This right here…this is everything. And right on time because I need a little hope right now.
102 year old Rosa Finnegan checked herself. And though what she discovered left her feeling ashamed, she shared it anyway. Nationally. Nothing braver than that. The self examination and the sharing alike. And while I admire her and have teared up each time I’ve read the story, I can’t help but think “Damn, it took 100 years for her to ask herself ‘What did I just do?'” I am so not judging Rosa here. I think she’s a hero. Not exaggerating. I also understand that the racial climate into which Rosa was born in 1912 was much more “extreme” for lack of a better word. Perhaps Rosa had much more racial bullshit to sort through than those of us born half a century or more later. So what’s our excuse?
I gotta say here, too, that Rosa isn’t a hero to me only because she was willing to explore her racial prejudice, but because she was willing to explore an aspect of herself that most of us would catalog as “bad” and then scramble to cover up, deny, suppress, ignore, or whatever. So many avenues to attempt this kind of escape! But the only way to freedom from this age old entanglement is through the honest investigation, the acceptance of what is found, and the willingness to shift to more holistic perspectives and behavior. Without judgement, shame, or attachment. Sound easy? It is and it isn’t. What do you do when you notice that someone isn’t white like you, black like you, mixed like you, straight like you, gay like you, rich like you, poor like you? How are your actions dictated by these observations? And are those really the things that define a you? That define any of us? I think not, but we sure do spend a lot of time identifying ourselves and each other by such measures.
Rosa Finnegan celebrated her 102nd birthday on Wednesday. She was born in 1912 — the year the Titanic sank. She stopped working at 101 and now lives in a nursing home in Massachusetts. Time has gone by fast, she says.
Below are excerpts from Rosa’s interview, reported and produced by Ari Daniel and Caitrin Lynch.
‘Not One Bit Different From Me’
Let me tell you something that happened to me here two months ago. It’s going to be a little hard to talk about this because I’m ashamed of myself, in plain English.
One day, they came and asked me if I’d like to move to another room. And when I was taken to the other room, I saw Ada, a black lady sitting there in her wheelchair with her oxygen tank beside her. And we had a nice little chat and I left. But first thing I noticed was that she wasn’t white, like I am, which is the thing that stopped me from moving into the room with her.
And when I got back to my own room, I sat there and I said, what did I just do? Rosa, you’re not a nice person at all. I felt very bad about that, so every time I went by her room, I would go in and sit and talk with her. And I met all her family. There was always someone there from the family to be with her. If she had some cookies or candy or something, she’d always say, here, have some of this. I felt kind of warm every time I went in to talk to her. And we got to be friends.
When it comes right down to it, she is not one bit different from me. She believes in the same God I do. She has children, grandchildren. And one day, one of the aides came to me and said, Rosa, do you want to go in and talk with Ada, she’s very sick and I don’t think she’s going to make it. Well, I went in and I did the best I could. She was sort of semiconscious and I leaned over and said, hi, Ada, how are you doing? And I didn’t get any answer. And her son was sitting there. And I said, if she should come to a little bit, please tell her that I was here and that I’m thinking about her. He said, thank you, I will. That night, she passed away. I haven’t got over it yet.
Even as old as I am, you think you’re not prejudiced but all of a sudden, you really find out you are. How stupid I was. Because before you know it, it’s all over. Thank God, I had a chance to really get to know this wonderful woman.
The reporting of this story was supported by the Olin College Faculty Summer Research Fund.