Monday, January 18, 2010

Reflections on MLK Day

Today is Martin Luther King Day. I wanted to do something special, but I was not sure what. Over the last few days, we have been reading, reflecting, and interacting on the meaning of Race and Gender to us. That has felt very good.

For a long time, I wanted to write about experiences that I have had over my Life which have significantly shaped how I feel about Race and Gender. I do believe that would be a book all unto itself. I would write to "note" but I would also write to "learn". That work in my Life is "unfinished" and "evolving". Here are some notes:

1950s-1960s: I grew up during the 50s and 60s when the Civil Rights Movement was gathering steam and in high gear. I grew up in a little town of about 12,000 in Northeast Missouri. The town was almost all White. I only remember 1 or 2 Negro Families (which is what those of African descent were called then). Those Families were largely invisible to me. I do not remember their names nor do I remember where they lived. I do remember that our town had had a Negro School ("Lincoln School"). I have a general impression of where it was, but I had no idea when it was in operation.

In Sunday School, I loved the song "Jesus loves the little Children, all the Children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little Children of the world." The message was clear to me as a Child. Jesus loved the little Children. I just got confused with the message and practice of Big People who were Adults.

Throughout my Elementary and Secondary Schooling, I learned History that was almost exclusively White and Male. We studied Dead White Males who were either from the U.S. or Europe. This was the History of the Conquerors, written by the Conquerors. We heard virtually nothing from the other side. For the most part, we did not hear about the History of other Races, of other Continents, or of Women. It was as if they were not there. If they were, they did not matter.

This approach to History left me ignorant of others with whom I shared the world. It left me largely with a deep seed of unknown fear of those who were different.

As if that was not enough, we saw images in the Newspaper and on our Television which sat proudly in our Living Room of the growing tensions in Race Relations between Whites and Negroes. I remember the Violence and the graphic images. We heard little of the real news behind those graphic images.

In the late 1950s and in 1960, I puzzled over the fact that these News Stories often centered around Schools. I was in the last years of Elementary School. I was now 1 of the big Kids, in 4th through 6th Grade and later, in 1960, in 7th which was at the Junior High. I dearly loved my red brick Washington School and I loved Learning. I could not imagine a situation where Children of any Color or Station would be denied School. I could not imagine how the Situation could be so bad that Violence would erupt around Children going to School. When I came and went, I looked around the perimeter of my School. It was quiet, which was dramatically unlike the Schools on the News.

All this information was filtered through my Father who feared Negroes were going to take over. It has taken me many years to understand that his Ethnic Heritage of Centuries of Oppression was one of constant take overs. He viewed what he saw with the Scripts that he brought. I do not believe that his take was unusual.

As a Child and Adolescent, I was scared. I did not know what or who to believe. But, my Life did not markedly change. My quiet little Town, my experiences of education and separation of the Races stayed largely the same.

As time passed, I was left with some memorable images pointing to a new time where a different future was possible. I remember seeing the throngs assembled to hear Martin Luther King in Washington, D.C. "I have a Dream." I remember the Cadence of his remarkable Voice. I remember hearing the song "We Shall Overcome", which I dearly loved. Something was changing. The tides were shifting. That time was a watershed of a new era emerging, an era I longed to be a part.

1969: By this time, I was a young Adult and as they say in these parts, "still wet behind the Ears". I was 20, almost 21. I had been married 2 1/2 years to my high school sweetheart. I was ready to graduate from College and I was soon to become a teacher.

My Father and Mother invited Richard and me to join them and my Brother on a Family Camping Vacation to Florida. None of us had been there. Richard was facing the Draft. Viet Nam was raging. He was also soon to graduate with his Master's. We leaped at the chance.

Richard and I went ahead and my Family was soon to follow. We passed close to sites which had been burned in my memory. Selma, Alabama, was one. I was stunned at how little I knew of what went on there. I was supposedly an educated person. Education was supposed to make a difference.

In the deep South, I developed an Ear Infection. I rarely had them but when I did, they were excruciatingly painful, grinding my Life to a halt and bringing me to my knees. A Doctor I did not know prescribed the needed Medication. Mother and I quickly headed to a Pharmacy so my Family and I could be on our way.

A line of a dozen or more people stood in front of me. They were all Black. They were frail and Elderly. I thought nothing of it. I just wanted my Meds. The Pharmacist looked back at me and motioned that I was next, as if he saw none of those Frail Elderly Black People in front of me. They quietly separated to the right and to the left to let me go to the head of the line. It was as if Moses had just arrived to part the Black Sea. I was stunned. But I was not speechless.

I looked back at that Pharmacist who must also have been an educated person and I said: "They were here before me. Wait on them 1st." Once again, the line came back together. When my turn came, we got my Meds and we were on our way. I just had an experience that I would chew on for a Life Time.

1970: Richard was now in the service. He did not go to Viet Nam. Instead, he worked at an Army Psychiatric Hospital in San Antonio, Texas, tending the invisibly wounded. I was able to be with him.

I packaged up my Teaching Credential and by this time 1 year of Teaching Experience. I headed to the San Antonio Independent School District Office where I was going to fill out an application and have an interview. I was dressed in my best. The shoes were tight. My professional dress was not adapted to flexibility or heat.

Upon arrival, I did interview. The Personnel Officer said I did well on my interview but there were no Home Economics Positions available. He sent me back outside his office to complete the paperwork.

In the meantime, a Black Woman came in to interview also. She too was newly arrived in San Antonio. Her husband was based at the same base. She lived generally on my way home and had ridden on many buses to get to her interview. We had that lively chat that often happens when people in unfamiliar spaces find another with whom they have an instant connection. I felt comfortable and asked if I could take her home. It was on the way.

A few minutes later, the same Personnel Director called me back. He noted they were impressed with my interaction. Sure enough, a position was open. I was stunned that something "normal" could be so outside the lines. That little interaction got me a job.

Early 1970s: Richard was now out of the Army and we both were in Graduate School at Iowa State University. For the 1st time in my life, I had the privilege of having African Americans (and Africans) as Peers.

I volunteered to help a fellow graduate student and her husband move. Upon my arrival, I was the only White Person among 8 or so others. My Color made me stand out. But also, I discovered that I did not speak the language of those who were gathered to help. At all other times in the hallowed halls of academia, my Friend had spoken the language of those who were educated and on the ladder up.

In our shared time during those years, this Friend shared a story with me. She was about the same age as me, maybe a couple of years older. In Kindergarten, she was the 1st Black Person to be integrated into an All White Urban School. Those news clips which had been burnt into my memory in the late 50s and early 60s were not being filled in with a name and a face of someone I held dear. This was real. This hurt.

Early 1980s: I had a national meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. Since the meeting focused on youth, space was given for youth and adults to experience the history and culture of the area. I chose to go on a Gray Line "Black Tour of Atlanta". I asked my Friends to join me, but none of them did.

The Bus was late to pick me up at my ritzy Hotel. That dinosaur like Bus was Old and Cavernous. It surely must have been a vintage Bus on some Film Studios Inventory. When all of the Passengers were on board, I stood out like a sore thumb.

I was the only White Person on the Bus. While the Bus was not full, the Families seemed like they were on Pilgrimage. It was just over a decade since Martin Luther King had been shot and killed. By contrast, I was not on Pilgrimage, or perhaps I was. I just did not know it. I was curious. I wanted to learn.

The Bus Driver was Black. Instead of having a Tour Guide in a Perky Uniform Dress also on board, he was Driver and Tour Guide. He drove those filled and busy City Streets with the Steering Wheel between his Strong Hands and the Microphone stuck in front of his face.

I remember he commented with great volume, enthusiasm, and pointedness: "What happened in this spot affected the lives of every Person on this Bus. Except one." That one was me. Other passengers were kind but distant and focused.

Among other stops, we visited the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Martin Luther King preached. We stopped at the Martin Luther King Library, Gift Shop, and Grave Site. People trooped vigorously off the Bus. I planned to buy something, but I could find nothing I wanted to buy. Others returned with bags and bags stuffed with souveneirs. Once again, I was different. I stood out.

1990: I was on developmental leave as a visiting faculty member to the Ohio State University. I timed my return to campus after the Christmas Holiday, arriving on a Monday in mid January. I got all dressed up in my Christian Dior Suit with my gray heels and cream hose. I had 2 stops to make on my way to campus: the Bank and the Post Office. Both were closed. What was going on?
I arrived on Campus. To my surprise, Campus was quiet. Campus was never quiet. I could park right next to the building where I was assigned. I could never park next to my building

It was Martin Luther King Day. I returned to my Apartment with a newspaper. North Dakota was 1 of only 4 states which had chosen not to ratify this as a holiday. Once again, I knew I had more to learn.

Early 1990s: I was back at the University of North Dakota meeting classes and students. I asked 1 group of students what they were going to do for Martin Luther King Day weekend. I was tired, my plate was full. I had looked forward to a bit of rest and some catching up. Then 4 of my studnets stopped me in my tracks. Who was the teacher there? These sorority sisters were checking out videos on African Americans. They were headed to a lake in the deep snows of the Minnesota North Woods. They were choosing this Holiday to learn. Ever since, I have chosen this Holiday and other days inbetween to learn.

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