There is a family tale that they tell about my great grandfather, the Bishop Samuel Henry Gapp. He was a minister and a missionary in the Moravian Church, and did lots of church planting in the Caribbean. The story goes that he was much loved there, and the locals would always say about him, “that Bishop Gapp, he may be a white man, but he sure does have a black heart.” (let that one sink in)
His daughter, my grandmother, Florence Gapp, was raised in Bethlehem PA around the Moravian Church, and married a civil engineer who put a ring on her finger, and swept her off to Cuba where he was to build the railroad for the first 10 years of their marriage. They had their three children their, my father being the middle one. In Cuba, they had a gardener that became a beloved friend to my grandparents. His name was Prince Purple. They wanted to honor him by giving my dad his name, as a middle name. When they took my dad home to be baptized, the beloved, black-hearted Bishop Gapp absolutely forbade them to name one of his grandchildren after a black man. The kindhearted missionary who loved his Caribbean church members bumped right into his own racist limit. My father tells the story of how he has no middle name, proudly naming the way his parents loved Prince Purple.
My parents raised me intentionally, having learned the words of MLK, Jr. and the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement. My childhood best friend (Barbara) was black. Her father and my dad worked together and they were good friends too, bonding while in test pilot school together. We were inseparable through high school, and our parents were proud when we called each other sisters. I think my parents thought they had succeed in their MLK dream — raising me loving The Cosby Show, RunDMC, and all the Spike Lee movies.
That is, of course, until the first time I brought home a black boyfriend, well into my college years. Then it was their turn to bump up against their own racism — vehemently arguing with me a “separate but equal” stance that they had evidently discussed with Barbara’s dad. I was not deterred by their arguments. Somewhere in my DNA, I must be carrying the soul of Bishop Gapp, because in my 20’s and 30’s I did lots of voluntary mission work in the Caribbean and Latin America — Guatemala, Jamaica, Puerto Rico. And although I dated men from all nationalities and almost every continent, I finally landed on a life partner from Panama – a beautiful Black Latino man.
When I told my parents I was pregnant, they bumped into their racism once again… but this time, their love for their grandchild overcame their stubborn thinking and their hearts were stretched past the point of no return. Raising a biracial child for the past twelve years has both challenged me to look into the biases of my own heart, and stretched my love further than I could ever imagine.
I share this lineage I have, reflecting on how each generation in my family chose to be an “ally” and how each generation bumped up against their own prejudices, even as they paved the way for racial reconciliation in their own era, for one reason.
Because many of my white friends are trying on this word “ally” for the very first time, and I want to encourage them however I can. It is 2020 and the world is in a reckoning, and people are committing to being an ally for the first time ever. So, I want to share how I have experienced being an ally, coming from a long lineage. Here is some advice, though I still don’t consider myself an expert:
- You will be forced to confront your own biases, prejudices, and limits. Don’t stop when this happens. Lean in, learn from your mistakes, strengthen your resolve, and keep going. Don’t let your mistakes deter you from trying harder. This may be the most important part.
- Relationships are the key. My great grandfather loved his church members, my grandparents loved their gardener, my parents loved Barbara’s parents, and I loved my life partner. We learned from these people, and we let these people lead us in reconciling relationship.
- And maybe, most important of all, know that the work of being an ally is all about cathedral building. Each one of us is laying the brickwork for our time, but we will never truly see the cathedral done. I do this work not just for my son — but for the world of my grandson’s grandson.
I am so grateful for the generations who taught me through their own stories what it means to be an ally. Even with each of us doing our very best, it has still taken 4+ generations to eradicate the biases in our own hearts. (And I still wait for the day when my son comes home and forces me to stretch my own thinking once again.) I am still not an expert, but if I can help someone along the way, I am always willing to engage in conversation with anyone who wants to try on the term “white ally.”
And I hope, that when I get to the end of my life, they can say of me, “She may have been a white girl, but she sure did have a black heart.”
If that is the case, then I have carried the legacy well.