Tap Dancing with Donna – by Terry Howard

I went 12 rounds with Donna, a “bout” that started eleven months ago when I settled into Douglasville, Georgia. You see, Donna, a full-size middle age white woman, and me, a full-bellied middle age black man, first came into contact with each other in the convenient store a mile from my house, a tiny place reminiscent of the bucolic town of Mayberry in the old Andy Griffith Show. This is the place I stop by early mornings for coffee and a newspaper. Donna works there.

Now round one which, to lesser degrees, bled into rounds two and three, saw the two of us circling each other like two prize fighters feeling each other out, bobbing and weaving while eyeing each other through the murky haze of race in a black/white context. Well, I saw it that way although I cannot say for sure that she did too.

But let’s move on.

You see, I was there canvassing the place for caffeine and the day’s paper, and not there casing the joint for sinister reasons. But not knowing anything about Donna, I had no way of knowing how she saw me – as a canvasser or a caser. So we continued to tap-dance while watching each other’s every movement out of the corners of our eyes. Such is racial life in the good ole United States of America these days.

The next few rounds saw less tap-dancing between us. Wariness seemed to have dissipated. Familiarity can do that in relationships. It is here when we exchanged first names, where our hellos became less hallow, where our smiles shifted from the manufactured to the genuine. During those brief conversations what we discovered about each other was our mutual love for family, our grandkids especially, fishing and Douglasville, our city.

But somewhere in the later rounds we came face-to-face with an inevitable 900 pound pink elephant in room, (or city in our case) the undiscussable in cross racial relationships, that anxious moment that can cause folks to retreat into the safety of silence. It showed up in the unexpected form of faces on the front page of our local newspaper right below the headline, 15 indicted on charges in Confederate flag incident. (For background, see my October post. I railed…I gritted my teeth…I cussed!)

“Hey Terry, what’s in the news today,” asked an unaware Donna before I plopped down my cup of coffee and the paper whereby, and certainly not by intent, she could see that headline and those faces.

Silence, uncomfortable silence.

I could sense by an “omigod, I’m embarrassed and want you to know that I don’t condone what they did,” look on Donna’s face. I paid for my purchases and broke the silence by talking about the warm weather we’d been experiencing lately in Georgia and the 30 pounds of catfish I caught the past Saturday. By not talking about the elephant we in fact talked about the elephant. Silence, they say, speaks volumes.

As we entered the later rounds in later weeks, we came to look forward to Monday mornings when we could exchange about our weekends with our families and other activities. And two weeks ago I surprised Donna with a flyer and invitation for her and family to join us at our upcoming fall festival. She lit up like the fall foliage that was visible across the street.

Now the moral of this narrative is this: the first few rounds in the cross racial journey can be laden with some natural clumsiness as we see each other through the prisms of personal experience, media portrayals (and exaggerations), stereotypes, and the trappings of preconceived notions.

So yes, there will be a few bumps in the road, a fender-bender or two, unfortunate headlines and other moments of racial anxiety. But on the other end – in the last round – is the sweet spot, the place where gloves can come off, where tap dancing ceases, where great relationships can evolve.

As the saying goes, “brilliant opportunities often show up in the form of perceived unsolvable problems!”

So true; yes, so very true!

Terry Howard

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