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Prompted by a visit from his grandfather's ghost, a man reconciled with his family

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're going to hand things off to NPR's Rachel Martin for another conversation in her series about how to build a life of meaning. It's called Enlighten Me.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: I'm pretty sure I don't believe in ghosts. Now, I say pretty sure because I want to leave the possibility open. There have definitely been times when I felt the presence of my parents who've both died, like when one of their favorite songs comes on when I'm walking the aisles of the grocery store, or when the wind chime that my mom gave me sings a song even though there's no breeze. But straight-up ghosts, like seeing spirits, is that real? Can that happen?

JOHN BLAKE: I saw an elderly white man who was half walking, floating through our bedroom.

MARTIN: This is John Blake. He's a longtime reporter for CNN in Atlanta, and he wrote about this vision in his recent memoir. It's called "More Than I Imagined." And we're going to get back to that apparition. But first, some context. Blake grew up in West Baltimore. He and his younger brother were raised by their dad, who was Black. They only heard bits and pieces about their mom, but they knew she was white. And they knew that she and her parents and siblings had never made an effort to be in their life.

BLAKE: I just felt like her family's racist. She's probably racist. They just don't want me. And that's how I felt.

MARTIN: John was 17 when he finally met his mother at a home for psychiatric patients, where she was living outside of Baltimore. She had schizophrenia. After that initial interaction, he started visiting with her regularly. His mom's ability to have deep conversations was pretty limited, but they found ways to connect and developed a real relationship. John also got to know his mother's sister. And during one visit, she showed John a photo of his white grandfather, who he had never met.

BLAKE: And when I saw that, I just felt this chill go through my body and just goosebumps just on my arms.

MARTIN: And here is where we get to the metaphysical part of this story. He recognized the man in that photo. When he was around 9, he and his younger brother Patrick both woke up in the middle of the night to a frightening scene.

BLAKE: I glanced over into the corner of my bedroom, and there I saw an elderly white man who was half walking, floating through our bedroom. And he was standing by my dresser. And at first, I thought I was, well, this is a dream. And I rubbed my eyes. But he just kept on staying there, and I just watched and watched. And when I awakened the next morning, I thought that was a dream. And - but then I talked to my younger brother, Patrick, and I said, did you see somebody last night? And he said, yeah.

MARTIN: He didn't see his dead grandfather again. And then decades later, when he was in his 30s, he was married and living in Atlanta. And this time, it was his wife who saw the frightening thing.

BLAKE: I awakened one morning, and when I looked at her, her eyes were just huge. And she had this look of terror on her face. And I'm like, what's wrong? She said, I was awakened last night, and I saw this white man standing over the bed looking down at you with this troubled expression on his face. And I tried to wake you up, and you wouldn't wake up. And at that time, I knew immediately who she was talking about. And I got a picture of my mother's father, and I said, was this the man? She said, yeah. She said, who is that, and who is he to you? And I said, it's my grandfather.

MARTIN: I mean, it is such a bizarre experience, right? Like, if we just assume, OK, let's just assume that it was him, that it was like a spirit or a ghost or whatever. Let's assume it was him. Why was he there?

BLAKE: Well, that was the question I had. So I called up a buddy of mine. This is a guy who's a hospice worker who I felt like had a sensitivity to these type of issues because he had worked with people who were dying. And he was a very spiritual person. And his name was Scott. I said, Scott, here's the story. What's going on? And he said, just think of it. The only stories you know about him are stories about his racism. This was the white man who called your father the N-word, who wanted nothing to do with you because your father was Black and died never knowing you. So the only thing you know about him is that he was just a racist, nothing more. Think about the torment that that might have caused. He could have had a relationship with you, but he didn't.

And he - Scott said, I think this guy wants forgiveness. And I talked to a pastor who said the same thing. And he said, have you prayed for him? And I said, no. I never thought to pray for him. But that's what I did. I got on my knees, and I prayed for him. But see; that was only the beginning. It's not enough to just pray for him because I didn't know him. I had to get to know him. And one of the things I learned from getting to know him, I began to see that he was more than his worst act. And I think that was really healthy for me because that helped me also reconnect with other members of my white family.

MARTIN: Did you give him, did you give your grandfather that forgiveness?

BLAKE: Yes. I mean, I just - I knew what it was like to grow up in an environment where you absorb racism and you don't even know it because that's all you know. I tell people, you know, a lot of racism is caught rather than taught. Nobody told me, hate white people. It was like in my environment, it was just part of my world. He grew up in a similar world in a different way. He grew up in a segregated white world that was very common for men of his time to think that way. So yeah, I mean, I got to know him. And I know I've forgiven him. I don't feel this, like, tension or anger when I think about him anymore. I feel - more than anything, I feel compassion for him.

MARTIN: There will be those who hear your story and think that this is some nice kumbaya racial reconciliation. But the world is broken, and America is plagued by all the structural racism. And this kind of narrative, I can hear people thinking it, puts an unfair burden on Black people to just forgive the racist white people in their life.

BLAKE: Yeah. I'm very aware of those type of stories. And those stories imply that, golly, if we just hug white people and we become friends, all of racism will disappear. And my story is not saying that. But what I will say to cynics is this. OK. So I come from West Baltimore. And the only stories that come from West Baltimore about Black people are the stories about rage and despair and anger and racism. And I tell people, if we only write and tell stories that tell white people that racism is inerasable, that it can't be transcended, what are they going to do with that? What incentive do they have to change?

You know, I think we have to become better storytellers. I think we have to tell more hopeful stories if we're going to survive. Because I feel like right now in this country, there's so many broken people who now believe that racism is embedded in our country, that people can't change, that it's a permanent part of being American. And I think one of the ways you deal with that is you have to tell stories to show people getting past racism. And if I've seen these white members of my family change in ways that I never expected, if I see myself change in ways that I never expected, that is worth sharing.

MARTIN: John, thank you so much for taking so much time to have this conversation and for just your honesty in sharing this story.

BLAKE: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: The book is called "More Than I Imagined: What A Black Man Discovered About The White Mother He Never Knew." It's written by John Blake.

SHAPIRO: And you can find more from Rachel Martin's Enlighten Me series at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Steve Drummond heads up two teams of journalists at NPR. NPR Ed is a nine-member team that launched in March 2014, providing deeper coverage of learning and education and extending it to audiences across digital platforms. Code Switch is an eight-person team that covers race and identity across the network, and in an award-winning weekly podcast.