Written by Leslie Criss
“I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort, where we overlap.” — Ani DiFranco
My 30-year tenure in the newspaper business was spread over four papers, all located here in the state of my birth.
With no exception, at least one reader in each community served by those papers sent a message each March or April in response to stories written about African American members of the community.
The message, paraphrased for the sake of brevity and benevolence: Black History Month is February, and February is over.
Sad, but true.
To those who left a name with the message, I made a call or sent an email, trying to offer a bit of enlightenment. Can you say starry-eyed idealist?
It’s hard for even the smallest amount of light to squeeze its way into a tightly sealed tunnel. Still, it’s imperative to try.
My friend Miss Velma reminded me of this every time we visited.
She was one of a small group of women I was interviewing for The Vicksburg Post. My story would be about how these women were the backbone of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Vicksburg.
During my time with these amazing women, I heard Velma say she had let her flowerbeds go because she just didn’t have the energy to keep them planted and weeded and watered. She was, after all, in her late 70s.
When I offered my services as tender of her flowerbeds, she politely declined my help. But I told her I missed having no yard of my own in Vicksburg.
Finally, Velma relented, and digging in the dirt and watching things grow became a part of my future.
In the late afternoons a few times a week, I’d show up at Velma’s house to prepare her long-neglected flowerbeds for new plants.
When I’d come to a stopping place with my gardening, Velma would join me on her front porch, a glass of ice water in hand, and we’d sit and talk.
On that porch, seeds were sown for a valued friendship, and through the years we cultivated it with care until Velma’s death in 2012.
The stories she shared were personal and powerful. She talked about her job at First National Bank in the ’60s. The only black employee, Velma would be included in lunch invitations, but she always declined, reminding her co-workers there were few restaurants where she would be allowed.
The thought of this wonderful person being hurt for no other reason but the pigmentation of her skin made me so angry. But in Velma, I saw no signs of anger.
“You’ve got to forgive, Les,” she told me, on more than one occasion.
It was one of the best lessons ever taught to me.
Once, when I sat inside her home visiting, Velma received a phone call. She told the caller she was talking to her friend from the newspaper. The caller must have asked for more information.
It would be the first of many times I’d hear Velma describe me in a special way: “She is my daughter who didn’t stay in the oven long enough.”
It remains the greatest compliment I’ve ever received.
Leslie Criss is the executive editor of Invitation magazine. Read her columns at invitationmag.com/between-the-lines.