My Kentucky Kitchen Table was hosted by Matthew, a local minister in Bowling Green, and his wife Ann. Besides myself, two other students, Corinne and Tanner, attended. Before this, I didn’t know any of the others, so I didn’t really know what to expect from our dinner. We got to the house and introduced ourselves to Matthew and Ann, and found that Tanner, Corrine, and I had more in common than we knew. We were all freshmen, and majoring in some kind of science (engineering, chemistry, and biology, respectively). We found out that Matthew and Ann had lived in Bowling Green for several years, after moving from North Carolina. Just as we were beginning to ask the obligatory questions about citizenship, there was a knock at the door. Matthew got up to answer it and said “Thelma’s here. She’ll probably introduce herself as Halle Berry.” From then on we knew our dinner was going to be very interesting. Thelma, as it turned out, was 89 years old, and one of the funniest people I have ever met. She had stories to tell about everything from growing up in Bowling Green to her trip to the 2008 presidential inauguration. As it turned out, we didn’t need to ask many questions; we learned everything we needed to about citizenship from listening to Thelma’s amazing stories.
Thelma did, in fact, introduce herself as Halle Berry, and from that point on the night and the conversation only got better. First, she talked about going to Washington D.C. for President Obama’s inauguration in 2008. She talked about standing outside in the cold to watch, and going on a tour of the White House afterwards. To me, the presidential inauguration stands out as a unique symbol of democracy. It bring together the entire nation regardless of race, gender, political affiliations, or anything else. This was the first time I had met someone who had experienced it in person, and hearing Thelma describe it reminded me of what a unique opportunity to participate in our country’s democracy she had.
As the dinner progressed (and we all enjoyed the amazing food Ann had made for us), we moved on to more serious topics, and Thelma opened up about her childhood. The table grew quiet as she discussed being abused as a child. It was clear as she talked that she still felt the emotional pain of that time. I may not personally be able to understand how she had to feel, but I wanted to. I wished I could have empathized in a better way, and done something to help heal these wounds that obviously still hurt so many years later. Thelma also talked about her experience as an African-American woman, and the ways she had experienced racism on a personal level. She talked about growing up in a time of racial segregation, and feeling that nothing was being done, that “that was just how it was.” Even today, she still felt the effects of racism as one of the only African-Americans members of the presbytery at her church. She described that she feels her race makes her stand out, that she feels like “the loneliest fly in the buttermilk.” I was reminded of the subtle ways that a serious problem like racism can sometimes present itself, and of a Zora Neale Hurston quote that Claudia Rankine used to describe the same feeling in Citizen: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” Listening to Thelma’s stories, I was amazed again and again by how much she had experienced, how difficult her life had been, and yet how happy she was. She said, when discussing racism “it never bothered me.” She had learned to live with some incredibly difficult situations, and yet, had keep the sense of humor that let her introduce herself as Halle Berry, and I admired her for it.
As I was writing this post, and reflecting on what I learned that night at Matthew and Ann’s kitchen table, I was reminded of a discussion we had in my seminar towards the beginning of the semester. We had just read an article titled The Empathy Exams, and were discussing whether empathy is natural. Can you learn to put yourself in others’ shoes and understand their pain, or is it something you’re born knowing how to do (or not)? The class consensus was somewhere in the middle, we all seemed to think it was a little bit of both. It was months later, listening to an 89 year old woman talk about everything she had experienced, that I finally understood what it means to learn empathy. I couldn’t fully understand Thelma’s stories of abuse and racism, but listening to her, I could get a sense of what she must have felt. As best I could, I put myself in her place, and tried to understand what she had been through, and how it had made her the amazing person that she is. While I still couldn’t perfectly understand her situation, I had some small grasp on how it felt. In this way, I learned to be a little bit more empathetic, simply by trying to be. I was reminded of all the things that others, particularly those who are older and more experienced, have to teach, if I am willing to listen. This was just one of many lessons I learned that night. I also met a group of great people, who I was glad to share dinner with.