It was an experience during my former job as a producer for WUNC Radio that I’d long forgotten.
Then, the presidential election happened.
The celebrations, mournings, and spiking incidents of racial intolerance triggered my memory.
It was a time when I was highly vulnerable to lapses of personal strength, and terrified that I probably would not be able to keep myself safe from harm, without a physical altercation.
The date: Monday, Sept. 27, 2010. 6:15 p.m.
As a staff member for WUNC-FM, along with my colleagues from “The Story with Dick Gordon,” “The State of Things with Frank Stasio” and other programs, I was required to attend all staff events with donors.
That evening, the station rented out Chapel Hill’s Crook’s Corner restaurant.
Groups of donors started glad-handing, before going to their assigned tables.
One of them reached his hand across our table to shake mine. He was dressed in a multi-colorful, 1980s inspired, “Miami Vice” outfit.
Between chews, I said, “Hi, I’m Anita Woodley, a producer for ‘The Story’! Sorry, I just washed my hands and I am in the middle of eating. … I will surely shake your hand once I am done.”
He said, “Oh, I’m sorry,” hocked a phlegm wad, spit into his hand and extended it back across the table to me, again.
I was flabbergasted.
Was this 2010 or 1950? Neither. It was the timeless South.
My 100-year-old great-grandma warned me when we decided to move here in 2006 that “Ain’t nothing changed in Carolina. Don’t move down there, ’Nita! The clock is stuck in the olden times. … the Klan still there in some places. It’s harder to tell who don’t care for black folks these days until they are right up on ya … they slick, now … be careful.”
I was in the midst of the time warp, she cautioned.
The donor removed his hand and begin eating without wiping off his spit.
The basket of white bread and balls of butter were perfect to mask my dumbfoundedness. I shoveled several ripped chunks of the extra-butter-smeared bread into my mouth.
See, when I was growing up in Oakland’s Funktown, this donor’s behavior would have been met with brute force, swiftly.
Yes, from the 1970s to the ’90s, in my protective community we would’ve said, “You must want ya ass beat trying to disrespect people by putting spit on them!” And we’d deliver just that, without any regard to consequences.
But this night I was not willing to compromise my freedom and the “good” job that I, along with my family, had moved thousands of miles for.
It took four days to muster the courage to share my experience with WUNC’s managers. They looked over the seating chart and identified the donor.
The general manager’s solution was to “next time, have a name tag for you, so people know that you work as a producer on ‘The Story.’ ... This is one of our long-time, sustaining donors.”
Unfortunately, the station’s managers never learned his intentions. They never asked.
Fast-forward to last month on Nov. 12, 2016. An opportunity presented itself for me to face what happened at the public radio Meet the Producers Dinner.
Thirty-minutes before closing, on a Saturday night, I arrived at the same Crook’s Corner.
The mission: to re-enact the WUNC incident from six years ago in hopes of letting it go.
My order was shrimp, grits, and bread with butter.
When the bread arrived I began to sweat and my feet shook.
Unwrapping the bread, I closed my eyes, imagining the donor sitting across from me, extending his hand across the table. I graciously declined his pre-phlegm-wad handshake, again.
As I opened my watery eyes, the waiter stood there with my beautiful plate of shrimp and grits.
I savored every bite.
Then refused his post-phlegm wad handshake, as well.
Opening that area of my heart, again. Trusting that I know how to keep myself safe, without stooping to the other person’s level, and losing my power by fighting.
My imagination is one of my most powerful allies. It gives me altitude, when I remember to refrain from stoking my attitude.
Every day, I choose to operate my life from a space of mental and physical peace.
And I’m encouraged to discover new ways to continue evolving on purpose, through whatever comes my way.
Anita Woodley is an award-winning health educational performer and journalist. Learn more at www.anitawoodley.com
Anita Woodley Productions will host “Visions of Health in the Bull City: Sharon Elliott-Bynum Day” to honor the late “Mother Teresa of Durham.” Two movies featuring cameos of Sharon, “Bucking the Medical & Mental Bull” and “Trials, not Tribulations,” will play Saturday, Jan. 7, 1 to 4 p.m at Healing with CAARE, 214 Broadway St. in Durham. $5 donation at the door. Also free health screenings for HIV, blood pressure, and blood glucose from 4 to 5 p.m. http://www.caareinc.org