Heartbreak in Tennessee
A short tale of racism’s betrayal of innocence
Idealism and dreaming marked Alicia’s childhood. She trusted in humanity’s goodness. Her Christian parents, who had raised her in a multicultural home in Jamaica, instilled that belief in her. Jamaica’s motto is Out of Many, One People, as reflected in her family. Her mother was from Honduras, and her father was Jamaican. They had always encouraged her to be proud of her heritage and to embrace the differences that made her unique.
So when Alicia’s parents sent her to a Christian college in Tennessee in the late 80s, she was excited. Her parents hoped the school would provide her with a safe and nurturing environment. Alicia saw it as an occasion to expand her knowledge of her faith and connect with those who shared her values. The lush hills and warm community gave Alicia solace, despite her distance from home, but she quickly realized things were not as simple as she had imagined.
For starters, she was one of only two students of color at the school. She didn’t feel unwelcome, exactly, but she couldn’t help but feel like she stood out. Homogeneous surroundings made her feel like an outsider. She was accustomed to diversity.
That wasn’t the only challenge she faced. Alicia had always been open-minded about dating. She didn’t care about race or ethnicity as long as she liked the person. So when she met a guy from a farm in Ohio named Jack—he with warm brown eyes and a contagious smile—she didn’t think twice about their differences.
Jack was kind and funny, and they had a lot in common. They clicked instantly, bonding over their shared love of books and music, and they both had a passion for helping others. She felt drawn to him, his simple confidence, and how he made her feel like she belonged. They quickly became friends, and before she knew it, Alicia fell for him.
But then something happened she hadn’t expected. Jack’s best friend, a guy named Nate—his childhood friend—took her aside one day, his voice low and serious. He advised her against a relationship with Jack. He expressed that their friendship couldn’t develop because they couldn’t wed.
Alicia hadn’t even thought of marriage. Marriage! They were becoming acquainted. Did this mean they couldn’t be friends? Nate said he would talk to Jack as well. When she asked why, he hesitated momentarily.
“Why, he’s white, and you’re not.”
Alicia felt her heart sink, her ideals shattering into a thousand sharp pieces.
“You’re a great girl, Alicia, but you and Jack can’t marry. It’s just not something people in our small town in Ohio would accept.”
Alicia was stunned. She had never experienced racism before, and that it was coming from someone she considered a friend made it even worse. She tried to argue with Nate, to tell him that someone’s race shouldn’t matter when it came to love and marriage. Anyway, why talk about marriage or love now? But he just shook his head and walked away.
After that conversation with Nate, things changed between her and Jack. He started avoiding her, and when they spoke, he wouldn’t look at her but focused on a spot a little above her head. It made her feel as if she didn’t exist. She felt the weight of his silence like a boulder on her chest, the ache of rejection and betrayal. Alicia’s heart broke for two reasons. Alicia liked Jack, yes, but experiencing racism for the first time hurt. She felt the sting of prejudice, the crushing weight of bigotry, the bitter taste of injustice. Alicia felt even more disconnected from herself.
She tried to push past it, telling herself it didn’t matter. She felt sad every time she encountered Jack, Nate, or their friends. It was as if she missed something she never desired. With her eyes downcast and her heart heavy, she wandered the campus like a ghost. Although she saw the surrounding beauty, the colors and shapes felt muted and dull. She felt as if she was a shadow, a whisper, a memory.
One day after morning prayers, as she was walking to an early morning class, Alicia saw Nate coming towards her. She tried to ignore him, but he turned to walk in the same direction and stepped beside her.
“Look, Alicia. I needed to say something before things escalated, although you may believe I was out of line. I had to talk to you and Jack. Even if he likes you, it’s still a waste of time and energy.”
Alicia stopped walking and turned to face him. “It wasn’t just out of line, Nate. It was racist.”
“Was it? No, it wasn’t. I’m only being realistic. I don’t think Jack, his family, or the town could ever see past your differences.”
Alicia felt tears prick at the corners of her eyes.
“You mean you don’t see past our differences, right? So that’s it? I’m just supposed not to like him, be friends with him because I’m not white?”
Nate shook his head.
“No. I didn’t say you couldn’t be friends, but if you like him, you must give him space to find someone more suitable. Come on. Be realistic. Jack’s a good guy, but he’s also just a farm boy. We grew up on farms near the same small town and I guess it did not expose us to different things; and you are very different, too, um…exotic.”
Alicia thought about Nate’s words. She wasn’t naïve. She thought she now understood racism’s existence and its resistance to change.
“Yeah, well, what did Jesus teach us? Why should my being different matter? I wish you and Jack could see past my otherness…the color of my skin, my accent. I wish you could embrace me as not only a sister in Christ but a fellow human, even though I’m from a place that’s foreign to this one, even though I look different.”
Nate nodded, frowning.
“That’s not the reality.”
Alicia took a deep breath.
“So, even if it’s against our Christian principles, even if it’s wrong?”
Alicia took another breath.
“You and Jack are both weak. As a so-called friend, a human being, my accent and brown skin shouldn’t matter.”
“You’re a smart, talented, and beautiful girl, Alicia.”
Alicia decided at that moment she’d had enough.
“You know what, I refuse to let you or anyone else tell me I’m ‘less than’ because I don’t look and speak like y’all do.”
Alicia smiled weakly, turned, and walked away. As she did, she couldn’t help but wonder what the future held. She didn’t know if she could ever forget Jack, but she also knew that she couldn’t change who she was. Alicia was proud of her heritage, and she wouldn’t let anyone make her feel like she was less than worthy.
She watched the sun rise over the hills, painting the sky with vibrant colors, the birds taking flight in unison, and felt the warmth of the morning. And she realized the color of her skin or the prejudice of others did not define her. Her dreams, her hopes, and her ideals did. Her ability to love, forgive, and grow did.
Alicia took a deep breath and kept walking to class.
She looked into transferring to a state college or university. She would not return.
Did she know the path ahead was full of obstacles and challenges that would test her faith?
Did she realize that sometimes it would mean facing hard truths and dealing with the world’s ugly realities?
But it was worth it, wasn’t it?
Don’t people possess inherent goodness even in the face of adversity?
Despite the overwhelming evidence against it, I maintain my belief in the inherent goodness of humans. I have faith in our combined intelligence and the potential to overcome any challenge through collaboration. I have faith in the triumph of our noblest qualities and the ultimate victory of love.
It is an undeniable fact that light cannot exist without darkness. This holds true in various aspects of life, symbolizing balance and contrast. Just as light illuminates and brings clarity, darkness provides depth and perspective, showcasing the intrinsic connection between opposites.
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