We’ve been meeting for our regular sister dates since we first met right after college. At the time, we would go to Olive Garden as our “fancy” restaurant when we found ourselves with a little extra cash and we could suddenly spring for something other than cheap Chinese. We still find ourselves at Olive Garden every once in a while, but now it serves more as our comfort food; the place we go to remember to hold onto our idealism and cherish our friendship in the midst of the chaos around us.
We met for one of our monthly sister dates. Her affect was somber when she sat down, I’m sure my face reflected the same. The shooting had just happened and the city was just starting with rumblings of divisive action. I wanted to say something; to see how she was doing. I started with a stuttering, uncertain “should we talk about it,” rejoicing in the fact that in difficult times we can speak with incomplete phrases and thoughts. Her eyes were glassed over and she responded with a barely audible whisper of “I can’t.”
Our friendship has been marked with racial tensions and we always walk through them together. I knew we would this one, as well, but as we sat across the table with each other on this night, we just couldn’t. She was struggling with school, balancing relationships, and the high demands of being in social services. I was struggling as I had just come back from learning a kid I had worked with in the past had just been stabbed to death. Although we wanted change, we wanted justice and equality, in that moment all we could muster was setting across from each other in silence, knowing that the other understood the silence and there was no pressure when we were together. For the time being, we sat across from each other as equals, as sisters, just trying to get through the day.
So, we did what we had done for years prior; we ordered more breadsticks and talked about everything else.
Our friendship started years ago, when we were still young and idealistic, but also when we had no clue how much we would grow together. Our individual prejudices were seated just under the surface. As our cultures clashed, these prejudices would bubble over, forcing us to choose between colliding and running away from one another, or colliding and clinging to each other. I can tell you that our first argument was over whether or not spaghetti was a side dish, exactly where we were standing when we discussed interracial dating for the first time, and the slang words we learned from each other. I could provide several humorous (and sometimes devastating) stories of how we learned our hair was on completely different ends of the spectrum and how she rolls her eyes at me when I cut my hair and I roll my eyes at her when she covers hers with a knit hat.
I can describe our first encounters with each other’s families. My first encounter with her family involved a visit to Penn Station and her younger sister stealing a sandwich right out from under her mama’s nose. Hers involved staying at Aunt Shirley’s and a recliner that threw her backwards.
Our cultures dictated a lot, but it wouldn’t dictate our friendship.
Through the years we became chosen sisters. We experienced prejudice, anger, ignorance, and misunderstanding. We also experienced celebration, compromise, and reconciliation. It wasn’t always easy, but we did it together.
Months passed and we watched our city cry out. We watched and listened as it affected our ladies. Some were worried because the racial tension was happening in their neighborhoods. Others had parents who were law enforcement and they worried about their safety. Still others, voiced how this is something they live with daily. We went to work trying to create a safe place for them, allowing them to voice whatever concern they had. We tried to use our friendship as an example, but the tensions still surfaced in unexpected places.
She sat with her back towards all of us with her head resting on her hands on the back of the chair. Sherrita propped herself against the wall where she could be seen, but not intrusive and calmly, but directly stated that it seemed like she was refusing to follow directives from the white staff. Tension showed in her shoulders. She quickly turned toward us. Her eyes squinted in a glare and she spoke with venom in her voice, lashing out, “Of course I do. I hate every one of them. Why wouldn’t I? Everyone who ever hurt me was white. The people who prostituted me were white; the men who bought me were white. Everyone was.” and with great force whipped back around so her back was to us.
That instant remains in mind. The hatred, the depth of the rage, came rushing at me surrounding me like a plastic bag covering my face, causing me not to breathe; a hatred so intense I wasn’t sure anything could combat it. I’m sure it was only a few seconds, but the cliché “time stood still” was written for this moment. In that instant I suddenly realized the depth of the hurt racism had caused; I realized the grace Sherrita has demonstrated to me through the years, choosing to let go of this same kind of bitterness.
In that moment, I knew I had to respond with the same type of grace. As gently as possible, I asked her if she could look at me. I explained that I knew it was difficult, but I wanted her to see that what I was about to say, I truly meant. She slowly turned to face me. The anger was still evident but there was a hint of curiosity there. I’m sure my breathing was labored and my words stumbled over themselves, but I looked at her and said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what you experienced and I’m sorry those people will probably never ask you for forgiveness.” She looked at me more with shock and when she didn’t say anything I went on. “You don’t have to do anything. Our job is to show up every day and treat you with love, trust and respect. Whether you choose to give it back will be up to you. But, I want you to know I’m going to do it every day with no expectations from you.” Her look softened a bit and then she responded with a sharp “can I go now.”
I nodded and she quickly left the room. Sherrita waited until the door shut and promptly slumped against the wall. Annie sat with glossy eyes. Every ounce of energy I had went to that moment and I now sat deflated in my chair. The hurt she felt was so real. We all understood her hatred and bitterness, and were left holding it uncertain what our next steps should be.
As sisters, instead of professionals, we sat in the room and cried and prayed together.