This post is about my best friend. A person I miss everyday. It is about a relationship that got away due to elements of a false faith in God, class, and race. This is about a relationship that has shaped my ideological and intellectual construct; it is about a relationship that pushed me towards the left and has shaped my readings, my faith, and in many ways… my identity. This is a post about my friend Shannon Killough.
Today is the 34th birthday of my best friend. At times I am perplexed when trying to describe her to both friends and family who do not know her; I know that she emerged in my life at a time when I was stuck between two worlds: One world was made up of white privilege and religious conservatism that angered me. The other world was that of black distance and distrust of organized religion. I often struggle trying to come to terms with both worlds. As a young black man entering 10th grade on scholarship at a very nice private school with a religious heritage, I was often isolated in my understanding of the white middle class, though I seemed to fit in well; I was a good athlete and eager student – though I clearly felt behind my counterparts at times; I once asked aloud, “what are French Doors” as my peers discussed their homes and the summer renovations that took place. I had never heard of youth groups before, nor did I fully comprehend the emotionalism held at youth rallies or the exaggerated collapsing of members in the black church.
Leaving my underfunded public school, which was an extension of racial segregation and bigotry for a more privileged school, only awakened me to the realities of the world. Furthermore, it was at my nice private school that forced me, as was and is the case for many teenagers, to seek some sort of an identity. My parents are not educated – at least not in the conventional sense, nor are they religious. They taught me to love and embrace all people: black, white, gay, lesbian, poor, and defeated growing up.
But it was my friend, Shannon, who transformed my life in a very different way. For the first time it was okay to relax and be me; it was okay to display a sense of emotion that was not of the norm; it was alright to accept people and love the beauty of what life offers; however, it was this close relationship that impacted not only my ideological position – but my interpretation of life. I realize this is a great burden to place on one person, but I think she managed. Our friendship had its challenges: Her parents did not like me; I was not up to par. Her family was not the only ones who felt this way; I even had to contend with a few teachers that looked at our friendship with an eye of suspicion. I was troubled by this suspicion since it was generated not by my character, but by my skin color.
She and I, as well as a group of my newly minted private school friends, would often have to lie in order for her to hang out with us; my race was an embarrassment to her family. I am often reminded of the classic eighties cartoon The Fox and the Hound; it was this cartoon that can teach us much about the pain of relationships and how the dynamics of race and class often divides us. In the cartoon, the fox and the hound befriended each other only to be forced against one another by their families: The hound was supposed to hunt the fox, but that was difficult for both to accept since they met at a young and innocent age. This cartoon teaches us about relationships and the purity of its meaning.
My friend Shannon died of cancer in the fall of 2005; I was supposed to visit her upon a return trip from Atlanta four months earlier; I got caught up in a meeting at a private school and even confused on my drive back to Montgomery. I missed seeing my friend and thus would learn of her death later. She died within thirty days of discovering she had cancer. Hearing this was tough; it was the longest week of my life; I had to stay home because I could not control my emotions. Out of anger and frustration for how complicated her family made our friendship, I took every letter she had written me over years and copied them. I went on to write a very long letter to her parents illustrating my hurt and frustration over the problems they caused. And yes, I did mail all of this to them.
I am not sure a day goes by in which I fail to think about my late friend. I do not suspect, I know that our relationship and the behavior of closed minded people have played a major part in my ideological shaping. Thus part of my job as a teacher is to inculcate a sense of passion and understanding in my students of all types of people. That has been Shannon’s gift to me, and hence it is my gift to my students.