Imagine that you wake up tomorrow to discover that you’ve been transported back in time 50 years. After the initial shock wears off, you hop into your car and drive to the local supermarket but instead of a Wal-Mart, you find a Woolworth’s five-and-dime.
Walking inside, you look around and even begin to try on some of the fashion trends that defined the 1960s. Moments later, the store clerk stops you and says, “Excuse me, you can’t try on clothes. You have to buy them first.” The clerk’s comment surprises you given the fact that almost everyone around you is trying on clothes before making a purchase.
After a few minutes of shopping, you notice a diner on the other side of the store. Anxious to taste a Coca-Cola Classic from an old-fashioned glass bottle, you make your way over. You order your Coke and then sit down to enjoy a taste of liquid history when the attendant at the lunch counter looks at you sternly, “You aren’t allowed to sit here. This is a White’s Only counter.”
For a young girl named Pernetha, this scenario was her daily reality as a child growing up in Jacksonville, Florida. This was the world she faced when she woke up each morning in a segregated south; a society that professed ‘Separate but Equal’ while enforcing the former and ignoring the latter. The shade of her skin meant that Pernetha had no place at the lunch counter and it meant that she couldn’t try on clothes like all her white friends. Needless to say, the injustices didn’t stop there.
Pernetha worked as a stylist at a Hair Cuttery in Jacksonville where I got my hair cut once a month. She knows exactly how to blend a No. 3 trim on the side with a 2-inch cut on top. Just the way I liked it.
I don’t have a lot in common with Pernetha. She’s a baby boomer African-American mother of two adult children. Her husband works his tail off at the Budweiser factory while she toils on her feet all day at the salon. I’m a white-collar, white-skinned father of three small kids with a wife that stays busy at home. Our differences don’t stop there. Based on our many conversations, it’s pretty clear that Pernetha and I have likely never voted for the same political candidate or marched for the same social causes. We are from two very different backgrounds with two divergent family histories.
What draws me to Pernetha each month isn’t simply her skills with the scissors, it’s her deep abiding faith in Jesus Christ.
A steady faith that becomes more apparent when she’s nudged to talk about her experience with racism in the South. Despite being surrounded by a culture that viewed her as less than human, Pernetha didn’t cling to a baggage of bitterness. And despite lacking the privileges that her white friends enjoyed as children, she let go of her inner hostilities a long time ago.
A few weeks ago, I asked her if she still experiences racism today. She graciously entertained my (apparently naïve) question. “Oh my yes. Not long ago, a lady came in here and said she didn’t want me to do her daughter’s hair because I was black.” I was as surprised by Pernetha’s story as she was amused by my question.
I kept prodding, “Doesn’t that make you really angry?” To which she replied: “Of course not. That’s between her and the good Lord so I don’t have to worry about that.”
It’s a rare thing to witness deep theological truths play out in a hair salon. But that’s the view I get from Pernetha’s chair. More than anything, I’ve learned from Pernetha that I have so much to learn and so very little to say.
We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering… Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you… Throw us in jail and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. – Martin Luther King Jr.