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The Sons of Confederate Veterans, who want to keep all memorials to the South’s cause and its soldiers in the Civil War in place, had this billboard placed in Laurel, Miss., in June 2020, as protests against George Floyd’s death swept the U.S. The city is the setting for HGTV’s hit show “Home Town.” Photo by Chera Sherman-Breland.

‘I Know Your Secrets’: White Mother of Black Sons on 27 Years of Racial Profiling in South Mississippi

One beautiful spring day in 1978, I was doing what I did best at the tender age of 4. I was running barefoot through the cool clover and grass, occasionally stopping to pick and taste sweet honeysuckle. My dad, my hero, came out and said those words all little girls want to hear: “Let’s go for a ride to the store, baby.”

With my pigtails flying in the wind and riding that bumpy country road, I was the happiest little girl in the world. While dad was getting what he needed at our little country store in Hebron, Miss., I was tiptoeing barefoot to the ice-cream freezer, begging for one of those orange-sherbert push-ups. After pleasantries with the nice man at the register, I bounced my little pigtails back outside and into the jeep.

I looked up and saw a black man and his son getting gas. “Look daddy! It’s a n*gger! Look!” I exclaimed like I was looking at zoo animals. My father’s face turned a certain shade of red with a look that both frightened me and confused me.

I turned and looked at the black man and saw something that would subconsciously change my heart, my soul and the trajectory of my life. The sheer pain in his eyes pierced my soul like nothing I had ever experienced before. There was no anger. Only hurt and utter degradation.

He stood there frozen, looking at me and looking down at his son. His son, paralyzed in fear, did not move or say a word. My dad snatched me up and told me “to be quiet, and let’s go!” My heart sank. The entire way home, my heart was beating fast. My little 4-year-old mind could not possibly understand what just happened. For the first time, I felt an anxiousness, an uncertainty in my perfect world.

I had heard people around me use this word to describe black people my entire life, at home, church, around friends and neighbors, at school and pretty much everywhere. And they continued to after my daddy’s embarrassment that day. So what did I do wrong?

What I said and did that day soon became a running punchline to a story of embarrassment for me, but pride and entertainment for people in my life as they retold the story. I soon had an epiphany, if you will, that you are “not racist” if you only call black people n*ggers in the presence of white people.

Chera Sherman-Breland, who grew up conservative in a tiny Mississippi town—she still lives nearby—now volunteers with Rev. William Barber and others with the Poor People’s Campaign in a fight for economic and social justice. Photo courtesy Chera Sherman-Breland.

In Today’s Society, Racism Thrives and Lives by Deniability

I have grown up and lived my whole life in south Mississippi. Things are exactly the same now as they were in 1978. Most white people, white “Christians,” still believe they are not racist if they are nice to black people. They even help them in their time of need a lot of the time. They dote on young black athletes if they stay in line.

As a child, I lived in a utopian reality in Hebron, a ridiculously small community just west of Laurel, Miss. The community had an invisible line dividing the white community and the black community. We all, pretty much, lived in harmony. Everyone knew their place, and everyone knew not to “mix.” Our home was on the border of this line.

People around me were loving and generous, for the most part. Our near-perfect, very white and well-off community had countless baseball games, vacation Bible schools every summer in our white churches and numerous gatherings at the historical community center with food, fun and fellowship. My mom and dad worked hard, but we were poor compared to everyone else. Everyone knew we were much less financially fortunate, but rarely did I see anyone treat us as such. When we were really in need, our neighbors and church family would pull together to help us, as they would for anyone else.

But behind closed doors, at most white gatherings and even at churches, they still use the n-word for black people even now. Those who have stopped saying that word have replaced it with “animals” or “thugs,” all while diminishing and discounting any experiences of racism a black person may have.

In today’s society, racism thrives and lives by deniability. People know full well racism is wrong and even denounce it publicly, all while telling their white daughters at home they better not ever attempt to date a black guy. This is how racism, demeaning stereotypes and implicit bias are passed down from generation to generation. It is not your fault this has been ingrained in you. It is your fault if you refuse to see it as an adult and do something to break the hate cycle.

At 18 years old, I met the love of my life. He happened to be black. He was a good kid. He had just graduated high school and was set to go off to basic training soon for the U.S. Army. His father and mother were still married. His dad was an extremely hard worker and an amazing provider.

I had never dated a black guy before. Just like many other white girls, I had always known there would be consequences if I did. Jerry and I had an instant, deep, undeniable connection. We became best friends for about six months before realizing we were in love. The months following were indescribable. My “friends,” whom I considered to be family, disowned me. I was purged into homelessness with not one thing to my name, including a vehicle I was paying for. I was completely ostracized from most of my family.

Remember, all of them were “Christians” and “not racist.”

You cannot imagine what it is like to be 18 years old, planning to enroll in college that fall, working full time, looking forward to a future, to all of a sudden have no one and nothing. Jerry and I knew we loved each other. Alas, we were not prepared for the life we were thrust into.

Life would have been a lot easier for the both of us if we had just stopped seeing each other. I would have had a roof over my head again and would have been able to go to college. If I could have just resigned myself to a life of hypocrisy. There was never a hesitation from either one of us. We knew what we had to do and did it. It took quite a while before what I called a miracle happened. Those who had completely disowned me began searching their souls and Bibles.

They realized God did not teach them racism, hate, bias or stereotypes. Society taught them that. Today, my family loves Jerry as their own son. They love our sons as much as any grandchild. That is love. If this can be the outcome for my family, it can be for yours, too. All you must do is love fully and completely, acknowledge, listen, learn and change.

We Can Never Have Change Without Truth

Jerry and I have endured 27 years of racial profiling by the police, guns drawn on us because he “fit the description.” I’ve been called a “n*gger lover” in front of my 3-year-old child; I’ve been yelled at and harassed by racists; we’ve lost jobs because we were an interracial couple; we’ve watched our son cry his eyes out because girls at school told him they couldn’t date him because he’s biracial.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, who want to keep all memorials to the South’s cause and its soldiers in the Civil War in place, had this billboard placed in Laurel, Miss., in June 2020, as protests against George Floyd’s death swept the U.S. The city is the setting for HGTV’s hit show “Home Town.” Photo by Donna Ladd

I’ve also been attacked on social media for calling out racism and for having a black husband; we have been threatened numerous times; I have seen that same hurt and degradation I saw on that man’s face when I was 4 years old in my own sons’ faces, as well as my husband’s. I could go on and on. I have witnessed first hand what it’s like for black people in this state and in this country.

If you do not live in fear daily that your children may be targeted and killed simply because of the color of their skin, then you should never have the audacity to dismiss or diminish people’s experiences. In the last four years, we have watched supposed allies of ours support another uprising of hate and racism in this country. Watching people go backward into this abyss of racism being acceptable again is the worst of all. It forces me, as a mother of two biracial, black sons and the wife of a black man, to stand up and call out racism.

So, hell yes, this fiercely protective mama will do everything in my power to stamp out racism in this state and in this country. I will go to my grave doing what I can to create real change, through facing those uncomfortable truths. We can never have change without truth. Truth and acknowledgement must come first.

See, you can’t put up a sign, in the middle of Laurel, Miss., during a time like this, that reads: “Happy birthday Jefferson Davis (from) The Sons of Confederate Veterans” and claim it has nothing to do with racism. I grew up around you all. I know your secrets. Your denial does not work with me.

That is exactly why you hate me. You hate me because you cannot hide from the truth with me. I know exactly what your cloaked deniability language means. I know what your silence means. I know what the dog whistles are. I know full well, and I will never allow anyone to get away with it ever again. The purpose is to hopefully have you take an honest look at yourself and finally decide to be honest about your intent and understand you are part of the problem. Ephesians 4:25 says, “Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbor: for we are members one of another.”

Basically stated, the truth is the only thing that will set you free and allow you to be one with of your fellow man. Aren’t you tired of the hate? Aren’t you tired of seeing the pain and hurt? You are the only one who can change it. Acknowledge, listen, learn and change.

I grew up in south Mississippi. I cannot speak about any other areas. All I can tell you is your hate has kept Mississippi at the bottom. Your hate will continue to keep Mississippi at the bottom. It is past time for real change. Your life, your community, your country and your spirit will only be better for it.

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected] We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

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