Many years ago, I lived in Iowa. It was a wonderful experience; one I will never forget, but there was one experience during my year that that left a deep and long-lasting scar.
I had been in Iowa for a couple of months and was longing for the familiarity of home. I wasn’t necessarily homesick, I just wanted something that looked, sounded, or tasted familiar. I went with a friend to a local diner for dinner. On our way to our seats, I saw an African-American family (not a common occurrence) eating dinner. The fried chicken and corn they were eating looked so good that I knew I wasn’t going to need to look at the menu. As we sat in our booth and chatted while waiting for the waitress to come and take our order, I overheard two men at a nearby table having a louder than necessary conversation. They looked like they worked hard for a living. Both had on denim overalls and neither had used a razor in at least 36 hours. One was wearing a plaid long sleeved shirt and the other, a long sleeved white t-shirt. I pictured them both on the back of a John Deere, driving across acres and acres of land. Plaid shirt said to white shirt, “Look at ’em eatin’ their fa-reyed chicken.” His words dripped contempt. White shirt responded with, “I guess they’ll order watermelon for dessert,” and the two men burst into laughter; their bellies bouncing up and down as if each were carrying a set of twins that were trying to break out.
My friend was in the middle of telling a story, that was apparently hilarious. Even though I had missed the punchline, I laughed with her as I was crying inside. I vowed that I would never again eat fried chicken in public because I refused to be the butt of someone’s racist joke.
For years and years, I stuck to that vow, and then I was introduced to a local Amish Market in Maryland. The fried chicken there smelled incredible. You would think that it was the only thing on the menu because it seemed that everyone was eating it. While my friends ordered and happily ate their chicken, I refrained. Years after that, an Amish Market opened in my area. I ordered some chicken to go, but by the time I got home, the hot, crispy chicken had become a bit soggy in its styrofoam container. Faced with the weekly temptation, I finally gave in and ordered the chicken and ate it right there in the market with all of the other people, both white and black, that were enjoying the deliciousness. I thought I was finally over the Iowa incident.
Today, I went to the Amish Market for lunch. While eating my chicken leg, I noticed a very angry looking little white man staring at me so hard that his eyes seemed to squint. I looked behind me because surely he wasn’t staring at me like that. But he was. He was wearing a blue volunteer firefighter t-shirt and was at least a foot shorter than his buddy who was sitting at the counter with him. I stared back at him and he looked away. He actually turned his back to me so that I could see the VFD in big white letters across his back. His shoulders where hunched up by his shoulders and he seemed to be saying something to his friend. His friend laughed and looked in my direction. And just like that, my appetite was gone.
I’m renewing my vow. Right here. Right now.