“I’ve got the perfect place for lunch today,” my editor beamed.
The lines on his bearded face deepened with excitement. Standing up from his desk, he stared out of the large window that surrounded the newsroom and stretched his long limbs with anticipation. In sight was a picturesque view of the harbor, a few sail boats were moving inland.
It was lunchtime in my small town; I was an intern reporter at the local paper. Around noon, the downtown streets were flooded with locals taking advantage of the neighborhood eateries.
“Surely you’ve eaten there before, Cece?” he asked with the sweetest southern drawl.
“No sir, can’t say that I have.”
It was my first week on the job, and as a way to welcome me to the team, my boss offered to take me to lunch at a well known café on Main Street.*
I’ve been in that town all my life, and I’ve never once eaten downtown, nor had the inclination to do so. Actually, at that point in my life, I couldn’t recall if I ever saw anyone that looked like me eat at a downtown restaurant. As a child, I would accompany my mother to Main Street to pay a few bills and shop — but never eat.
The mere thought frightened me.
Was this how my great grandmother and grandmother felt under the unforgiving sun of the Jim Crow south?
Was this how the Jena 6 felt when they saw the noose hung from the tree?
Was this how Recy Taylor felt when she was kidnapped by her rapists?
“Well, you’re going to love it,” he assured me. “They have the best fried chicken salad, ever.”
We gathered our belongings and headed out the door; me, however, with anxiety and fear in tow.
With each step, I felt even more nauseous.
Was I really going to eat there?
When I was a teenager, the only African-Americans I saw entering restaurants were going in through the backdoor as hired help, not as customers.
Not to say that we didn’t. I personally never saw any. So I had no point of reference. I didn’t know what to expect.
We entered the building.
“There’s such-and-so, he’s a judge, and over there is such-and-so, she’s a lawyer,” my boss said in a hushed tone.
I saw them but what piqued my interest was the well dressed African-American man surrounded by colleagues at a table in the center of the room.
“Who’s that?” I spoke softly, tilting my head in the gentlemen’s direction.
My boss chuckled quietly because he understood why I asked the question.
“That’s such-and-so, he’s a city councilman.
As we ordered and awaited our food, the councilman and his party stood to exit the room. My boss waved slightly which prompted them to stop by our table. They exchanged pleasantries.
“…and allow me to introduce you to, Cece Harbor, our newest reporter,” he continued. I shook hands with about six people. The councilman squeezed my hand a little.
I felt my anxiety slowly disappear.
I looked around the restaurant and saw that we had a small captive audience, including a few from the kitchen staff peering around the corner. I nodded at them in respect.
As we ate our lunches, I kept going over and over in my mind that day the cause for such fear. The truth is I was taught, consciously and subconsciously that there was a limit to what freedoms I should enjoy; not that I wasn’t deserving… but limits, no less.
Sadly there are those of us that still carry certain shackles in our minds…and so we choose to stay within the confines of the familiar. And then there are those of us who in spite of fear, anxiety and uncertainty still march forward no matter how hard the walk, no matter what the cost because we believe that we know that there’s something more…and that we do deserve better.
Isn’t that how change begins?
Oh and you know what? – My editor was right, the chicken salad was delicious.