I am standing on the pavement outside the grey hound bus terminal in Jackson Mississippi. The wind is unusually chilly just short of freezing; a freak winter they say is strolling through the south and is in no hurry to leave.
I look up at the pictures of young well dressed black and white men and women alighting from the bus, other pictures where they are being handcuffed and being taken to jail followed by a jail mug shot of a 19 year old black girl whose immaculately coifed hair in the first picture is mussed up in the jail mug shot. She probably has been roughed up, but my mind does not want to go there.
It is a tremendous act of courage when few young students realize that the desegregation law for interstate transportation, instituted in 1947 is not being honored in the south, and decide to become what later came to be known as “freedom riders”, They pioneer the way in illustrating the essence of the law of desegregation of people on public transportation in the deep south risking their life and careers and their own personal freedom for the sake of those who could not stand up to the injustice.
Today people speak about the civil rights activism of those days and are quick to condemn the white folks and ride on the bandwagon of “how could the people do this to the poor black students……….”
Standing there after all these years of reading about civil rights and the segregation in the south, I never really could fathom how this level of segregation could be possible. My perception changes as I stand mingling with the events stamped in the wind.
At the bus stand in Jackson Mississippi touched by the imprint of the freedom riders I have déjà vu and recognize that discrimination is nothing unique to the USA. I feel I have seen it all my life from a slightly different vantage. I have seen the seeds of it and had it been allowed to grown unhampered by the fear and love of the Almighty and the final Day of Judgment, it could end like this …….
the only modifying factor between master, servant and slave is accountability to the Almighty, with an awareness of fear and love for Him.
I have a flashback…
I am no longer in the cold sidewalk outside the greyhound bus station in Jackson Mississippi where Niaz enthusiastically takes pictures and our hostess the wife of one of the freedom riders sits in the car holding on to the last vestiges of warmth as she patiently waits for us.
I am in Karachi in our house with Karachi’s eternal dust in the air on this sunny midafternoon weekend. I am roughly seven or eight years old. My mother has cooked something delicious and novel and it is one of the Muslim holidays after Ramadan. All my brothers have disappeared. She turns to me with the dish and instructs me to take it to her colleague’s house nearby whose daughter teaches in her private school.
We live on top of a hill made primarily of clay. In the summer it is very dusty before the rains come. In the winter after the rain it turns slippery and coats everything in a sickly white layer of clay.
Our house is in the vicinity of several homes of “foreigners” On the kitty corner left of our back gate are the “Aussies” I don’t know if their father is a diplomat or works for a foreign company but all four of their kids are my friends. Walking one block out of the back gate and turning left and going three blocks down is where Elfriede lives, the only child of German parents who leave her alone more often than not. Thus she ends up spending a lot of time with me and Lorraine (the Aussies). Walking straight out of the back gate of the house turning to the left around the first row of houses is a dusty path which is used as a short cut to the commercial area that lies beneath the hill.
On top of the hill just before the small dusty path that one has to climb down to reach the hustle and bustle of the commercial area is a large, spacious two-story house, which belongs to my mothers colleague. She also like my mother is an officer in APWA one of the largest women’s volunteer organizations for social improvement.
My mother hands me a covered dish and instructs me to deliver it to her colleague’s home. It is mid afternoon and the sun is bright but pleasantly warm for a winter morning. “Take S with you” she says. S is the eleven-year-old son of our servant, who is from the North.
I don’t know why my mother wants this little fellow to go with me, How can he be of any use to me. He is too small and too young to guard me in any manner, Can he stave off a dog or kill a scorpion that I may encounter in the cactuses that grow wild on the side of the road? Nevertheless I accept my mother’s decision, as girls from good families do not go out alone even at age seven. Reluctantly I have to tolerate this “kid” to accompany me. We start walking to the large house at the edge of the hill together silent as I do not know him and it is not good manners to chat with the servants kid unless you know him well which I do not. He too is silent but he leaps forward and rings the bell when we reach the front door.
Someone comes out of the kitchen door and beckons us in; unbeknownst to my innocent eyes the discrimination has begun. We go through the kitchen door into the informal living room with sofas and a large glass table. I give the dish to the mother and tell her it is from my mother. She thanks me effusively saying that my mother shouldn’t have taken so much trouble and disappears into the kitchen waving to what I thought “us” to sit down.
I sit down on the sofa very correctly as taught to me, with my knees together and hands folded in my lap, my feet tucked away hiding my dusty feet in the open sandals. I wave to him to sit down too.
He sits down on the other sofa and promptly puts his feet up on the sofa, sitting cross-legged. I am uncomfortable but I don’t want to offend him by telling him that it is bad manners to sit like that as a guest. The mother enters the den from the kitchen with a servant behind her carrying a tray with tall, slim, chilled glasses of mango squash.
I can hear her indrawn breath as if it is happening now. She says to S in a voice dripping with disgust and laced with contempt, the tone lowered to a growl “Take off your dirty feet and put them down” “apney gandey paoun nechay rakhoo!”.
I am shocked and embarrassed to the extreme. I have never heard my mother address a servant like this. I want the earth to open and swallow me. I am at a loss as what to do. I try not to look at the boy.
Out of the corner of my eye I note that his hazel eyes register surprise at our hostesses’ remark. He immediately puts his feet down, which dangle and do not quite reach the ground and simultaneously he reaches for the glass of mango squash from the tray that the servant is offering to me. We sip the juice in silence while the mother asks me about my family and I nod and murmur answers between sips; her face is creased in utmost contempt while she completely ignores the boy as if he is invisible.
It is the longest glass of juice that I have ever had to finish politely. Once we are done I spring to my feet, thank her and take off out of the kitchen door rushing to the gate to get away from these rich people who value their sofas more than their manners. I look at the servant boy, his hazel eyes are expressionless, and to my extreme surprise he is unfazed.
I almost run home and on reaching my house I find my brothers and my mother there. I tell them the whole story. My mother shakes her head disapprovingly; my brothers adopt the phrase “take off your dirty feet and put them down” and start bandying it around to each other making a drama out of it.
Standing under the sign of the freedom riders in Jackson MS, I wonder how many of the people who opposed desegregation found it impossible to bridge the gap between past slaves and themselves, because of the way they were raised.
How could one blame them when a Muslim women from a Muslim country found it difficult to treat a servant boy with dignity and behaved contrary to the teachings of Allah Subhanawataala who clarifies why tribes and races were created by him, he says in the Quran:
The only reasons that each of you is unique in your tribes and races is so that you may get to know each other…….
For the first time after reading all about the Civil rights I understood how the white people were raised. Hitherto I had never been able to understand why the white folks could give their children to be raised by black nannies but could not stand the thought of letting them sit next to them……
Thousands of miles away and oceans across, this discrimination was alive and well among servants and mistresses, even though in that case the servant was fair in color and had hazel eyes compared to the mistress who was darker in complexion and eye color and had been blessed with wealth and secular education.
Thus the roots of segregation lie deep in the “Nafs” in that part of our being that is propped up with “kibr” or arrogance of who we are even though we had no part in our own creation or the geographical area where we would land. Education and laws do not eradicate the sense of discrimination. Only the fear and love of Allah Subhanawataala with the sure knowledge that we are accountable for all our actions and that there is a final day when judgment will take place and our actions depending on how they weigh out will either land us in eternal Hell or infinite Heaven.
Without this constant awareness we are misguided in thinking that our superiority can be based on the genome that Allah sprinkled in us and which may be different from what He sprinkled into someone else.
I look at the innocence in the faces of the “freedom riders” as these 19-year-old students are called.
An innocence that was laid down to make a bridge between humans and humanity………and change the hearts and minds of future generations that were to come.