I was a childhood bigot.
In Missouri in the 1950s and 1960s, that was normal, although I know I didn't learn it at home. Still, I remember disliking African-American people. The memory shames me.
Bless my cousin who grew up in a mixed neighborhood; she cured me with a single sentence. After hearing me say "I don't like 'colored' people," she leveled a disdainful stare at me and said, "Well, how would you like it if people hated you because you were white?"
"I would hate that!" I replied, the horror of having been doing just that engulfing my 4-year-old mind.
In the 1960s, the civil rights movement played live across our black-and-white screens. I watched in horror as fire hoses and dogs were turned on peaceful marchers. I remember Frederick Douglas school and asking my mother, "What is that school? Who goes there?" and her saying that was where the 'colored' children went - and how stupid that seemed. I was glad to see integration in my school - Robert E. Lee Elementary - but I remember nasty, racist comments from the other kids. I remember how I loved Dr. King and my devastation at his murder.
I despised racism and racists, all the more because I was a reformed specimen myself.
Still, as are many who recover from illness, I was left with an evil vestige I could not seem to shed. I call it the "Missouri curse" (more because I got it there than Missouri being worse than anywhere else); it was part shyness, part fear of being thought a bigot. I could not overcome my awareness of a person's "differences;" it stood between me and the person I wanted to know like an ugly, invisible wall. The more I struggled, the weirder and stiffer I got and the bigger that wall became.
I was so ashamed. I had been infected by evil, but all my struggles seemed to make it worse. A complete cure seemed impossible. I felt dirty inside.
So after nearly two generations worth of suffering, I did the only thing I could think of. I turned it over.
I am Jewish by choice, and more spiritual than religious, but I turned it over. "I can't fix this, God," I said. "For whatever reason, I cannot do this myself." And I let it go.
Every time the Missouri curse would rear its ugly head, I would pray "Please, God, take this curse away from me."
And one day, it was gone. I could look into the beautiful faces of my new friends and just see - them. Same as me with wonderful and interesting differences. Finally, I could just relax and enjoy.
The Missouri curse was gone; at last, I was free.
Some people might read this and see a lesson about turning things over - and they'd be right. For me, it's a lesson about how racism - even the unwilling sort - really is in all of us, and how harmful and pervasive it is. It's also a lesson in how even the most intransigent of evil infections can be cured if we understand its nature and truly wish to be cured.
Maya North, a member of The Olympian's Board of Contributors, has gone from street kid to bachelor's degree; welfare mom to computer programmer with the Department of Labor and Industries. She can be reached at MayaNorth@gmail.com.