Cook: This can be done on any street

Cook: This can be done on any street

February 16th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

On a cold evening last week, about 50 of us - in coats and scarves, some strangers, some not - gathered in Franklin and Tresa McCallie's Read Avenue home to talk about the one thing we don't ever talk about.

Being black.

Being white.

And how we can be friends.

"Trust," one woman said.

For more than two hours, we talked and listened, black sitting next to white, white next to black. We asked questions, some unanswerable. We told stories, some unforgettable.

One black woman talked about being a child and hearing white men speak to her father, calling him "boy."

"He always told us to keep loving," she said.

The evening was not one long racial storytelling session. Its larger purpose was to knock down a barrier, Chattanooga's version of the Berlin Wall, which is this: the lack of deep friendships between black and white Chattanooga.

"We're not talking about acquaintances," said Franklin McCallie. "We're talking about friends who know each other, who trust each other, who call each other on the phone, who go places with each other."

Last year, Eleanor Cooper (McCallie's cousin) heard a jarring NPR report: while our work spaces may be integrated, that racial mixing ends at 5 p.m. when everybody goes out for drinks, or dinner, or to the symphony, or to tell jokes in the men's card room after 18 holes. In those mostly white gatherings, we remain as separate as ever.

"These social areas are deeply segregated," stated NPR's Shankar Vendantam. "So if you're a member of a minority group, you're far less likely to be part of these social networks."

We talk about race in the hot moments: the election of Obama, the death of Trayvon. But a cold racism slips around like a quiet thief, keeping a softer segregation in place,

leading to a difference in wages, a difference in schools, a difference in America.

Not only is it unjust, it's also economically restrictive -- to people of color who miss out on business connections, thus missing out on business deals, and to white business owners, who miss out on the large mind that comes with a diverse body of employees.

"We are throwing away our best opportunities to grow and develop with our best ideas from all our citizens because we are allowing a debilitating color barrier to get in the way," McCallie said.

So last August, the McCallies and Coopers (Eleanor and husband Mel) invited 100 or so black and white Chattanoogans -- some you'd know, some you wouldn't -- to gather over several nights with the focused intention of building more intentional black-white relationships.

The evenings were profound, honest, beautiful, challenging. Local civil rights leaders sat near thirty somethings. Interracial couples and elected leaders sat with professors, doctors, housewives, young attorneys.

As an icebreaker, they rubbed noses. Literally. Blacks and whites stood centimeters apart, looking at one another in the eye.

"We put our nose on their nose. Then, we put our ears together. Then, the back of our heads. Then, the front of our heads," said McCallie. "That is a freeing thing."

Last week, they came together again, six months after their first meeting. Some people talked about their faith in younger generations to dismantle racism. Others disagreed. Several spoke of the joy that comes with feeling comfortable with anyone -- black, white, brown, red -- in any group. Two people said they'd had crosses burned in their yard. One white man spoke about how his white friends get angry when he talks about race, asking him: Why are you stirring things up?

Someone mentioned class, and how poverty is near-synonymous with blackness here in Chattanooga.

Many folks shared what they'd done since August. Some women -- black and white -- were meeting regularly for lunch. One black man became intimate friends with a white couple.

"The blessing has been ours," the white man said.

"He's been a father to me," the black man said.

To witness such an evening is to realize how transformative such encounters are, and, sadly, how rare. Many people spoke about how awfully different Chattanooga is from other parts of the country, how still segregated our town is.

"I am so grateful for tonight," one man said.

Such evenings -- which could be replicated in neighborhoods anywhere -- will not end racism. But they are a thunderous part of the solution, as nothing is ever won without friendships, nothing ever understood without talking and listening, no beloved community ever created without black and white folks coming in from the cold to talk with one another.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at David CookTFP.