FLOURISH with Larkspur – Race Relations With Yvonne Cole

In an effort to keep this topic at the forefront, our second episode in our FLOURISH with Larkspur series of the podcast discusses the sensitive topic of race again.  This time I sit down and chat with Yvonne Cole, the longtime coach of the Lindbergh Flyerettes and Missouri Dance Team Association founder and board member, who gave us all kinds of dance team wisdom during a Season 1 episode.  This time we engage in some very real and honest talk about the social, racial and civil unrest that has been brought to the forefront by recent events in our country, and she gives her viewpoint as a person of color.  We’re both hoping that this will open up all kinds of dialogue and will inspire other people to have more conversations like this.

Thoughts on being an African American in light of recent events:  “Well, it’s something that I have been seeing all of my life because being the age I am I lived through the Jim Crow laws, so there were a lot of places here in St. Louis that we could not go to.   My dad was one who liked to go out to dinner at least once a month and the only two places we could go was Union Station, which is where the train station was. Another month we would go to the airport because we could eat there. My grandparents lived in Venice, Illinois and had a lot of family in Lebanon, Illinois, which is about a forty five minute drive and we would go but couldn’t stop on the way.  Couldn’t stop go bathroom, couldn’t stop to get anything to eat until we got to my house.   So this is something that i have seen all my life.  Personally I’m the mother of two African American males.  My sons, when they got to be about sixteen, and they started going out with their friends or whatever, we talked about how to respond if you’re stopped.  My older son was in a car with three other guys and there had been an incident with a policeman.  A policeman had been shot and it was an African American male who had done it. And they were driving down the street not far from my house and they got stopped and of them had to get out of the car.   None of them resembled the person at all because he was very tall, very thick, big man. None of these guys were, but they were black and so therefore they were stopped.  It is a concern.  So when all that happened this summer it brought back a lot of negative memories because of course I was around when Dr. Martin Luther king was killed.”  

Being a teen in the segregated 1960s:  “My father was a doctor, my mother was a nurse, and excellence was demanded in my house.  I mean, you did not come home with a C.  This is what i was taught.  If you’re competing for a job or whatever, and it comes down to you and a person who’s non color, you have to be better than, otherwise you’re not gonna get the job And so that was instilled in me, that you you have to strive for excellence. And of course I lived in a house with a man who made straight A’s from Kindergarten through med school and so my dad did not even understand how somebody could get a C anyway.  It was a different time and and it was something that we lived through. I went to a private high school, Incarnate Word Academy, and I was the first black student they ever had and I had to ride the bus to this area called the loop and then I’d have to get on a different bus to go to school. I was a ninth grader. I remember this very vividly.   And there was a little white front hamburger place and it just smelled so good. And i just thought one day I’m going to stop here. My father was very adamant that you don’t eat in the street, which means you don’t walk up and down the street eating. So one day after school got out early I went in there and everything stopped and the guy came over me and he goes, ‘What do you want?’ And i said, ‘Well i wanna cheeseburger.’  And so he made it and brought it to me in a bag and with my background I wasn’t about to walk out of there and eat it outside. So I sat down on the stool and I began to open the bag and get ready to take out my sandwich and he goes, ‘You can’t eat that in here.’ And I go, ‘Well why not?’  The reply was, ‘We don’t serve your kind.’  I said, ‘Well if I can’t eat here then I want my money back,’ and he gave me my money back and I left. That was life in the city of St. Louis.”

Becoming the first black teacher in the Lindbergh school district:  “Her first comment to me was,  ‘Now you need to be aware that we have no black teachers in the district.’  I was a safe hire.  What i found out is that they had done research on me, but I was a science teacher therefore they figured it’s not going to be political. I was middle class so I’m probably not going to walk in and give the black power sign.   And I was hired and the first open house is standing room only in every one of my classes.  They wanted to come and see. And one guy asked me what my qualifications were.  I said, ‘I graduated from St. Louis U with a BS in biology. What else can i tell you?’

Her interesting perspective:  “You know personally I’ve been through a lot of those things. Now, I’ve not had the tragedy that I just can’t imagine families of the people have suffered because their children are dead. I’ve never. I haven’t had that luckily, but it still is something that I always had to be wary of and  to be perfectly honest I think many, many in the black community say that integration was maybe one of the worst things that ever happened really to blacks and here’s the reason why:   because when the kids were going to school or whatever with their caucasian counterparts, they began to think the playing field was even, and so they became less competitive.  So it kind of lulled I think our generation of kids into complacency because there was nobody there pushing and what happened when things began to open up? Now you have the doctors and the lawyers now no longer living in the community. They are now going for the American Dream and they’re moving out to suburbs. They’re moving out. They’re moving on up as George Jefferson did and so now those role models are not there.”

Some things to understand about black history and culture:  “My white friends and I talk about this stuff all time and and I try to educate them. When my grandmother died in nineteen seventy seven, she died the week before Thanksgiving, so I didn’t come to work, and I didn’t come to work the three days after Thanksgiving. A coworker friend’s comment to me was ‘Why do black people wait so long to have funerals?’ The deal is if you’re black ninety percent of the time if I’m in St. Louis, most of my family’s not here. They might be in Mississippi. They might be in Ohio.  I’ve got to wait till they all get here, and so it may take a week. That’s why it’s  common for a black person’s funeral to be a week after they die as opposed to my caucasian friends. They usually do their funerals in two days, maybe three at the most after someone dies And that’s a cultural thing, but it goes again back in our history, because we we migrated from the south right. My grandmother was one of fourteen, but her father lived on a plantation and her father had seen the master come and be intimate with his mother while his father was working in the fields. As a child he saw that and so when he got to be a man and had his family, he was like, okay, I know that I could not deal with that, and I will probably be dead because I would not let that go. So he packed his family up and moved them up north and they settled in Lebanon, Illinois, and then some of them migrated further up more in Illinois.”

What can we do for long and lasting change?  “I think the biggest thing is if i know you as a person, I’m more likely to understand what’s going on. I think it’s real interesting when I was at Lindbergh, one of my best friends in the room next to me was older and he was white and used the call me his daughter. We taught together for years. We were talking one day and he mentioned to me one day, ‘I sometimes forget your black,’ and I had to check him on that and I just said, ‘No. Don’t you ever forget that.’ And here was the thing:  he related to me, but in his mind I was the exception.  If you see something, say something. If you hear something, say something.  If you hear someone just painting a brush over all black people, to just say, ‘You know, maybe that’s not true for all black people because there’s good black people, there’s also bad.  Just like there’s good white people and there’s also bad.’  Call it like you see it.   Don’t perceive that because I see thousands of people marching peacefully, then I see thirty doing stupid stuff , it’s not the whole group. It’s those thirty. See it for what it is. When I see this one person who shot those police, that’s a criminal…green, white, black, purple, orange… that is a criminal, but that doesn’t mean all black people criminals.  There’s a tendency there to paint the entire group  based upon what you see with that one guy, and so I just think having that mindset and when you’re talking to your children, helping them to see that’s wrong. That person is wrong for doing that.”  

In light of this desire to keep this conversation going, we’ve started a book club!  Please join us in reading Stamped From The Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi, recommended by Iris Sherman in our first FLOURISH episode to help us all become more educated and mindful when it comes to issues dealing with race in our country.  We will have Iris back on in a couple of months to discuss the book, and would love to hear your input!  You can reach out to melanie@larkspurdance.com, and you can also find us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.  Hope you join us!