I am, at heart, a genuine country girl.
I grew up making mud pies, riding on the back of trucks, and swimming in the local creek. Despite the horrific racial past that will forever scar the fabric of our state, Mississippi has always been, and I believe will always be, my home.
From Pike County I was transplanted to the rich soil of Tougaloo College. There under the hanging moss, I came to appreciate, even more, the heritage and history of African Americans. Though I have clearly always been aware that I am indeed a black woman and though never disillusion that this still means something in the South, I am blessed that to have been covered by the debt paid by those who walked this road long before me. I have never been called out of my name, forced to move to the back, nor told that I don’t belong. Never beaten, refused or chained.
I have, however, tasted the subversive bitterness of unconscious bias and seen the effects of the subtle erosion caused by institutionalized racism.
Of all the stories and experiences that flood my mind of my medical education and training, I still remember the first patient who called me “Ms” and not “Dr.” I remember the patient who needed to begin our visit declaring that she, in fact, liked colored people and had colored friends. I recall being the resident on a team with my attending and three students who were all white men and walking into a patient’s room that I had been actually rounding on daily, to have her respond with awe as the team walked in that morning and express her excitement to have 1, 2, 3, 4 doctors. She started counting past me.
Years later, I still see that room and more than the patient, I see my attending not correcting the statement. Sadder still is my shame that neither did I. But I also remember being welcomed to sit with the family of this amazing lady who I had cared for since I started residency. No one in the church looked like me and yet everyone shared my same love for her. I remember a patient with elevated troponins refusing her heart cath until she could talk to her doctor that she trusted. I have had so many incredible relationships with wonderful patients, none of which stifled by differences.
I shared breakfast with my bright young adult cousins and my 6-year-old niece about a month ago. We had never gone to this local restaurant for breakfast and decided to give it a try. (As an aside, the food was fabulous.) Brent’s Drug was established in 1946. As I sat in the booth on that quiet Saturday morning considering if it would be acceptable to have a milkshake for breakfast, I was struck by the worn walls and stools that I am sure hold many stories of our past. I was struck at the reality of today, juxtaposed to what would have been our truth some decades ago. We walked into Brent’s, sat where we chose and were served by welcoming and warm attendants.
As I gazed on the old photos and books on the wall, my eyes turned to the bar stools at the counter and I imagined the experience of those brave men and women who staged lunch counter sit-ins.
As I thought about how much we have grown, my niece interrupted my reflection to ask why there weren’t any skin colors in her crayon pack. When we entered the restaurant, the lovely attendant gave us a box of crayons and a coloring sheet for her enjoyment. With innocence and sincerity as she edited her photograph to add stars to the t-shirt and rainbows to the jeans, she was perplexed with what color to use for the skin.
I asked the attendant if they had any brown crayons and he informed us that all the browns, blacks, yellows and white had been removed. He shared that when he posed this question to management in the past, he was told that they don’t see color, so they took all of these colors out of the boxes. We thanked him and I began to try to explain to this to my niece.
Not wanting to color the skin green or orange, I assured her that we could finish her picture when we got back home. In the spirit of such amazing human nature, that young man walked next door and purchased a box of crayons so my niece could color her skin brown.
My cousins and I were in awe of his generosity. Not because of the cost of the crayons but that he was moved to take it upon himself to give validation to her desire to color the picture to look like her.
We thanked him and talked about the truths of this experience, the challenges facing us and how to best continue to be a vessel for good in whatever circumstances that life brings to us. As we enjoyed our breakfast, the waitress brought us our ticket and explained that the gentleman sitting next to us had paid for our breakfast as he checked out. The gentleman sitting next to us was a middle-aged white gentleman who sat quietly on his laptop and ate his breakfast. We spoke as we sat next to him but never shared in exchange. We wondered if he had overheard our talk with my niece. We wondered why he had been moved to buy our breakfast. We wondered if he had been offended or perhaps convicted by the conversation? Regardless, we were grateful and encouraged to pay it forward.
I share this story because it has stayed with me for some time.
In Psalms, we read that “children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their opponents in court.” My incredible adoring niece has learned at 6 years old how to hide the Cheetos she should not be eating when her mom comes through the door and at 6 years old, she loves her skin. She loves her friend Isabella who looks nothing like her and she had no idea that she is underrepresented.
As she grows and sees more and learns more, this world will give her experiences that can shape who she is and what she believes despite what we try to pour into her.
If we hope to bend the curve towards more harmonious relationships, we have to be concerned about what we teach our children. If we want to stop talking about anyone being underrepresented, we need to encourage our children to believe they can be anything. Adolescent obesity leads to adult obesity. Poor choices in your youth can alter the course of your adult life.
When I watch a documentary and see adolescents wearing a hood and shouting slurs, I know that despite how far we have come, we still have work to do. We must be willing to challenge racism, sexism, classism, whatever “ism” feverously. We who have been privileged to sit at the boardroom tables and share the golf courses must be willing to give voice to those who are in the shadows. We must teach our children to pick up the banner of social justice and we must recruit our brothers and sisters to continue to carry this banner with us. As Martin Luther King Jr said, “human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
I will continue to have the audacity to believe that better is possible. I know how far we have come and know the progress we have made. Yet, there is much work to do.
For now, this county girl, this underrepresented woman from Mississippi, will keep believing that there is good in this world and in people. I will teach my niece that brown is beautiful when magazines, movies, and her peers suggest differently. I will advocate for every patient and I will be a part of the solution. I believe that is all that is asked of me. To do good, love my enemies, and pray for those who despitefully misuse me until better comes.
Shannon, many thanks to you for the insightful, tender and amazing words that compose this inspirational story.
— Jeff Morzinski, Medical College of Wisconsin.