A nervous little black boy watches a white man speak to his mother
This did not seem an important moment. Not because it was something casual, something very ordinary, but it was important because both the boy and the man came to realise what an important moment it was. They met on the doorstep of the house where the little boy’s mother was a black servant and had answered the door to the man, who was white.
The house was a large house in South Africa, just after the Second World War, where black people were treated by the white government as inferior, incapable of running their own lives, of doing anything important, and, particularly, not fit to share power.
It was the black woman’s job, as a servant, to answer the door when visitors called. As she answered this call her little son stood behind her, watching, unsure. In front of them stood a white man, an Anglican priest, wearing a broad brimmed hat, protection against the strong sunlight. As soon as the man saw a woman in front of him he carefully raised his hat, a sign then of respect for a woman from a man, of basic good manners. We would only see this now on television, or in a film, something historical.
The little boy was puzzled and continued to hang on to his mother’s skirt. White men generally did not show respect for black women like this in his world, but this man, an important man, a priest, he had shown respect for his mother. And the little boy remembered.
Later, years later, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu he spoke about the incident on television, in a new South Africa, and he told his audience how it had first dawned on him that black and white people could treat one another considerately and respectfully, simply because of the way one white man had treated his mother with respect on this one occasion.
Not long afterwards I heard the priest preaching, in Lancaster. Bishop Trevor Huddlestone had been a staunch opponent of the white supremacist regime, and was eventually expelled from South Africa, and he told the story, of how this one small moment of natural respect and politeness had had such an effect on a little boy, on a black boy, who became a leader of his people. Eventually this boy became an archbishop and remembered how he had come to see this small but terribly important truth, that people of different races did not have to be condemned to treat each other as enemies. It was no surprise then, that when his country overturned its racist divisions Archbishop Desmond Tutu headed a commission that was set up to make peace between the peoples of his country, an idea that has now been tried out in other troubled parts of the world.
What would we have seen had we been present when Desmond Tutu’s mother opened the door?
What was significant or important about the encounter?
Can you remember hearing or seeing something that taught you an important truth?