There are some things… well let me rephrase that… there are many things that happen during a YAV year that most would say don’t happen in the real world. But I would like to believe that a lot of the things that have happened during my year are possible, and could even improve the real world. I hope the concepts I’m wrestling with, books I’m reading, conversations I’m having will continue to be commonplace after I finish my year.
One such instance happened to me just a few weeks ago . I was sitting at the laundromat waiting for my clothes to dry, and was reading our required reading, The New Jim Crow. This book briefly chronicles the history of the formation and death of slavery, the formation and death of Jim Crow, and then dives into the issue of mass incarceration of black men in prison systems, and how their inability to reenter society is a new form of Jim Crow. Needless to say, this is not a light book, and not a book that most anyone would read in a laundromat to pass time.. but then again I am a YAV. This is what we do.
Imagine this: a young white girl sitting in a laundromat with mostly black people reading a book with a picture of a black man behind bars on the cover with the words “The New Jim Crow” in bold white letters…
Did I even think twice about it? No… I am a YAV.. and this is what we do.
I got up to fold my clothes, and left my book on the table next to my chair. While I was up, the black man who was sitting next to me studied the cover… When I came back to grab my stuff to leave, the man said to me,
“Jim Crow, huh?”
My heart jumped into my throat…
I should be ready for this conversation, right?? If I was going to be reading this in public I certainly should’ve been ready for this kind of conversation.
I shyly said, “Yeah…”
“Is Jim Crow a form of slavery?”
…. “in a way,” I continued. I said that it was the nickname given to a set of laws that made segregation and other forms of inequality legal. I also said that my book addresses how this kind of system still exists today in a new disguise, hence the title, The New Jim Crow.
The man kinda wrinkled his face inquisitively, and thought on what I had nervously said for a second, and then he said,
“What’s with the picture of the black man behind bars?”
I stared at the picture for a moment and then responded, “This book deals with the mass incarceration of black men…” but before I could finish my thought, he defensively responded saying,
“The issue isn’t that we are just a bunch of black criminals running in the streets.”
Of course this man was defensive. He represented the victims of the sickening system that so many of us are oblivious to. So many of us blissfully walk through life blind to these issues of racism, prejudice, and oppression, and in our blindness, we feed into these issues. He had more than likely been judged by the color of his skin his whole life, and here I was, a white girl born with the privilege to simply read about it.
After I swallowed the lump in my throat, I responded saying that I knew the truth was not that they were a bunch of criminals, and that there was an issue much deeper than that. The book is a study of how poverty, and failing justice and prison systems perpetuate crime, and namely oppress an entire people group.
His face lightened, and I knew the tension between us was fading. I asked him what his name was, and he held out his hand and said,
“Hello, I’m Clarence.”
and we shook hands.
In that moment the many walls between us came crashing down. We were no longer the sum of our physical differences. We were just two human beings discussing some intense issues.
Clarence and I shared some of our lives together that day, and I’ll never forget it.
Like I said earlier, a lot of things happen in a YAV year that don’t happen in the real world, but with all of me I sure hope that changes.