“I was born a poor Black child.”
So begins Steve Martin’s movie The Jerk — the first R-rated movie I saw. I was 13 and begged my college-professor father to take me. As we were leaving his office, he asked some students what they thought of the movie. One of them said, “It just has a lot of satire.” I thought satire probably meant “profanity.” Only later would I learn that satire was making fun of and prompting thought about a different kind of the profane: the vile ways we treat each other.
Martin’s very white character, Navin, was raised by an isolated Black family. He doesn’t realize why he doesn’t quite fit. By contrast, I was a white child raised by a poor, white family, but I didn’t realize how poor we were. As a child, I thought my parents were just stingy. After all, my father had an advanced degree and was a college professor. It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that my father told me his starting salary at his Tennessee Baptist college in 1972. While working on his doctorate, he was teaching 17 hours and supervising student teachers for a whopping $4,000 per year. That’s about $29,000 in 2023 money. My mom was teaching first grade for about the same salary.
We were miserable in our tiny apartment with a landlord below who frequently banged her broom handle on the ceiling to shush us even if we were just talking. My parents found a house, but even on their combined incomes, they were turned down for a $13,000 home loan in 1973 (or about $87,000 today).
As a stop-gap measure, we moved into the back section of an 1868 Victorian mansion where we would serve as museum caretakers. The stop-gap measure stretched into six years. Six months out of the year we could go nowhere on weekends because we had to give tours. A few years ago, a friend said he always assumed we were the richest family in town because we lived in the biggest house. I laughed and said, “You’re kidding me! We lived there because we were poor, especially after my mom stopped working when my sister was born.”
Poor yet privileged
Despite our economic challenges, I had far more privilege than my Black peers. I never feared being lynched, and I had a sense the deck was stacked in my favor. There still were hurdles, but they were much lower than what others faced.
I was paradoxically privileged to have parents who instilled in me an awareness of the obscenity of racism and a sense of responsibility to swim against the current of racism.
Prior to moving to Tennessee, we had lived in Augusta, Ga. Around 1971, when I was 5 years old, I was playing at a neighbor’s house about a mile down our dirt road. When my parents came to pick me up, my friend’s little brother was playing on a pile of coal and was covered in coal dust. I laughed and said, “Ha! You look like a n*****!”
As soon as all three doors were shut on our car, my father’s head whipped around, his eyes blazing, and he said, “When we get home, you are getting a spanking.” I can still see my mother extend her hand to touch my father’s arm as she said, “Hon, I don’t think he knows what that word means. He probably heard it on the school bus. Let’s explain it to him.”
Calmed by my mother, my father immediately shifted to professor mode and delivered a rational yet patient lecture on slavery, bigotry, the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr., and the history of the vile word I had repeated. He concluded, “It is a word of hatred, and we do not say it.”
“I was an immediate disciple of anti-racism.”
Yes, I was relieved to realize I was not getting a spanking. I also was aware others had faced much worse. I was an immediate disciple of anti-racism.
Flashback from where?
Thus, I became shocked and disgusted with myself in the summer of 1989, at age 23, when I had a disturbing awareness of my own racism. In the weeks before I started graduate school in Louisville, Ky., I went with a friend on a day trip to Indianapolis. We had no plans; we just wanted to see what we discovered.
At one point, amid a sea of people on a crowded sidewalk, I noticed I was anxious. My chest was tight and my breathing shallow. I’m an extreme extrovert who thrives in crowds. I wondered why I felt so nervous. A banner on the side of the RCA Dome said, “1989 Black Expo.” I looked around and realized that, as far as I could see in every direction at that major intersection, my friend and I were the only two white people.
To avoid blocking the other pedestrians, I stepped to one side with my back to the nearest building. Surveying the crowd, I thought, “Brad Bull. How dare you. You are nervous because you are surrounded by so many Black people. They are smiling and clearly bear you no threat. Where on earth is this anxiety coming from? You gotta root this out.”
I searched my memory bank. I found it.
I was about 10 years old, visiting my paternal grandmother. She was in her ceramics class at the senior citizen’s center in Etowah, Tenn. A slightly younger girl and I went out to play on the nearby playground that was surrounded by an adjacent public housing project. About two or three minutes into our early-morning play, I saw five children coming down the hill from the identical houses. They were all Black.
I thought “Oh boy! Other kids to play with!” As they drew closer, though, I realized they looked angry. They made a semi-circle and were closing in around us. It appeared we were about to be beaten up. I took the girl’s hand and said, “Let’s go.” We walked quickly past the left flank toward the senior citizens’ center. Four of the children let us pass, but one of the girls started chasing us. We ran toward the building. Almost there, the pursuer caught my buddy by the hand. We were in a tug of war, screaming.
A woman emerged from the building and yelled, “Hey! Stop that!” The pursuer backed away, a look of rage still on her face. Across the way in the project houses, a white man emerged from his house with what I recognized as a BB gun. The children who had surrounded us scattered. My father later told me a judge ordered both the man and the families of the children to move out of the public housing project.
“Sometimes the roots of racism are as shallow as a singular experience.”
My mind arriving back in Indianapolis, I realized my anxiety had its roots in that one-minute encounter nearly 14 years earlier. Sometimes the roots of racism run deep through generations of entrenched racism; sometimes the roots of racism are as shallow as a singular experience.
On one hand, that means racism is easy to grow. On the other hand, the shallowness makes it easy to extract with conscious effort. At that intersection in Indianapolis, I consciously decided to compartmentalize that playground experience.
I had not been surrounded by Black children. I had been surrounded by children who felt their turf threatened. Neither of the gangs in West Side Story were Black. Turf-guarding is not a racial flaw; it is a human flaw. There in Indianapolis, I looked around the smiling faces of the descendants of enslaved people of North America. I inhaled our common air and embraced peace.
Years later, my newborn daughter’s first doll was a gift from a Haitian friend. The African version of Raggedy Ann featured ebony skin and polished-coal braids. When the time came, we actively sought and found an African American dentist. We actively invited international students of all races to our home.
Thus, I was in agony over a discussion when my daughter was in third grade in East Tennessee. She was telling me about ongoing problems with her own playground bullies — all of whom were white. I suggested she go talk to her new principal. He was an intimidatingly large and handsome man with a barrel chest, narrow waist and defined biceps even visible in his crisp suits. Upon my encouragement to meet with him, my daughter said, “I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that, Dad. You know. Because he’s African American.”
I quickly went to another room and cried.
How did this happen? What had I done wrong? What had changed since the day when she was 3 and we visited Washington, D.C.?
On that cold March day, our family had walked hand-in-hand toward the Capitol with the Lincoln Memorial behind us. An African American family of three was a few steps ahead of us —also hand-in-hand — with a 3-year boy toddling at the end of their line. My daughter had released my hand and waddle-jogged ahead. She sidled up beside the boy and offered her hand. The mother and father looked back at us. We smiled in greeting. Their son took our daughter’s hand.
“There I was on the same spot watching King’s words fulfilled in my 3-year-old and her spontaneous walking buddy.”
Tears came to my eyes as I heard Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice echoing across the mall: “I have a dream … that one day … little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” There I was on the same spot watching King’s words fulfilled in my 3-year-old and her spontaneous walking buddy. What had happened between age 3 and age 8?
I told myself I needed to stay calm. Still stunned by her comment and not sure what to say, I decided to follow the adage “first do no harm.” Without scolding her for her comment, I gently directed her to go meet with her principal, Mr. Mosely. The next day I offered to drive her to school. I dropped her off, pretended to pull away, then drove behind the building, and went to Mr. Mosely’s office.
As I told him the story of my conversation with my daughter, my eyes filled with tears. I listed all the things my wife and I had done to promote an egalitarian view of the world. I concluded, “Mr. Mosely, I don’t know what we did wrong. I don’t know where that comment or belief came from.”
In one of the most grace-filled moments of my life, Mr. Mosely gently crossed his forearms and rested them on his desk as he comfortingly leaned in. “Mr. Bull, you and your wife are just two people in a very large world. There is no way any of us can keep out every influence. We do the best we can and address things as we become aware of them.”
I said, “Thank you for your grace, Mr. Mosely. She is coming to meet with you today. I really hope her real fear is of your imposing physical presence and not your race. Regardless, I wanted to give you a heads up, because I really need her to have a positive experience.”
When she got off the bus that afternoon, I asked her how her day was. She said, “Great!” I said, “Did you…?” I didn’t have to finish the sentence. She exclaimed, “Oh yes! I went to see Mr. Mosely! He’s GREAT! He made some suggestions about how to handle the girls on the playground. He was awesome!”
Two years later, at my first college teaching job, we were living in small-town West Virginia. One morning she claimed to be sick and wanted to stay home. As soon as the bus went by, she suddenly was better. I raced her to school, harshly and loudly scolding her fickleness since I would now be struggling to be on time for my first class.
“Her little shoulders sank as her head slumped. ‘Daddy, it just hurts so bad.’”
After dropping her off, I realized maybe something was happening on the bus, and she didn’t know how to tell me. That afternoon at my college campus, I met her when she emerged from her after-school bus. As we walked up the hill I said, “Hon, I know there are two sides to every story. I’d like to hear your side of the story of what’s been happening on your morning bus.” Now, I didn’t say I had heard another side, but I wanted her to think I had. Her little shoulders sank as her head slumped. “Daddy, it just hurts so bad.”
I knew we were onto something. “What hurts, babe?”
“When he calls me a piece of white shit.”
“I’m so sorry, Tiger Shark. Who calls you that?”
“He’s in kindergarten. One day our bus driver pulled over and told the whole bus if we didn’t get quiet there was going to be trouble. When the driver started driving again, the boy started talking. I put my finger over my lips to ask him to be quieter. Now, every day he calls me white shit.”
“Is that why you didn’t want to ride the bus this morning?”
With tears in her eyes, she nodded.
I said, “I’m sorry I yelled at you. Let’s figure out what we’re going to do about this.” I rapidly searched 10-year-old me. College students were cool. I spoke on the fly. “Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to find two college students and ask for their advice. One of them has to be from a racial minority.” Once again, I wanted her to have a positive experience with a person of a different race to offset the negative one she had been having.
I found out later she picked Katie and Abdalis. I was proud of her choice. Both were super sharp and kind. Abdalis was from Puerto Rico. I wish I could remember their advice, but whatever it was, it worked; my daughter confidently got on the bus the next morning.
Meanwhile, I had called the school principal — a white female — and said, “I’m going to tell you a story, and I need your assurance that this will be handled constructively. The boy in question is only behaving the way he is because he’s in pain. I don’t want him punished; I want him helped.” Later, the principal called me. She had found out from the bus driver who the boy was. The principal said, “Dr. Bull, you’re right. The boy has had a tough life already. But he has a good mother, and I’m working with her to address this.”
The next year we were back in East Tennessee, where I began teaching at the same Baptist college from which my father had retired the previous year. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, our family went to a march in Dandridge — Tennessee’s second-oldest post-colonial city and the county seat where Davy Crocket got his marriage license. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, Jefferson County also has one documented case of a lynching. While fewer than many Southern counties, that is still one too many.
The march was assembling at a parking lot at the east end of the earthen levee that separates Dandridge from the TVA lake formed by Douglas Dam further west. Rather than walk around the levee, I suggested we climb the steep grassy bank and walk along the top, 50 feet up. My 6-year-old son scrambled up a few strides ahead of the rest of us. When he got to the top, he paused, spread his arms wide and yelled, “WE’RE RICH!”
I had no idea what would give a feeling of wealth to the son of a professor making not much above the poverty line for a family of four in the state of Tennessee. When I arrived at the crest of the levee, a stiff breeze hit me in the face. The wind was creating a light chop on the lake. The bright sunrise dancing on the water was creating what looked like several square miles of sparkling diamonds. A sense of abundance spread through me as I rejoiced that my son found joy in the beauty of a sparkling lake. Two hundred yards away, a congregation of Black folk and white folk and a few Native American and Asian folk were gathering to honor the life, legacy and exhortations of Martin Luther King. I had a tremendous sense of connection to fellow humans of every race and creed. I looked at my family, smiled and said, “Yeah, we’re rich.”
Brad Bull has served as a hospital chaplain, associate pastor, substitute teacher and university professor at both sectarian and public schools. He currently works as a private-practice marriage and family therapist, writer and speaker. His counseling and retreat services operate from DrBradBull.com.
Some hard questions for reflection on this MLK Day | Opinion by Sid Smith III