Listen to this article

In my community the past few weeks, there has been a lot of talk about the idea of “sundown towns.”

A sundown town is one where, by laws on the book or by tradition, Black people are not welcome after sundown.

Some say Monticello, where my kids went to high school, was one; some get very offended at the mention of the possibility, saying that nobody has ever found a law like that on the books.

Still, others say that if it once was, it was a long time ago, and people who bring it up now are just stirring up trouble.

One woman I know got lambasted on a Monticello community discussion board on Facebook just for asking the question, “Do you think racism against Black people exists in Monticello today?”

The vitriol was flying, and I tried to keep up with the conversation, but it was difficult.

What I did notice was that all of her responses that I saw were respectful, even when she was accused of racism herself just for asking the question.

Nobody likes to be called a racist, and though I know that is not what she meant to do, obviously some people felt singled out by her question.

But what if we took a real look at her question?

First, if we want to live in an anti-racist community, we need to be honest about where and how (not whether) racism is being expressed.

Her question is actually very important if we truly want to address the problem and not simply deny it.

For that we must look inward.

The best perspective I have heard on this is from my friend, Jake. He called himself a “recovering racist.”

I was taken aback, because I have known Jake since second grade and have never been aware of any racist language, acts or attitudes coming from him.

But he explained further that we live in a society that elevates and normalizes Whiteness, so just by being raised here, we are swimming in it.

He likened his continuous journey to challenge any racism, whether it be internal or external, to the 12-step journey of a recovering alcoholic.

We will never be done with the work. And that’s OK, because it is work worthy of a lifetime.

As for the question on the discussion board, I have seen a response repeated again and again, that we must “prove” that racism exists in Monticello.

Well, for anyone who came to the rally and march held in June on the town square, one speaker gave at least three first-person examples of how she encountered racism in her own hometown.

I won’t repeat them here, because they were printed in the paper, and anyone truly curious can look it up.

I can add an example of Monticello as a “sundown town.”

When our son was in high school in the early 2000s, he attended a football game.

Monticello had no Black players at the time, and it was rare that our small town played another small-town team with Black players, but that weekend they did.

My son described how some enthusiastic fans had painted their chests with Sages colors, and at least one of the Monticello kids shouted at a Black player on the other team, “This is a sundown town.”

Was it a harmless sporting rivalry? Or a threat?

Dylan said he was surprised that this particular kid even knew the term “sundown town.”

Here’s my take on it.

It doesn’t matter whether Monticello ever had sundown laws on the books or not, but the fact that someone used it (even weaponized it) to taunt a young man of color tells me that yes, indeed, Monticello was a sundown town.

If we want to rid ourselves of this ugly history, we must face the truth about it. The banishing begins with the naming.

Walk in Beauty; Work for Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. If you’re missing your weekly dose of Birdland Letters in The News-Gazette, you can still read them every week in the Piatt County Journal Republican. Consider subscribing to support your small-town newspaper. Next week she’ll go back to writing about chickens and flowers, which you can see on Instagram @BirdlandLetters. Mary can be reached at letterfrombirdland@gmail.com or via snail mail care of the Journal Republican, 118 E. Washington St., Monticello, IL 81856. She wants to thank her friends for writing and will answer you all soon.