“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow mindedness” (Mark Twain)
I grew up in a picturesque tiny town in southern Louisiana filled with beautiful oak trees and antebellum homes. There was only one high school and everyone knew everyone.
But there was one thing about my high school that didn’t seem similar to the schools I saw on TV — we had segregated dances.
The black students would attend the school dances and the white students went to dances held off-campus. This was all I knew and presented as normal in my community, so I didn’t know I should have been completely aghast by what was going on.
In eleventh grade, I started bringing white friends with me to the black dances my other friends were attending. I became even more bold during my senior year and invited my black friends to come to the white dances with me ‚ something that did not go over well with the parent chaperones, who made it very clear that my black friends were not welcome.
I was young, naive, and I didn’t say anything. I stayed quiet when I found out my friends were kicked out of a homecoming after-party simply because they were black. I just left, too. I didn’t say anything to the adults I had known my entire life because I was scared. I didn’t speak up for my friends who didn’t have a voice at the time.
I knew that I were in the right but two conflicting feelings kept me from acting. I had been raised to be polite and to respect authority figures, which I had done. But I had also been taught to always look out for the little guy. Every time I left my dad’s presence as a kid, he’d say, “I love you so much. Remember your manners. And always look out for the little guy.” It was the last part of my dad’s advice that I’d failed to stay true to.
A lot of the kids in my hometown were not as lucky as I was. I came from an incredibly loving family. We may not have had a lot of money, but my parents both loved to travel. They would throw my siblings and I in the car and drive us all over the United States. We would spend time with my dad’s Amish friends, take the scenic routes instead of highways, and drive through small towns all over the country. My dad made friends everywhere we went — friends that didn’t look like us, talk like us, or act like us.
I knew from a very young age that there was so much more in the world outside of my pretty little town. I was fortunate enough to go to a summer camp every year, where I met girls from South America who I grew close with. I would always ask them to tell stories about their lives at home so I could try to imagine what their day-to-day lives were like.
Traveling at such a young age was a gift because it helped me see that there is so much life outside of my tiny, southern town.
In tenth grade, my amazing Spanish teacher took a group of us to Mexico. It was the first time I’d left the country. I loved meeting girls my age who lived there, and relished the opportunity to hear about their lives. They had so much less than we did, but these girls had such light about them, such joy, and it intrigued me.
The travel bug has stayed with me since.
For my college graduation gift, I got to backpack around Europe. That two and a half weeks opened my eyes in a way they hadn’t been opened before.
I realized how alike we all are. In conversations with others my own age from different countries, I realized that we all had similar problems and similar joys. Everyone had dating problems, complaints about their parents, trouble figuring out how to support themselves, we all had similar fears and insecurities … our lives may have looked different because of geography, but everything else was universal.
When I was 24 years old, my ex-husband and I moved into a seemingly less-desirable neighborhood in Nashville. I did youth work at the time and some of the parents wouldn’t allow their teenagers to visit my house because they thought my area of town was too dangerous. I had mostly black, gay, and an inter-racial couple as neighbors. Others looked down on where I lived, but I LOVED how different everyone around me looked. I got to know most of my neighbors pretty well.
One of the houses nearby aroused my suspicions since it seemed like there were a lot of drug deals going in and out. But I got to know the men who lived there, too, and they were the most protective of me out of all my neighbors.
If I left our back fence open, I would get a phone call to remind me to close it. If there was a convict on the loose, I would get a phone call to be sure to lock my doors. My house was probably the safest in the neighborhood because I was so looked out for.
My neighbors were my friends. We cared for each other. We didn’t look alike, and our lifestyles were very different, but we were also very similar.
One of my favorite Maya Angelou quotes reads, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike, we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike”
Nothing has nailed that truth home to me like travel. It’s hard to hold on to a prejudiced mind when you meet, interact with, and befriend people that you previously saw as the “other.” Pain is universal. Suffering is universal. Love and heartbreak is universal.
These days, I wish I could go back to my 16-year-old self and speak up for my friends when they were kicked out of the homecoming after-party. I wish I had been strong enough and had enough conviction to stand up to the adults who were too closed minded to look past the color of my friends’ skin.
I know I can’t go back, but I also know I will never let anything like that happen in my presence again. I will use my voice for good and stand up against prejudice. I will act in honor of those beautiful, brave high school friends of mine I let down so many years ago.
Photos provided by Lulu Lovering, Mike Seehagel, Dee Larson, Christian Watson, Garrett Cornelison, Zach Rose, and Emily Blincoe.
Header photo by Mike Seehagel.