November 29, 2020 Kelley Kidd. Once upon a time I was a newly minted member of the Georgia fraternity of lawyers by reason of having passed the bar exam in the summer of 1968. But I was also temporarily unemployed and restlessly searching for some means of responding to the call to action of a fallen prophet. MLK had been murdered in April and Robert Kennedy was murdered only two months later. That summer I followed the advice of a young public relations executive named George Abernathy, the younger brother of a college roommate and the one positive tie I had to the Atlanta Jaycees. His advice was to spend a few days in an odd little endeavor called The Cornerstone Project.
So I introduced myself to the three college kids who were the staff of the Project. They were from Middlebury College. Incredibly they had hustled foundation funds from several liberal foundations in Atlanta, and rented a two story house in the middle of Summerhill, an impoverished community of African Americans that occupied the residential area to the immediate West and South of the Fulton County Stadium. Simultaneously they had recruited a number of young professional workers from Lynden Johnson’s war on poverty to come from Washington agencies to stay for two weeks in that house while they learned about the successes and efforts to reduce poverty in “the City Too Busy to Hate”. These two week students/boarders were deemed “participants’; their expenses were paid by the agencies that sponsored them. The little staff worked for their own food and board. Each group consisted of four to six of each sex, virtually all of whom were whites who would have chosen to describe themselves as liberal if anyone had asked. There were few Republicans and no radicals of any stripe. They slept on bunk beds that had been obtained as gifts from the federal penitentiary near Atlanta.
In June of 1968 I spent a few days in that Cornerstone Project house. Those days were to turn into a few years. Every morning started with a group breakfast. The days usually involved doing volunteer work at a local program involved in the War on Poverty and visits to places that were funded and staffed to help the poor in one or more of the impoverished neighborhoods in South Atlanta. Evenings included another group meal and a program that usually featured some local antipoverty worker as a speaker or presenter.
One of the first such presenter was a young teacher from Atlanta University, a very dark young man who brought his baby girl with him. Aside from the dark color of his skin I remember nothing of his physical appearance except the fact that his hair was intentionally very kinky. Most of us would have said he was wearing an Afro hairstyle; it was months before I learned that his hair was as naturally kinky as mine was limp and thin on top. He talked about his education as a social scientist and historian for a while. With half of his attention on the baby and the other on his teaching of us, he was still managing to be a completely relaxed instructor of his white audience. He was in complete command of his subject and of our attention.
After awhile he informed us that he had been making up his mind about quizzing us on the subject of elementary history and sociology before moving into the esoteric subject of the history and sociology of urban poverty. Thank God he decided to give us a little test, which we would be free to review and grade afterwards. He told us the test would need us to answer certain questions in our heads silently, then we would be reviewing just as silently if we chose to do so. each person would decide hat latter issue and no one would be challenged to repeat the answers he or she had mentally given.
As well as I can remember, the questions that follow were asked by our young Black teacher one at a time slowly, so we could remember the questions and answers easily when we were done: One, who discovered America? He said he was starting with an easy one, and that it might get more difficult as we went along. Two, who was the first to discover any part of what we now call the United States? If you are unsure just mentally record the guesses or half memories you have, he said pleasantly. Three, who discovered the source of the Nile at Victoria Fall? Four, who was the first to explore what we now call Australia? Five, name one ruler of a kingdom or state south of the Sahara desert prior to the colonization of that area by Europeans. Six, name the ruler of any state in the Indian subcontinent prior to its colonization by the British. Seven, how many races are there? Eight, keeping in mind the number you believe to be most accurate, answer the following five sub-questions: what race does each of the following belong to: Yasir Arafat, Suharto, Indira Gandhi, Zapata, Lena Horne.
By the time we reached the last question, I began to see the foolishness of my earlier answers. i had mentally recorded Columbus or Leif Erikson as the answer to the first and Henry Hudson or Amerigo Vespucci for the second. For three I thought Stanley for I had read a fascinating account of Stanley search for Dr. Livingston and his further expedition to find the falls. The questions about the early history of Africa and India almost tipped me off to the real object of the quiz–to help us realize that we had without objection digested a view of history that completely discounted the history, even the existence of nonwhite people. In my mind the history of the world was largely the story of white folks! Soon the discussion that night revealed that all of us were in the same condition. Each of us had ignored the existence in each “discovered’ people of many generations of nonwhite people prior to the visit of the first leader of a group of white folks. And none of us could defend any number for the races of humans other than one. Once it became clear that any other selected number was biologically to small to serve as the finite number of categories, we were forced to recognize that race was a learned perspective, not a biological or anthropological reality outside of our prejudices and arbitrary categorizations.
But the most alarming revelation of the evening for some of us–including me–was the realization that this young teacher was actually smarter than we were! I came to the startling awareness that there were people who were both Black and superior in learning and intelligence. Whether I wanted to be or not–and I desperately did not want to be–I had to recognize that in a very real and disgusting way, I was a bigot!