For new Seattle Times social-justice columnist Tyrone Beason, history — his own and that of the community that shaped him — serves as the foundation for his views on the issues we face today.
On the first day of second grade at my elementary school in Kentucky, my teacher asked me whether I knew of a woman she remembered from way back who had the same last name as mine. Excitedly, I said yes, that’s my grandmother, thinking the two were old friends.
Pride swept over me as imaginary scenes played in my head of the two of them hanging out together: my teacher, an elegant white woman who must have been in her 40s, and my grandmother, a 60-something matriarch whose first name was Alpha and middle name was Omega, and who went by the name Big Mama to all the kids in the family. I pictured them drinking lemonades on front porches, snapping buckets full of green beans from backyard gardens, gossiping about births, illnesses and deaths the way people did in small towns.
My teacher looked excited too.
She leaned in close as if she couldn’t hold back a thrilling surprise and told me how they knew each other.
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“She used to clean my house,” my teacher said.
Big Mama was the beginning and the end to me, as the Greek words in her Biblical name suggest. Proud, stern, selfless, loving. This poor black woman raised a houseful of children mostly on her own in the Jim Crow South, where many African Americans had to work for whites as housekeepers, nannies, cooks and farm laborers to provide for their families and where black people weren’t at liberty to mix with white people as equals, the way they did in my childhood imagination.
Swaying to the choir at church on Sundays, she might have been sick and tired of being sick and tired — and her body might have been weary — but she never let that dim her faith because she knew God was watching.
She used to give me a five-dollar bill for every “A” I made on my report card, as if my future success might make every miserable thing that ever happened to every beatdown black person in America mean something.
She invested in me not just a grandmother’s love but the hope of an entire race.
It was a lot for a little boy to carry on his shoulders, especially one whose parents went to segregated schools early on, who attended Head Start and who bought his school meals with a free-lunch card. But it wasn’t nearly as heavy as being told the woman you’d placed on a pedestal used to sweep your teacher’s floors.
My teacher surely didn’t mean to cause me any harm. As I look back on my schooling in the south, I recall countless other situations in which she and other teachers, white and black, expressed pride in me and pushed me to fulfill my potential, never letting on that the color of my skin might pose an obstacle to my success the way it had for my elders.
But something changed that August day. Even at that age, I realized that I was living more than my own life, that a whole history of hardship, striving and injustice was born in me and I’d better not forget where — and what kind of people — I came from.
Big Mama was my dad’s mother. My mother’s mother, Grandma Ruth, who worked as a housekeeper by day and a restaurant cook by night, used to take me in her long red Plymouth to Woolworth’s when I was a kid. She’d sit me beside her at the counter of its soda fountain and grill, where only a generation before the act of a black customer doing a mundane thing like attempt to dine among whites at a lunch counter would’ve warranted calling the cops.
I was raised around people who did not believe that justice was theirs to have, who spoke as if racism, forced segregation and inequity had cruelly immunized them against the better angels of our country’s nature while leaving them at the whim of its basest practices.
They’d pick up their Bibles on their bed stands at night and weigh the virtues laid out in its verses against the daily mangling of those teachings, as those in power did unto African Americans as they never would have done unto themselves.
Somehow they managed to keep their heads held high in this life, while betting everything on glory in the afterlife.
When they imagined justice, their eyes were watching God.
And then they’d turn their eyes toward their children. Lord have mercy.
In us, they found evidence of things they had not been allowed to see.
I may not have been born in a climate of justice but the promise of justice and equal opportunity was born in me, right along with the tortured, miraculous story of my people.
Now I’ve been given the opportunity to write about justice, at a time when people with brown skin who mean no harm still risk having the cops called on them because they don’t look like they belong, setting into motion events that too often result in injury and death.
I’ll write about justice when every time I leave my home, I walk by a stunning number of people living on the streets rather than in stable housing, in a city so “woke” that we sleep with one eye open but can’t seem to see that we’re creating new kinds of exclusion, and not just for people of color.
I’ve been tasked with writing specifically about social justice in a country that continues to grant this highest form of grace as if it were a prize in a raffle for which only some have access to tickets.
Why do people like me keep complaining? Who am I to lecture strangers about oppression?
Because history isn’t the only thing that repeats itself — denial and dismissal do too. Because struggle has been written into my DNA.
When Big Mama baby-sat me at her house, I’d take it upon myself to tidy up so she wouldn’t have to. She’d smoke a Kools Light in her rocking chair in a room full of patchwork quilts and needlepoint blankets she’d made, watching a nerdy kid she just knew was going places show respect for where she came from.
Legal, economic, political and social justice for so many in our community remains elusive but I am living proof of the prevalence of poetic justice, of the present reaching back not to change history but to do right by it, of history redeeming itself in the progress of a native son.
When I think of justice, I turn my eyes toward my own history. But then I turn to you.
I traveled far to get here. But you and me, we have far to go.
Tyrone recently sat down with retired columnist Jerry Large to discuss his ideas about social justice and answer reader questions:
Do you have a question for Tyrone but you missed the Q&A? You can still ask it here: