A few thoughts on race and gender and childhood….

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Someone from my high school class posted a video of 50s rock and roll, kids like ourselves dancing to Danny and the Juniors “At The Hop”, and the first thing that struck me was that, just as I remembered, a number of the couples dancing in the video, just as we did at the time (knowing nothing about Lindbergh or the “Lindy Hop”), were girls. None of the couples ever were boys. That was unthought and unthinkable, never occurred to any of us that I was aware of. But it was perfectly common and acceptable, and not even to be noticed or remarked, that two girls would form a dance couple if a boy was not available to dance. For me this experience was from around 1958, when I turned 12 years old.

I recall the term “queer” from perhaps as early as the 6th grade but I don’t recall ever having a clear understanding of what it meant. If you wore yellow on Thursdays you were “queer” and that is all I knew. I understand that my experience is just a tiny fragment of it all, but that is what I remember.   I also do not remember ever being aware until well into adulthood that my best friend, Bobby B___, was African American. The term “African American” was some 20 years from coming into use. We were both “Bobby” and we lived just down the street from each other and for a few summers we played together and were friends. Although I had bunked with and been friends with Negros (I use the respectful term that I was taught and that was used at that time) at summer camp when I was 9, 10 and 11, I never made the connection to Bobby B___. His father was Italian, a shoemaker who had a tiny shop in downtown Holliston. His mother was African American, but I never thought of her in any racial way. She was Bobby’s mother, that was really all. I recall her making us peanut butter sandwiches on occasion. I can picture her in the kitchen of their house but I don’t remember what she looked like. Bobby is dead now and I never really knew his siblings, and his house is gone too, across from the grade school we attended, razed and replaced with someone else’s home, I can’t really picture it, though I have driven by it numerous times in the last thirty years.

I am struck and torn by the ways in which politics and advertising have, over my lifetime, forced their way into my consciousness and warped the way that I see the world. I once saw my friend, Bobby B___, as simply my friend. I once saw my bunkmates at summer camp as just who they were, not as Negros, or African Americans, or Blacks, though I was not unaware of their skin color, but just as the kids they were. Perhaps this change, this racialization and gender orientation awareness has been inevitable.  Perhaps it is moving somehow toward, or back to, the child’s world I remember, one not divided by race and gender orientation, just as we were not then. As more and more people proudly claim and express their heritage and their selves, the multiracial and multicultural diversity of our all of our backgrounds becomes better known and understood. The narrowness of making judgement on the basis of a shade of skin color or gender orientation is seen more and more absurd and senseless.

But these are just a few late night thoughts.  I can’t pretend to understand or resolve any of this.  I am going to bed.  See you in the morning….

“The war is over. The rebels are our countrymen again.” – Gen. Ulysses S. Grant

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Today the Confederate battle flag was finally lowered from its flagpole in front of the state capitol in Columbia, SC.  The ceremony was brief and carried out with precision and decorum by a color guard of the South Carolina Highway Patrol.  About the circumstances I have a couple of observations, but first some background.

This was the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee’s army, never the national flag.  The fact that it is a battle flag and not a state or national flag has some significance.  True, it was incorporated into two subsequent versions of the Confederate States national flag, but for most of the war, until 1863, the national Confederate flag looked very much like the Union flag, a circle of thirteen stars representing the seceding states and three broad red and white stripes.  Early in the war, troops in the smoke and fury of battle would easily confuse the Confederate national flag with the Stars and Stripes with disastrous results. To prevent this confusion, Lee’s army designed a flag to carry into battle which used the same colors of red white and blue and thirteen stars, incorporating them into a design similar to the British Union Jack.

It was this battle flag that was surrendered 150 years ago at Appomattox, Virginia.  Battle flags are not flown from flagpoles.  Their purpose is a narrow one, to locate and identify troops on the field of battle.  That is what is significant about this flag. Soldiers who carried it in battle left their weapon behind and knew full well they were very likely to die.  One can only imagine the feelings of these soldiers when they had to pile these flags with their weapons, never to be used again.  Rather than being taken prisoners of war, they were allowed to return to their homes on nothing more than their word of honor, their parole, to never take up arms against the Union again.

Fast forward to April 11, 1961, the eve of the centennial of the battle of Fort Sumter which opened the Civil War.   The battle flag that Lee furled and surrendered is raised again, this time over the capitol dome in Columbia, South Carolina, to commemorate the historic battle. But less than a year later the legislature made its display permanent.   It is generally acknowledged by historians that the reason for continuing to fly it long after the commemoration lay in the state’s opposition to court ordered desegregation.

Fast forward 39 years to April 12, 2000, same anniversary.  The South Carolina Senate votes 36 to 7 to remove the flag from the capitol dome.  But the compromise simply moved it to a prominent spot directly in front of the capitol, over a soldiers memorial.

Which brings us to today, when it was finally lowered, folded and removed to be displayed in a nearby museum.

I would make two observations about this event.

The first is that the soldiers who fought and who saw their fellow soldiers die while carrying this flag gave their word of honor never to take up arms against the Union again.  It very much surprises me that their descendants a hundred years later never considered this fact when they chose to raise that flag once more.  I would call it dishonorable.  I think that General Lee would agree.

The second observation is this. I share the feelings of the many people who have been pushing to have the flag taken down, particularly in light of the recent tragic shootings in Charleston, SC.  There is no doubt in my mind that the flag, especially in the last sixty years, has become more a symbol of hate than the symbol of home and soldierly valor that Lee and his army held it to be.  I too was happy to see it finally taken down.  Yet at that same moment, I could not help but remember what General Grant said after the surrender had been signed at Appomattox.  When he heard his troops begin firing their guns and whooping in celebration he issued orders to his staff that it cease.  The following day, as the Confederate troops marched by and threw their weapons and their flags onto two piles, the Union troops stood silently at his orders and saluted their former enemies.  We should remember what he said to them.  “The war is over. The rebels are our countrymen again.

There was something unseemly and unhappy about the cheering, and particularly the jeering and the singing of a rude song often sung at sporting events, that suggested that for some the war is still not over, and that they consider those with whom they disagree to be still not their “countrymen“.

Lee and his soldiers furled that flag, put aside the terrible feelings that only veterans of war can know, and gave their word. Grant and his soldiers also put down their arms and set aside their urge to gloat in victory. Perhaps today, 150 years later, we can learn from their example. Perhaps we too can put aside such feelings and acknowledge that we are all equally part of these United States.  The final lowering of this flag is a symbolic start, but the change must happen in our hearts if the war is ever to be truly over.

I woke up and found that the anger was gone….

I woke up and found that the anger was gone.  A couple of days later, when asked over the phone by my pastor, Jay Williams, I described it as “satori”.  He asked what I meant.  I recalled to him what I had read fifty years ago in a work by D. T. Suzuki, who said of satori, “Everything is the same, except that your feet are a little bit off the ground.”  Before he asked, I had not thought to describe it other than to notice in wonder that somehow my anger was gone.  Not just my anger over a recent frustration, but from every aspect of my life.  And as the days have gone by since, I have “tested the ice”, looking to see how solid this new footing really is.

And I have concluded that it will not give way, that each day it grows stronger than the day before, until now, nearly a week later, it has occurred to me that I was reborn that moment.  Yes, reborn, as in the Christian concept of ‘born again’.  It is as Suzuki said, the same after as before, only your feet are just a little off the ground.  And it is continual.  There is not one single awakening, only a first awakening.  Or more precisely, a first awakening that you recall, for as you think back you realize that the awakening has been going on continuously, moment by moment, since before you can remember.  And so, after your moment of satori, your moment of rebirth, you find that every moment brings with it another awakening, that your task at all times now is not to go to sleep, not to sink back into the unawareness that takes for granted what it sees and in so doing does not see.

But this was more than an awakening.  This was a removal of anger, and not just the recent anger, but all accumulated anger, like an old, very old, much layered and compacted tumour.  The disappearance of this hardened cyst makes every awakening moment now shimmer just a little bit with the humor and love that is present in it.  The relieving of this weight has left my feet just a little bit off the ground.

I just realized….

I just realized something. As I stood in the Tai Chi room upstairs and looked away from the window and into the mirror for a moment and considered the quantum particles of which I am fearfully made, particles which once danced in the center of suns billions of years ago, before there was an earth in orbit around one small sun whose completed revolution could define a “year”, I realized that the hiss of tinnitus in my ear is the sound of these very particles as they crackle around the synapses of my cochlear nerves.  There is nothing “wrong” with my hearing. This is not “noise” that interferes with my hearing. This is the voice of stars billions of years old, born, burned and exploded and regathered countless times from unimaginable reaches and depths to form this wonderfully and fearfully made being called myself.

Facebook Peeves

Prime peeve, but this is not confined to FaceBook alone, is posting pictures with no captions, no identification of who is in the photo (besides the person posting it), or where or on what occasion it was taken, or when.   I understand that people may be reluctant to “tag”  people in photographs.  But this is fast becoming something you cannot prevent anyway, what with face recognition being built into FaceBook and other social media.

An example of this annoying and frustrating practice was the recent post of a photo, without any caption, of a friend, together with H______ (an easily recognizable and world famous person) and two other unidentified persons.   H______ was holding some sort of trophy or award.   And that was it.  The context, from previous postings was a national conference.   Several “likes” and comments were posted but no one asked about the details.   It’s this whole notion that a “picture” is all that is necessary.  History, context, dates, names, are left out for some reason. People post videos on YouTube all the time, clips of singers, performers, actors, and don’t bother to identify who or where or when.   On the radio, how often do I listen to a set only to have the announcer run down the list and read off the date of the CD reissue, and never think to mention the date of the original recording which I know was thirty or forty years prior.   History!  Context!  The song has meaning when you understand when it was written and recorded, what was happening at the time!

But I digress.  Another FB peeve is posting something other than a recent portrait sized photograph of yourself as your profile photo.   Several annoying things that people post instead of a photograph of their current selves: a high school or childhood photo; a photo of their child, or their dog, or their cat, or some political symbol.   Really folks, I would like to see you as YOU are, Thank You!

And another perhaps lesser peeve, but a genuine peeve nonetheless is the posting of memes.   The memes themselves are often good, pungent, pithy, hitting the nail on the head observations of some sort or another, BUT… often you cannot comment directly on your friend’s post but only on the original, which may already have hundreds or even thousands of comments.   This defeats the whole purpose of posting anything since you cannot make a comment which will be seen by your friend who posted the observation in the first place.   Indeed, I do not even understand why anyone adds their comment to an anonymous list of hundreds or thousands of comments.   There is no conversation here, no actual communication between even two persons, never mind the hundreds or thousands involved.   You are literally a voice crying in the wilderness.  Or spitting in the ocean.

white privilege

Couple of thoughts on white privilege. Yes I have benefited… greatly… undeniably… but… for years I lamented the fact that I never went to a fine old prep school.   Mother and I traveled to Maine and visited Hebron Academy around 1959 when I was 13.   I remember that some student was playing Ravel’s “Bolero” at top volume out their dorm window while we were there.   I was “blown away”, although that idiom would not become part of my vocabulary for another six years or so.

When I returned to public school the next fall as an 8th grader, mother bullied the school administrators into allowing me to take algebra, a 9th grade level class, so that I would be prepared to enter Hebron the following year.  But sometime over that year, the decision was made to go with the public school and forego the Hebron experience for me.   For years, even after I had (finally) graduated from the University of Vermont, eight years after I had entered Boston University in 1964 as a freshman, I dwelt on the notion that I had missed the headstart I might have gotten had I spent four years at a high powered prep school like Hebron instead of in a mediocre public school system.   I will never know what I might have become.   I can guess though that I might have been even more “white privileged” than I am.

I recently watched the rise and fall of Mitt Romney’s candidacy and noted, as I have before, the peculiar shortcomings of the all-white privileged education that he received.   The self-righteous entitlement that was born in his family but enlarged and developed in the privileged setting in which he received his education.   Mother did bring us kids up with a socially elite point of view, a sense of particular self worth and social elevation which we posessed simply because we “were Wyckoffs”, and for no other reason.   But her superiority was very democratic.   It cut across all class, racial and other lines.   She simply held the belief that most people were idiots.   I fully believe that to this day.  What I have learned in the years since is that I myself am fully included under that heading.

You know, people reach a point in their lives in which, one day, they catch themselves and exclaim aloud, “Oh my God, I’ve become my mother [or father]!”   This is usually while mother or father are still with us.   You catch yourself saying something to your child, or doing some boringly adult thing like carrying an umbrella, and you realize in horror that you have become the very person you had spent so many years rebelling against and defying.   But fast forward just a few years, even a decade.  They are gone, and you suddenly find that the most powerful reminder of mother and father is now yourself, perhaps your own voice railing at the news, or your habit of stirring your coffee a certain way, a song perhaps that is really of their era but which reminds you so  powerfully of them because you remember it from when you were toddling around the house way back when.

But I drift away from “white privilege”, though perhaps not as far as you might suppose.   I missed the “white privilege” of a tony prep school education.   But I did receive the “white privilege” from my grandfather’s will in 1951, who left to my mother, his only and youngest daughter, the equivalent of nearly $1,000,000 in today’s money.   My grandfather was a son of Irish immigrants who refused to quit high school to go to work because, as Mother told me, he didn’t want to end up like his father, in the poorhouse.   I was told he said that to his father’s face when ordered by him to quit high school and go to work in the shoe factory.  He finished high school, worked his way through Massachusetts College of Pharmacy, and at the age of 37, newly married and with a child on the way, acquired a drugstore of his own.   Mother says she and her older brothers used to play on the living room carpet with bags of gold coins from the store.   He died when I was five years old.   Mother had spent the inheritance by the time I graduated from high school.  Today I think it was money well spent.

“White privilege” is real, but the details are always more complicated than the facile generalization.   I would not change any of my own “white privileged” history.   And the “white privilege” was certainly no guarantor of success, or even of any particular outcome.   I think it is a mistake to think so.

It has been a sad weekend….

It has been a sad weekend for many of us, at least since late Saturday evening when the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case was made public.   We were in bed listening to the Red Sox game in the dark.   (They would eventually lose to Oakland with an 11th inning walkoff).  Just before turning the game off and going to sleep Maya switched the station and we heard the verdict.   It was a little after 11:00pm.   Around 1:00am I gave up trying to sleep, got up and went out to the livingroom.   I started reading all the Facebook posts and comments of my friends.   Unfortunate that the only option to show agreement and support for someone’s post is to “like” it.   There was not much to like about this news.

As I am wont to do, I looked to history to cast some perspective on the events.  One friend referred to an oft-quoted remark, that a black man “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”   Turns out the the remark is from the 1857 Dred Scott decision and was part of the majority opinion written by then Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (pronounced “tawny”).   It also turns out that the decision was not as simple as popular opinion has it.  I won’t go into the decision itself here, but two things I would remark: One, that the above statement, which is usually simply attributed to Taney as his personal opinion and the simple summary of the court’s decision, was actually his summary of what was the history of the nation’s actions and rulings from its beginnings up to that point.  Two, that Taney, unlike Thomas Jefferson and others, manumitted his own slaves.   A third interesting fact which turned up in my searchings was that Dred Scott himself was freed by the son of his original owner just three months after the ruling.

All of which only goes to show that things are often not entirely what they seem.

The next morning at my church the service, which included the joy of a baptism, was changed at the last minute to include a tribute to Trayvon and prayers for his family and all, but especially young black men, who are affected by the unjust outcome.  The minister and several young men wore hoodies as they read a responsive litany which asked a number of questions including, “How do we seek truth when justice is denied?” and “How do we deal with anger?” and answered them with the words of Elie Wiesel, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others.   A can of iced tea and a package of Skittles were placed on the altar and remained there for the rest of the service.   The little baby waiting to be baptized was passed back and forth between family members in the pews, all the while in fascination watching our music director play the piano and keyboard and listening to the  choir and soloists.   Later, after being baptized, the pastor carried him up and down the aisles and around for several minutes to greet every church member and visitor while an impromptu “Take Me To The Waters” was sung by the choir and congregation.

But the rest of Sunday and today the events and the decision and the reactions to it continued to play in my mind.   Here are several things I have remarked since then.   I thought of another trial fifty years ago, the trial in Mississippi of Byron De La Beckwith, accused of the murder of Medgar Evers.   And my first thought was a version of “well nothing has changed in fifty years”.  I was 17 at the time Evers was murdered, and I remember the events and the subsequent trials and their outcome.   The arc of justice in that instance turned out to be quite long. De La Beckwith was tried again forty years later after the 1964 proceedings ended in mistrials.  He died in prison seven years later.   One reading of the first two trials was that the jury (all white in each trial) was unable to convict him.   Another reading is that they were unable to aquit him.   Glass half full, or half empty?   I don’t know, but at least someone on both juries thought he was guilty of something.   One thing certainly different today is that the governor of the state of Florida did not get involved.   In De La Beckwith’s second trial, Mississippi governor Ross Barnett interrupted the trial in the courtroom while Myrlie Evers sat on the witness stand and shook De La Beckwith’s hand.

Another difference is that yesterday and this morning the only headlines in the papers and on the news were of demonstrations and discussions, not of riots and deaths, though to be sure there were instances reported of vandalism in Oakland and a police officer surrounded by an angry crowd in Los Angeles.   The very facts of the case, the death of 17 year old Trayvon Martin and the fact that his killer was acquitted may serve as an example and a motivation to a generation of black, and white, youth and young adults who do not remember the events of the fifties and sixties, and for whom Martin Luther King, Jr. is little more than a portrait and a set of familiar quotes recited every year in January.   The recent Supreme Court decision invalidating part of the Civil Rights Act – a law which was brought to vote in 1964 and passed in great part because of Evers’ death and the injustice in Mississippi – and the efforts to suppress the vote in recent elections may also provide a basis for moving this generation to act anew in addressing racial injustice.

I certainly hope so anyway.