I Was Stranded in My Hometown and Ended Up in a Substantive Conversation on Race and Culture with a Pair of White Strangers
A brief travel story about a powerful cultural exchange
I’ve spent the past few days in my hometown of Baton Rouge as I was brought out to be a presenter at the 11th annual National Civil Rights Conference. A portion of this year’s conference was hosted on the campus of my alma mater, Southern University, and the presentation I was contracted to do was based on a multimedia project I’m currently working on called Blood on the Bluff which is a poetic re-telling of a state-sanctioned murder that occurred nearly 50 years ago on Southern’s campus. The student union, where my presentation took place and where I spent countless hours hanging out when I was in college, is named the Smith-Brown Memorial Union in honor of two students, Denver Smith and Leonard D. Brown who were killed on campus in November 1972 when a militarized police force occupied Southern’s campus in response to weeks of student protest and a rumor that the university president was being held hostage. The tragedy was most notably mentioned in the HBCU-based documentary Tell Them We Are Rising and has been written about over the years in local publications, but was largely overshadowed by another incident of on-campus violence that happened around the same time at the majority-white Kent State University.
After the conference, my flight home to Maryland was delayed by mechanical issues and inclement weather at my final destination, and for the first time in my traveling life, I received a hotel voucher to stay overnight until my re-booked flight the following morning (aka today). While standing in the airport with a small number of other stranded travelers I began small talking with an older white gentleman named Mark about the inconveniences of our travel. The airport shuttle took Mark and me, and a handful of other travelers to a nearby Hilton hotel where would rest for the evening, but it was when I came down for dinner a couple of hours later that Mark and I had an interesting and totally unexpected conversation.
Mark asked me what I did for a living and I told him I was a poet and journalist. He told me he was also a writer, a lawyer and a professor at the University of Virginia. He was in Baton Rouge visiting his daughter and I told him that I was in town for the Civil Rights Conference, and gave him a general overview of what my project was about and my relationship to the school/Baton Rouge. Mark then informed me that he’s currently working on a book project about a double murder committed by the Ku Klux Klan around the Lafayette (Louisiana) area, and how even as a white man who looks to be in his early 60s, he had been advised by people in Lafayette to “be careful” about information he was snooping around about. He asked me my thoughts on present-day race relations in Louisiana and we talked about the cultural differences between the Deep South of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, versus the Upper South of Virginia and Maryland. We found common ground in our shared experiences of working on writing projects that encompass shrouded histories, racially-motivated violence and the secrets a region keeps in the name of moving on from the past. Our dialogue started from a place of general inquiry, evolved into a mutual curiosity and crescendoed to a place of mutual respect.
I was irritated by the travel delay that landed us in the predicament but appreciated the dialogue that came as a result of our misfortune.
About halfway through me and Mark’s conversation, another passenger from our flight asked if she could join us at our table (whose name I didn’t catch). A sweet, native Mississippian white lady who appeared to be around Mark’s age. She blended into the dialogue we were having, speaking candidly about her Mississippi roots and her plans to never again live in her home state. The three of us talked about southern traditions, working-class southerner economics, classism, Deep South politics and environmental racism. They listened to perspectives I shared that were foreign to how they likely engage with their immediate peers. I listened to them speak about their upbringing and the cultural norms of southern whiteness they work to distance themselves from. We had a uniquely, unplanned American conversation, inspired by the choice to make the most out of unfavorable circumstances. I eventually left the two of them to talk, but when I got up from the table we exchanged the type of endearing farewells that are only possible when you actually see outside of whatever you’ve been socialized to believe they are.
I have no idea what direction Mark and the anonymous lady’s conversation took after I left, and quite honestly, it’s not for me to know or be concerned with. I know that we had an exchange of ideas, cultural curiosity and hard truths, and that is something that is uncommon among American strangers of differing backgrounds — even more so among southerners of varying generations and ethnicities.
I hope they traveled safely.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Donney Rose is a Writer, Editor, Organizer and Chief Content Editor at The North Star