Monday, January 21, 2008

King Day

I was 17 years old on August 28, 1963, the day Dr. Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrate today, gave permanent new meaning to the phrase, "I have a dream." I was between my junior and senior years of high school and I confess I paid little attention to the goings on downtown. At the time, it was just another march on Washington, just another speech. When I look back at old footage of the event I feel the enormous hole in my experience that my presence there could have filled, but at 17 I had other fish to fry. Oddly, those other fish had much to do with civil rights. My parents, swinging, open-minded and even progressive as they were in so many other ways, were racists. Even if I'd wanted to attend the march, I still needed a roof over my head. Discretion trumped valor. I see now that my mother and father were products of their own upbringings in Washington, where in the nineteen-teens and -twenties race relations were at an almost constant boiling point, marked by innumerable angry protests and even riots. The great capital of the Union, where the Emancipation Proclamation had been written, had become essentially a southern city when it came to race. Jim Crow laws were in full effect, and in 1963 my parents still had the attitudes that had been formed in the racial cauldron of their youth. They never changed. They went to their graves in the late 1990s segregtionists, mourning the future of the white race as it degraded. They said more than once they were happy they wouldn't be around to watch the process.

I was in the third grade in 1954, the year of the Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision. My state of Virginia had thumbed its nose at the federal government and mounted a campaign it called "massive resistance" to the de-segregation of schools. At that very moment, one of the most influential characters of my life entered the scene: Inez Pratt, my third-grade teacher.

Mrs. Pratt's husband worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and they had spent years among the Hopi and Navajo in Arizona. She was full of stories about the Indians, as we unself-consciously called them back then. She made it her business, in the gentlest way imaginable, to teach lessons of equality and fairness as she spoke of the Hopi, the Navajo, and the Apache. She brought kachina dolls in for us to see, and papery, pink and blue Indian corn bread. She told us that even though the Indians had different ways of life from ours, they were Americans, too, and had concerns just like our own. Delicately but persistently she drove the lesson home: we are all alike. It made perfect sense to me. And never once did she mention the events of the day.

Of course, neither had my parents mentioned the current events, because there was no reason to. There were no arguments to be had on the matter. Virginia would resist, the (n-word)s would stay in their place; my parents assumed everyone was on the same page on the issue. But since they'd said nothing about it, and since I didn't watch the news or read the paper at the age of nine, I was completely ignorant of what was going in Virginia. I had different assumptions. Innocently, I brought Mrs. Pratt's lessons about the Indians home to the dinner table. My father, aghast, asked me, "are you a (n-word)-lover?" Oops. I suddenly learned to eat fast. Instantly, my parents were strangers. Worse, they were strangers I didn't like.

Remember, I was nine years old. This was years before another issue, sex and my gay adaptation to it, reared its head. On that score, I had always known that I was somehow different, but I never really dealt with it until I was in college. Once it did became a part of my life, there was of course no way I could share it with the people with whom I'd been mostly angry for the previous 10 years. So we remained estranged until I was well into my thirties. During those years, I did the obligatory holiday and birthday obsevances with them, but mostly I just stayed away. As adulthood forced its way on me, though, I began to miss them. I began to see in myself so many of the good things they had given me and I embraced those qualities. I forgave them for their sins. When Steve came along I was thirty-three, and he just started showing up with me at family functions. Bless my imperfect, racist parents. He was an immediate part of the family. They welcomed him literally with open arms. They helped us move into our first apartment.

When it comes to identity politics, 2008 is not a bad time for us to reflect and say, "be careful what we ask for." As a gay man, I am a card-carrying minority, and oppressed to boot. But I am tired of such high dudgeon. Group identity has overtaken our much more, vitally important, collective identity as members of a society that I believe can still live up to its potential. We are the only country in the world whose founding document contains the words, "all men are created equal." We lose sight of that promise at our peril. We are part of an ongoing experiment in tolerance, and it is only we who can make the experiment succeed. We are apart now in so many ways, but I believe we can close the circle.

Me, I know a little something about closing circles. My mother's last words to me were, "give my love to Steve."

9 comments:

Cuidado said...

Ralph, you are an incredible writer and I'm going to enjoy my visits here immensely. It's funny that you and Kat met in PC and end up being such great writers. It drew you both or changed you both. It surely helped you have a more 'worldly view' after your more closed childhood.

Ralph said...

Cuidado, I am humbled by your kind words. Thank you. My father was a journalist and a typewriter was one of my first toys, and I've been playing with words one way or another my whole life. It's just that now I have something to say, I guess.

Kat said...

Ralph,
I grew up in a town with no black families. My dad, too, was a racist which I didn't find out until I was in high school. It was then, ironically enough through the church, I became aware of what was happening in the world and somehow ended up joining SNCC. We did door to door canvassing, passed out leaflets and attended meetings. My dad found out and blew his top, using the n-word quite frequently. I was forbidden to do more, though that didn't stop me. I just went covert. When I told him I was going to Africa, he had a few choice words to say then didn't talk to me for a while. Later, though, he accepted my decision. All my life he and I were polar opposites politically. I still remember him telling me his Nixon vote canceled out my McGovern.

Ralph said...

That's quite a story, Kat. I remember you telling it to me. I'm glad I gave you the chance to share it with your other friends.

Ravel said...

I can only repeat what Cuidado said: Incredible writer, you are. Sure, I am attracted in a strange way to your new blog, as a gay man myself. But mostly for your friendship with Kat; both intelligent blogs and what I always envisioned the Net to be, a way of communication for people far away from each other and suddenly, quite close. We all live similar stuff in our lives and yet, communication is still in fragments (I went to chats, and good luck for intelligent conversations).
My Mom was as open as my father was closed. She pushed me towards my gay experiences and he decided to believe I was a kind of a "defect" product. Another kind of racism.
I could go on and on, but... thanks for today's topic, Ralph.

Ralph said...

Patrick, you say many mouthfuls here. I, too, am disappointed in how most people use the internet. It's perfect for connecting with others and yet most people use it only for the most mundane tasks. I even treat email like old fashioned mail, taking as much care with e-letters as I ever did with hand-written ones. But I am seldom responded to in kind.

My own experience with coming out taught me the whole thing's a crap shoot. I thought sure my parents would be negative , but they were just the opposite. (Parents always know, don't you think?) No matter what happens, though, I believe if we're healthy we have to drop pretenses and just be who we are. I'm sorry for your father's reaction (and I laughed at your mother's) but happy you did what you had to do.

Ravel said...

Hehe, I'm a thoughtful man. :-)
I am a writer of emails-letter too. Thankfully, I have a friend in New-Brunswick who answers me in kind.
Have a great day!

Anonymous said...

well done, ralph. well done.
greg mpls

Ralph said...

Greg, thanks.