been a physician's pilgrimage to understand fully how much racism has shaped me, and how I can use my compelling desire to share what I witnessed in Jasper.

To heal meant walking down Huff Creek Road, where the body of James Byrd Jr. was released from a 24-foot chain. I walked that road a thousand times in my mind, then transformed myself into a little Negro girl playing on dirt roads nestled on my grandparents' 40 acres. I had to journey back to the person I was, in order to become the best American I can be. The trip produced a plethora of emotions.

I no longer look at every small-town Southern sheriff as the same one who carted my family off to jail for a bogus traffic infraction. Nor do all prosecutors immediately conjure up for me an image of absent justice. A new breed of white lawmen is finally arguing for a concerted effort to punish hatred and racial violence. Just as individuals do not wish to be judged by the actions of one member of their race, Jasperites only want the world to know that the whole town was never guilty.

This month marks the third anniversary of the dragging, with a stunning epilogue. Texas Gov. Rick Perry recently signed the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Bill, which boosts penalties for crimes committed against certain groups, including racial minorities. His predecessor, President Bush, refused to support similar legislation. Speaking of the bill named for her son, Stella Byrd said: "At least I have something good to remember from his death."

From the journey to Jasper, I have rededicated myself to focusing on what's really important in life, and drawing on the strength of my ancestors.

If it takes a village to raise a child, then it's going to take a powerful dialogue to raise a nation. Tough questions must be asked and answered together.

Joyce King's book about her experience in Jasper, Texas, will be published next year.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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