My mother participated in Civil Rights marches and actions. Now this is nothing she has ever told me about, though two things happened that led me know that she had even been a part of this movement.
The first was when I was talking to my grandmother about inter-racial marriage and she told me how her own daughter had brought her to face her own prejudices by “bringing a big black beautiful buck” to dinner one night. She said that she welcomed the young man into her home but was struck by the thoughts she had about this young (and by her own admission genteel) black man that her daughter had brought home. The interesting part of this is that I assumed she meant my aunt, my mother’s sister as having done this… but no, it turned out it was my own mother. My grand mother told me how grateful she was for that look in the mirror… I have also heard since that conversation that my mother also brought home a “young Hispanic buck” as well, and that evening (or so I am told) was fraught with tension as well.
The second was when I was a youngster in college and my grandmother took me to a reception for The Arizona Council for Foreign Visitors (then called the World Affairs Council of Phoenix). We met a gentleman named Lincoln Ragsdale. When my mother found out that I would be going she asked me to say hello, and told me that she had marched with him. So, I went up to him and introduced myself and said, “my mother marched with you in the 60’s”. We had a wonderful conversation and the stories he shared about the early days of desegregation and integration in Arizona were fascinating. It is a conversation I will cherish.
I grew up with racial and ethnic inequality all around me. The first evidence that hit me deep in the gut was a situation that happened with the neighbor.
I am sure that this man has no idea that he impacted me so profoundly. If he is still alive, he was living with a deck of cards that were stacked against him… and by that I mean that he was deemed to live a life of very hard labor and abuse by those with power with the goal being to feed his family.
I am sure I have written about this somewhere in this blog, but here is that story again.
My family had just moved into a new neighborhood in the suburbs of Quito, Ecuador called Jipijapa (those j’s have an h sound) and our house had an empty lot and then a large apartment building to one side… the empty lot, however, was not so empty. A house, made of wattle and daub adobe was built with palm fronds for a roof and compact dirt for a floor, was on that empty lot.
One afternoon, I was playing with all the neighborhood kids when the kids from the apartment complex started getting mean to the kids in the adobe house… I don’t recall what it was about, but the kids in the apartment were being mean and began to throw rocks at the kids from the adobe house. I was sticking with the adobe house kids, no idea why other than a tendency to stay with underdogs (though I recognize that may be more wishful, but I remember being mad at the kids from the apartment complex and I was in fact in the adobe house when it happened). The father opened the door to yell at the kids to go home and the kids threw more rocks at us. One of those rocks hit me smack in the forehead and blood began pouring down my face (head wounds do that). I asked the father to walk me home and he said he couldn’t, that my mother would think that he had done it. I remember being completely shocked by this and telling him that my mother was not like that, she would be glad that he brought me home. We argued this a bit and I don’t actually recall if he ended up taking me home, though I think he did and left me at the door and ran to wait at the gate. I do recall telling my mom that this had happened and what he had said. She seemed as sad as I was that this was how he had felt.
Ecuador is a lovely country, and while I may wax poetic about its beauty and consider it to be full of splendor, I have never been completely blind to its injustices. I have seen my friends hit their servants, I have seen my friends call their servants to get something that was well within their own reach. I have seen the poor begging for food, most often mothers with children around them, and it is such a glaring contrast to the beauty of Ecuador’s landscape that if you are aware, it is striking. I too grew up with servants, and apparently horrified some of my American relatives with the ease in which I navigated my role as daughter of the house. The thing is, I loved them… the one that lived with us the longest holds such a dear place in my heart that I tear up just thinking of her. I have visited her when I have been back there, she is a part of my family in a way I can’t really explain to anyone who has not been in that role. I want my son to meet her.
But all of this has brought me to ponder anger, and fear… I think this ultimately is about anger and fear… at the root of cruelty to others, discrimination…
What I have is hope… the kind that Martin Luther King spoke about fifty years ago. The dream kind of hope…
Today, I heard a story on public radio about that event. One of Dr. King’s legal adviser was there that day and had prepared everything and was ever so concerned that things would get out of hand and go off the planned agenda. He told about how Mahalia Jackson sang and how beautiful it was. He continued with the tale about how Dr. King would call on Mahalia and tell her he was having a bad day and ask her to sing to him. And that the one time he witnessed this he saw Dr. King in tears. It turns out that as Dr. King was just starting to give his speech, Mahalia Jackson yelled at him to “Tell them about the dream, tell them about the dream”. The gentleman telling this story said he saw Dr. King move his papers to the left and at that moment the story teller told the person next to him that the audience didn’t know it, but they were about to go to church.
How unbelievably wonderful to have Mahalia Jackson and her beautiful voice lull you through the trying and difficult days and challenge you to give a glorious speech about a dream.
I too have a dream.
I have a dream that we can find a way to help angry people beat down the walls they put up to hide behind as they throw pain at others, as if that would in some way relieve their own suffering. I have a dream that people will find hope, the dreaming kind of hope, the hope that will allow for empathy… I have a dream that people will understand consequences but accept that they are an individuals burden and not their own, where people can celebrate the joys, especially when they are among the sorrows.
My dream is hope.
And I hear Mahalia singing to me.