In the west, we are often fed stories of racial tensions that cripple the south, so I was a bit leery about traveling to such hostile territory by myself. But I have encountered no hostility, no resentment, no reserve. In fact, everyone has treated me with a warmth and kindness that feels genuine. Eyes spark with friendliness, and I have yet to see the dulled gaze that comes from holding oneself apart.
The deeper I got into the south, where I saw more blacks than whites, the more confused I became. Sometimes I am the lightest-skinned person around, yet no one has ever made me feel out of place. I have wanted to ask someone about this conundrum, this difference of perception, but I was afraid of opening a perhaps unwelcome discussion, of hurting someone by acknowledging a color difference.
I was pondering this very question when I happened to see a billboard advertising a buffet. I took the appropriate exit to Mebane, North Carolina, and entered The Iron Skillet. My server, a lovely black woman, was welcoming, kind, and gracious. In no way did I get the feeling she was putting on a show for the sake of a tip, especially since there is a general, though hopefully fading, belief that women are poor tippers. She was simply a kind woman.
I had a wonderful meal chosen from the buffet of real home cooked dishes, the kind you would make for yourself: smoke sausage with onions and peppers. Rice, chicken, and cheese casserole. Chicken and vegetables. In addition, there was a good salad bar and a great selection of cooked vegetables: tasty squash, black-eyed peas, green beans, broccoli. All the things that are so hard to find when one is tripping the highways of the United States.
In the middle of my meal, there was a change of servers. The new woman, white this time, was equally attractive, kind, and friendly, so much so that I ventured to voice my quandary. She seemed a bit unsure of my question at first, as if race wasn’t an issue, and perhaps for her it wasn’t. She explained that in previous generations there might have been a problem, but starting with her generation, everything got mixed up. Kids all grow up together and learn to ignore the differences. That made sense to me, and I planned to drop the subject, but when I saw my original sever at the cash register, I wondered if she had the same view. I gathered my courage and told her of my experiences in the south. She didn’t hesitate to expain why she treated everyone alike. “We’re all God’s children,” she said. “We all have the same color blood.” We talked for a few minutes about the need for everyone to work together to save our country, then I thanked her for being so kind. She gave me a radiant smile that lit up her eyes, and said she was glad of the chance to have such a dialogue. We shook hands and exchanged names (hers is Tatiana, a lovely name for a lovely woman), then I headed on down the road.
I don’t suppose this encounter at The Iron Skillet will have any great affect on how we all do or don’t get along, but it was nice to come away with not only food for my body but also food for my soul.
(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)