This I Believe: Licking the Spoon
In the 1960’s, Blacks began to come through the front doors of the south. It was “freedom now, freedom now,” and the times were alive with the excitement and activism of social change. To many Whites, it was a time of hostility for civil rights agitators. For many Blacks it was a time of the fulfillment of long standing dreams.
I came to Gainesville, Florida, as a young idealist from Kentucky. I began graduate studies at the University. I had grown up with the polite discrimination of my Kentucky world, and I grew to question much of the “Whiteness” by which I had been surrounded.
The Civil Rights Movement came visibly to Gainesville with protests and demonstrations. I was excited by the opportunity to show my budding liberal growth. I was caught up in my zeal to purify the world and rectify ancient evils. I got involved!
I had heard the plan to admit the first black graduate student ever to attend the University of Florida. When the student, a woman named Johnnie Ruth, came to the campus I made it a point to talk with her and to be sensitive to the pressures I knew she would face.
Many of the university administrators were telling her that, “Whatever you do here will reflect upon others of your race.” I considered theirs a burdensome and unfair perception, which regarded Johnnie Ruth not as an individual, but presumptuously as a token figure for all African Americans.
I was quite aware of the social and academic pressures that would buffet Johnnie Ruth as she plunged into graduate study and full of my own graduate disciplines –psychology, education, and counseling – I knew that I could be a source of comfort and acceptance and friendship to her.
I tried hard, self-consciously hard. I listened. I invited her to lunch on many occasions. I employed all the new skills I was eagerly learning from my work in the helping professions, and I sensed failure. Johnnie Ruth spent some time with me but she seemed not to allow herself to be touched by my concerns.
One day my wife Mary met Johnnie Ruth and there developed an almost instant communication between the two. They became close friends and shared, each with the other, a special level of beauty and significance.
Johnnie Ruth became a frequent visitor to our student apartment and we welcomed her companionship, though there were some ominous rumblings from some neighbors about the presence of a black woman in married student housing. Johnnie Ruth brought her world to us as she shared the thoughts, experiences, and humor of her people. The three of us shared happy times together and many fine hours of good eating.
One evening, as the two women puttered and muttered together over some food in the making, I answered an unexpected knock at the door. There stood Mary’s cousin Wayne with an uncertain grin on his face. “I was on my way to Daytona to celebrate the end of school. I heard you people were in Gainesville, and I thought I would see if I could find you.”
I welcomed Wayne and implored him to stay for supper, but my thoughts raced. I did not really know Wayne well. I’d only briefly met him before. I worried that he would be insensitive, or even unkind to Johnnie Ruth. I knew that Wayne had grown up and spent his entire life in a small rural southern town, and that made the prospects of his acceptance of Johnnie Ruth seem far-fetched. I found the pleasantries of polite conversation hard to carry off in the midst of my worries.
In the kitchen, Johnnie Ruth stirred the pie filling. She whipped it easily with a large spoon. Then Johnnie Ruth came over to us and set the bowl of pie filling down on the table. She took up the big spoon, heavy with sweet filling, licked it on one side, and said, “I think it’s about ready for the oven, what do you think?” And with that, she extended the spoon to Wayne for sampling.
My mind buzzed, it was as though time had stopped. I knew all to well what it was for many whites in the south to even consider eating after a black. There was nothing more taboo in a large part of that society. I remember thinking as I waited some cliché of the times, “It’s a test of fire,” so I averted my eyes.
Wayne, without the slightest hesitation, simply licked the spoon offered him and mumbled, “Umm . . . yeah. It is certainly ready. It’s good!” And that was all there was to it.
Later, Wayne excused himself and with many compliments to the cooks, he went on his way. It had been a pleasant time of good food and quiet conversation; a nice evening. As Johnnie Ruth came to sit and relax a bit after the work was done, she simply said, “I knew that boy was alright when he licked that spoon.”
I realized that, in so many ways, Johnnie Ruth had said it all. Wayne had tasted the licking spoon and that, like Mary’s simple and spontaneous friendship, had meant more to Johnnie Ruth’s sense of acceptability and dignity than had my own month-long program of concerned efforts. It was the psychology of licking the spoon.
Lord, I smiled!
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