“Who was the first black President of the United States?”

(Yes, that is a real question. Bear with me.)

My new community, Hillside Missions, hosts music sessions from its art gallery every Thursday night. This past Thursday, some of my fellow interns and staff gathered outside Gallery: EDIT to listen to Johnny, one of our staff, jam out on his guitar and ukelele. Several passerby decided to stop and groove for a few minutes.

One older gentleman joined the circle and improvised his own song to Johnny’s strumming. He seemed to enjoy our company. Upon exiting, this man, who was African-American, led all of the young white folks around him in a sweeping gesture that he dubbed, “Let’s throw that racist shit [sic] away.” Together we all swung our arms behind us in a sign of friendship and freedom.

Another older, black man got caught up in the music. Having had too much to drink by his own admission, he fell asleep on the pavement as Johnny played a few songs like “Amazing Grace.” Upon waking, he told us to remember his name (we’ll call him Steve), and promised that he would come back to play music–no money asked.

My friends and I ran into Steve 30 minutes later a few blocks down the street. Affectionately dubbing us “miss ladies,” he asked us, “Who was the first black President of the United States?” Upon hearing our giggles, he instructed us, “You know, Barack Obama was not the first black president of the United States. My mama told me there was another.” He sent us on a wild goose chase on Google as he claimed that John Hanson, president of the Continental Congress in the 1780s, had Obama beat.

We got excited as our initial search seemed to confirm Steve’s suggestion, but then further investigation revealed that two John Hansons had gotten mixed up in a myth, and the John Hanson of the Continental Congress was a white man in a largely ceremonial position. Steve apologized profusely and told us that he was going to go back to the library because he did not like telling people things that aren’t true.

Moving to Richmond has given me a new platform from which to ask questions about race. Growing up on the edge of Philadelphia, I inhabited both white-monocultural and highly diverse spaces. Racial and ethnic issues came up on a personal level daily and were discussed openly in my culturally diverse high school, but white cultural norms still dominated, and I was not able to identify the ways that the history of ethnic conflict in America still affected my everyday life. When I went to Massachusetts for college, I learned new language to understand the bigger picture of race-related justice issues, but I learned these facts within a primarily white context where I had fewer opportunities to practice racial reconciliation.

I come to Richmond at a time when the state of Virginia is front and center in America’s conversation about race. In Richmond, people of different skin colors–primarily black and/or white–interact often. Most of the people that I work and live with are white. Most of the people that I see walking down the street are black.

Living into a mission of bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to all the peoples of the earth, while living in a city in which people of different ethnic backgrounds have been torn apart by cyclical injustice, I have no choice but to ask: How can I love my neighbors–both the one who shares my desk and the one who shares my corner? What does it actually mean to “throw that racist shit away?” What does it mean to be a white Yankee girl, with family roots on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, living in the former capital of the South, where citizens are up in arms about whether or not to take down statues of Confederate heroes? What does it mean to be white, period?

These are live questions; expect them to be answered by life rather than by principles. This week, responding looked like participation: following along as a man led me and my white friends in a more exuberant and communal gesture of solidarity than we might be accustomed to. Listening: honoring someone by recognizing that we are all missing parts of history, and the truth may be more complicated than we know. Sharing: telling you my story and asking, How are you thinking about race these days?


2 thoughts on ““Who was the first black President of the United States?”

  1. Well, well. It is a profound question to ask, how are you thinking about race these days? I love your insight that you prefer to answer from your everyday life. Preach sister, preach! So, now that Rachel is at Richmond. How this great experience is going to inform your approach to reach the nations? (ethnicities) Blessings on your journey, Welcome to Richmond!


    • Haha, thank you! I’m glad that the question connected with you, and I am excited to see how being in Richmond informs my approach globally, too. I would love to talk with you about this sometime.


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