While on our month-long road trip this summer, on the back roads of Illinois, we passed the cemetery pictured above at a speed of about forty miles an hour. I asked Henry if we could turn around because my mind read “Blacks’ Cemetery,” and I couldn’t believe the racism could be so blatant. It turns out I was right. When we turned around and came back, I discovered that the apostrophe was before, not after, the s, which makes all the difference.
As you can see, the sign actually reads “Black’s Cemetery.” A smaller sign nearby indicates that this is a cemetery dedicated specifically to a family in the area with the last name of Black. There was nothing racist in the labeling after all.
Sometimes the road toward becoming antiracist isn’t straight or straightforward. I’ve been intentionally on this journey for three years now, and I still have so much to learn. Sometimes I’m learning that I’m mistaken in what I think I see. Sometimes, as they say, a rose is just a rose.
Other times, there’s no way for me to tell if someone is acting in a racist manner or not. There was one day when I offered my arm to help a distant family member, who is white, up a steep hill. When we moved back down the hill, the Black man who was guiding us offered this family member his arm, but the family member refused and insisted on going down on his own. Was that racism, or was it that the family member didn’t feel comfortable being helped by a relative stranger? I did not feel that I could ask, so I will never know. I did decide to intentionally reach out to shake the hand of our guide as we finished, to let him know touch was not an issue for me.
I also don’t get to know if our guide got, or even needed, that message from me.
I think the bottom line is that becoming antiracist is something we practice doing one day at a time. We learn and grow by paying attention and pondering our responses. We notice how others act and reach out in support in the ways we can.
If the apostrophe had been after the s, this post would have gone in a different direction. But it didn’t. When have you been mistaken about a metaphorical “apostrophe placement,” and what did you learn? When have you read something (racist or otherwise) into a situation that might or might not have been there, and what choices did you make in response?