Walk a Mile in Her Shoes
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In my last blog I introduced Step four: “Do not judge/Strip away labels and stereotypes. The example was the type cast that Colonel Buckner, an authority, had regarding abolitionists as law breakers. Mrs. Haviland was considered suspicious for delivering a trunk of blankets, warm clothes, and other monetary assistance and aid for Calvin Fairbanks in a Kentucky jail because he was an abolitionist who broke the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and attempted to assist a slave to freedom. Laura’s wise countenance and responses never gave the jailer, Buckner, credence to pursue an arrest of her. On the opposite spectrum, Buckner was labeled an upright, religious leader for teaching Sunday School at his Methodist Church, yet when quibbling with Laura, he was speechless when she quoted the Scriptures in the defense of God’s good creation of all human beings, regardless of race or creed, as equal and worthy of redemption through Christ’s sacrifice. Stereotypes and labels can certainly be misleading and fool us.
Laura tried to think the best of others and not judge; and she worked diligently to correct misguided stereotypes and labels. Another important example of a misinformed label and stereotype is the perception that 19th century Americans had regarding slavery. Laura found that many naysayers in the North believed that most slave owners were not so bad, and they put the best interest of their slaves first and foremost. After the death of Laura’s husband and baby daughter, her children were old enough to fend for themselves and there were plenty of extended family close by, so Laura decided to make an undercover trip to find Jane White in Kentucky. Jane was the wife of John White, who hid in one of the Underground Railroad stations, on Laura’s watch. John had hoped to get a message to Jane that he was free and hoped eventually for her escape as well. Giving this message to Jane was Laura’s primary purpose for going undercover, but she also wanted to discover how some of the so-called finest slaveholders treated their slaves. Laura was passed off as Mary Edgerton’s Aunt Smith. Mary, a good friend to all, had white skin but was partly African, though her ethnicity was not obvious to the naked eye. Because Laura looked so much like Mary’s mother, it was decided that it would be easy to pass as Mary’s aunt. When the two ladies pulled into the Stevens family plantation, Mary introduced Laura to Jane White as Aunt Smith. Following introductions, the two ladies were ushered into the basement, which served as the kitchen for the Stevens household. Benjamin Stevens was considered a very, kind master. Surrounding planters boasted that Stevens’s slaves believed they were white. Laura relays it in this way.
“Creating a mental picture in my mind, this was the first slave dining area I had encountered, and I wanted to soak in every detail. There on the bare table, made of two long, rough boards on crossed legs, was a large pitcher with a broken top. It was filled with as much sour milk as the pitcher would allow. There were corn dodgers spread out at convenient distances across the table, a saucer of greens and a small piece of pork cut in thin slices. These were all divided among the twelve men and women slaves who sat on broken chairs. Everyone sat on the edge of their seat. All their utensils and earthen vessels, dishes and plates were broken. Not one whole plate or dish was in sight. Yet the crew ate with zest, and as there were not enough utensils, each shared a fork or knife without any thought of disdain or disgust.”
It was appalling for Laura to think that this cruel task master, Benjamin Stevens was considered one of the best slaveholders! How could anyone think that a kind slave master would not provide better for those who worked hard and long hours for him. We will return to the story of John and Jane White later in this series. Suffice it to say that Mrs. Haviland had much to share concerning her findings into the fate of these poor slaves upon her return home to her family and friends.
How do we avoid judging others and overcoming the stereotypical myths about others? Learn a person’s history. Be willing to experience discomfort in our efforts to understand another human being. Seeking out the facts, the truth within the full context in a situation. I am concerned that many in our country are simply blinded by the prejudice of “my rights.” I have participated in a wonderful group that helps people out of poverty. I am an ally to a lovely woman, Karin, who comes from a strict religious group. She and her young daughter were shunned because of her decision to step away from the cultural mores adhered to by their group. Karin joined our “out of poverty” group to better her life by shoring up many different types of resources. Here, she found a group where she was accepted and loved. Her daughter Angie, meanwhile, had grown up in a confused world, experienced trauma, and made some very unfortunate choices that included drugs and sexual exploitation. Both Karin and Angie, who had a small child, were in this group. As some of their relational struggles began to bleed out emotionally into the larger group, the fate of Angie’s young child was at stake. Unfortunately, sides were chosen, and lines were drawn- instead of choosing to accept and love both women who had already experienced abandonment. My heart prays that these two women will find their way back to each other so that this young child will have the love of both. Most of all I am hoping that we can learn from this difficult situation and learn to “walk a day in another’s shoes” before we judge others. As people who serve one another, we should always look for the win-win, the love of God is greater than our short-sightedness and judgmental attitudes.