She was an artist, she told me after I sat down in one of the few empty seats in the room. We were both there to hear a talk about slavery on St. Simons Island. The scholar of the day was Dr. D. A. Berry, Oliver H. Radkey Regents Professor of History, school of liberal arts at the University of Texas in Austin.
The venue was the restored schoolhouse on South Harrington Road, at the center of what used to be a vibrant black community on the island—vibrant but poor. Their property is now almost gone, bought up by wealthy newcomers eager to live in the coastal low country, within eyeshot of both the marsh and the sea.
“I spent nine years in research on this island,” Dr. Berry explained, projecting an open, intelligent, and unpretentious spirit. She had reason to be pretentious, though, with a most impressive resume that demanded seven minutes of introduction.
“I have a data base of 80,000 slave sales—name, date, gender, age, and price. St. Simons Island is the only place I know of where the women brought higher prices than the men.”
But before she started, and therefore before she speculated as to why the island women were more expensive than the men, my seated neighbor said, “I live here part of the time and in the mountains of North Carolina part of the time. I retired after a long career as an artist in Atlanta, and now I mostly draw pictures of slave quarters.”
“And what do you do?”
I have fielded that question a thousand times or more, and always pause before answering. I like the way my late friend Philip Wise (1950-2009) explained the same dilemma: “When I’m on an airplane and somebody asks, I say, ‘I’m a Baptist preacher’ just to see their reaction.”
I know the feeling; and that day in the old Harrington schoolhouse explains why.
“I’m a minister,” I said, selecting one of the less provocative descriptions of my 50-year career as a preacher, pastor, professor, writer, radio host, and social entrepreneur.
“That’s too bad,” she replied immediately, “I feel sorry for you.”
It is not the sort of thing most people say when they hear me announce my calling. Most are respectful, some even interested. Their follow-up question, though, is often the same as hers.
“What kind of minister?”
“I am a Baptist preacher,” I replied, embracing the full Philip approach.
“Oh, that’s the worst.”
I was not sure I heard her right, but I had time neither to inquire nor to respond; but for the next 30 minutes, as we sat side by side listening to the fascinating presentation by the California-trained, Texas-based scholar, my mind oscillated between the information coming from the podium at the front of the room and the attitude expressed from the chair at my side.
I know what she meant.
White Baptist preachers from the South are one-of-a-kind. You hear one, you hear them all: narrow, opinionated, reactionary, and very political. They are the cheerleaders for Team Trump.
The public image is dominated by names familiar to all, like Falwell and Graham and also by names known mainly by those in the system, like Mohler and Jeffress.
Her reaction to my vocation was the most transparent I can recall but it certainly does not stand alone. As a progressive in a profession dominated by conservatives, I have long been accustomed to saying at some point: “I’m not like that.”
This has made me sympathetic to all those who stand as sturdy outliers to some cultural stereotype; and this is the case with artists, athletes, professors, even politicians, and certainly minorities of all kinds.
Do not assume you know me when you see my color, or hear my accent, or discover what I do. I am not what you think, and you need to take a little time before you pass judgment.
I did not have any more time with her. I slipped out of the presentation before it was over and drove to Savannah to catch my flight to Texas, on my way to a luncheon in Austin, just a few blocks from the University where Dr. Berry serves with such distinction.
Did I tell you Dr. Berry is a woman, a black woman? Who said to me when I introduced myself before she stood to speak: “Please greet to my husband sitting in the back; he also is a Baptist preacher!” Which I did on my way out.
All of which warmed my heart and made me proud of my calling to represent the pigeon-holed prophet of Galilee who was routinely misunderstood and under-appreciated, before and after God raised him from the dead.