Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Is the black man my brother?

            A friend argues that you can’t have real convictions on a social issue until you’ve experienced the matter personally. For example, you can’t claim a solid opinion on capital punishment until you’ve seen a few heads roll (maybe your own?) or demand racial tolerance until you’ve lived side by side with people of other races.  

            I wish my friend’s word were accurate. Then I could rid of the uneasy feeling that I have no responsibility with regard to both issues. I have never seen a person guillotined or had blacks living next door. But to say I have no convictions would be untrue. The headline news these days is much about the racial unrest in a St. Louis community: white cop shoots black young man. 

            I can’t remember when I didn’t hold to the position to some extent that all races are born equal before God.  My attitude was molded to a large extent by my father’s influence during my childhood.  He grew up on the steppes of South Russia as a descendant of the Mennonite settlers who migrated there from Holland and northern Germany in the late 1700s and early 1800s. A sturdy, industrious people, they prospered and became wealthy landowners in their adopted land, living in self-contained, isolated villages, thereby preserving their culture successfully.

            The poorer neighboring Russian peasants, not as successful materially or culturally, became objects of prejudice on the part of some Mennonite settlers. My father’s bitter denunciation of this down-your-nose attitude and how Russian stable boys were sometimes denied the warmth of a bed in the attic of the landowner’s house and sent instead to the hayloft on cold winter nights is an impression I can’t erase. 

            I knew my father as one who, in his own way, always helped those being stepped on by others – the poor, people without work, social outcasts and others. He had seen too much mishandling of others because of prejudice.

            As the son of an Einwohner rather than a landowner my father shared the misery of these Russian peasant boys. He learned to love them and also formed a basic attitude toward the wealthier and more highly educated people that he carried with him throughout life.  He found some experiences hard to forget. As a young man he completed burial arrangements of four close relatives in a two-week period, one of them his father – washing the bodies, prying boards  from fences to make coffins, arranging for transportation to the graveyard on a makeshift cart, and saying the prayer over the grave—during the typhus epidemic and famine. No preacher, no horse-owner,  answered his plea for help. 

            As children we relived the Russian Revolution through our parents’ eyes.  We heard how the battlefront of the Reds and the Whites shifted through  Rosenthal, the anarchist raids, the courage of individuals, and the struggle of all to survive the famine. 

            Yet in northern Saskatchewan we lived far removed from the race issue as it affected people living in the southern United States.  Of course, we Canadians had our Indians, but that was another matter. Indians were simply Indians, and didn’t actually count as people.   They lived on reservations because they had no other place to go.

            Negroes, as we knew them as children, were the objects of jest and a source of amusement.  The only African-Americans we knew were the jolly minstrels, faces darkened with burnt cork, who gave our recreation-starved community an opportunity to laugh.  Mother had read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe in a German translation.  Her re-telling of the slave girl Eliza’s flight over the ice floes with hounds and bounty hunters in full pursuit became etched in my young mind. It was therefore a simple transfer of sympathy from the exploited Russian masses to the discriminated Negroes of the slave era when our family lived in Canada. But it was harder to see them as people like us only with a different skin color  when they lived in our little village.

            One day an odd family moved into a shack at the edge of town: A white man whose youth had long left him, a white woman, much younger than the man, tired looking and unkempt, and an assortment of children – two white, two black, dark as the night, and one who was neither black nor white. Their sudden presence in school was both a novelty and embarrassment. What should we do with them?  In early spring, when the snow melted and roads opened, they were gone.  I think we were glad.

            At about age 15 I attended a United Church girls’ summer camp. One leader, a national from Trinidad, probably knew the meaning of the word “prejudice” more deeply than we girls grasped at the time. She patiently taught us its meaning: Being down on what you are not up on. She also taught us her name, syllable by syllable: Wilma Samlallsing.  After 70-some years hers is the only name I remember of the more than a hundred people I met at that camp.

            An experience with deeper impact on my attitude toward other races occurred when my husband attended graduate school at Syracuse University in 1961-62.  I and the children remained in Kitchener, Ontario, for the winter.  He shared an apartment near the campus with a Chinese student from Formosa and a young Nigerian, both in America under the sponsorship of the Laubach Literacy Foundation.

            My husband told me about the “little League of Nations” in that apartment.  Both men were intelligent, outstanding individuals. Sometimes by comparison American students lacked their caliber of character.

            Lucky, the Nigerian, more so than Larry, the Formosan, suffered from the blight of racial intolerance.  We suffered with him.  He related how one summer he motored with friends to the West Coast to find employment. En route he was denied admittance to some restaurants because the proprietors thought was an American black.  With the hurt rankling in him, he tested a hunch on the return trip. He traveled the same route and stopped at the same restaurants, but with a difference. This time he was decked out in the outstanding agbada of a Nigerian, a long, full-flowing gown of brightly-checked cloth, embroidered and closely fitted about the neck.  The result? All doors swung open before him.

            Together with Lucky we drove through the black section of Syracuse. Large, unpainted apartment  buildings lay muddled together, with children and adults lolling around on the rickety verandahs. They looked indifferent and indolent. I wondered if the bars of prejudice that imprisoned them were broken, would they rise to the stature of our friend Lucky? 

            The full seriousness of the race issue stunned me when we moved to Kansas in 1962.  In Canada we heard only faint rumblings of the racial unrest, but now it was a full-blown issue with riots, marches, bombings and killings. 

            Every time I saw a black man on the streets of Wichita I took a second look.  I  read books like Black Like Me, Cry the Beloved Country, To Kill a Mockingbird and other strong opinion molders. When I taught minority literature at college I studied black history and literature intensely, reading, sorting, thinking. I researched Christian theology that supported slavery. I was forced to confront the issue of Black English in classes.  Was it a dialect or another language? Would students speaking only Black English successfully navigate the business and academic worlds of their future as Americans? 

            A student told me she had learned in grade school that if you touched a black person you would break out in a rash.  I recalled her comment on a trip to Chicago sitting in a bus with  a large black man next to me. Would my skin break out in red welts? 

            In the late 1960s at an open air meetings Rev. Vincent Harding, black Mennonite minister, related his experiences traveling in the deep South.  Like our friend Lucky, he was denied use of rest rooms, privilege of entering certain restaurants, hotels, and the like. 

            At the close of the service, he taught the audience the civil rights song, “We shall overcome.”  Slow, dirge-like we sang it but without depth of feeling. I sensed a strange restraint in myself and others in that almost completely white audience that seemed to say, “Blacks should have civil rights, but must I, a white person, identify completely with them to help them achieve freedom? If so, how does one do that?”

            I have often told writing classes that it is possible to trace the evolution of any attitude we hold, even the pathway to or away from prejudice.  So, my friend, I have had experience with prejudice and I am entitled to an opinion.  People of other races are my brothers and sisters. They deserve to be treated like equals.     

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