FROM WHERE I STAND
Tracing my roots
A friend recently asked me if I would say a few words at a meeting focused on homosexuality. Sure, I said, thinking I would add to my remarks mention of my twin nephews who died from AIDS. My first knowledge of homosexuality was vague whispers when I barely knew what sexuality was, much less homosexuality. My mother’s comments about the two men who shared an apartment above ours was that they “should get over it.” The society has come a long way since then in recognition that this is a human and natural characteristic. In some indigenous populations the homosexual was considered a prophet, one having special gifts.
This conversation brought to mind so many values and beliefs that I hold which are so very much different, maybe even opposed, to those I was taught. Much of my education has been in dispelling so-called truths of my youth.
Since I was born and raised in the South, among the first myths to which I was exposed was racism. I was never really “taught” that people of color were inferior to white people; situations occurred that made it clear. Only white people lived in the area of manicured lawns, big houses and well-lighted streets. I knew nothing about the quality of education that took place in the separate but equal schools for people of color, but the condition of the dilapidated buildings alone would have given me an indication if I had even thought about it. The reception area of my grandfather’s medical office was divided into white and colored. Our colored ”help” called me “Miss Polly” and I called them by their first name, too, omitting, of course, the “Miss.” It would be years before I would hear about the 40 acres and a mule promised African Americans at the close of the Civil War—a promise never kept, a promise most likely that was never meant to be kept.
Classism was almost as strong in our home but I don’t believe it was as egregious. Once, I brought home from grade school a friend who was very poor, revealed not only by her clothing but by her “hillbilly” speech (for example, pronouncing the word “iron” as “ahrn”), and I learned that evening over dinner not to bring her home again. It wasn’t spelled out but I got the message.
I’m not sure I can blame my schoolteachers altogether for some of the biased political views my education left me with. I think we all know people afflicted with the same kind of blind nationalism. I graduated from high school believing that the United States was not only the most wonderful country in the world, it was a country that was very seldom wrong. Now, I knew about slavery and I knew about the treatment of the indigenous people of this continent but I told myself they were but tiny blips on a landscape of perfection, not to be counted.
As for our economic system, I simply wanted to be rich, very rich. When well-to-do relatives visited from out of town, we urged them to take us driving down main street so our friends could see us in an expensive car. Women hadn’t begun to make it as doctors, lawyers or CEOs during my adolescence and your best chance of being wealthy was to marry a rich man, an admonition given me daily by my grandmother. The only truly wealthy so-called “eligible” man I ever met was over twice my age and about twice my size—so much for that!
I suspect the people who compose the Occupy Minnesota movement would roll their eyes around and maybe snicker at my childish desire to be rich. They’d be right to do so. But an enormous amount of people justify the chasm that exists today between the vastly rich 1% of Americans and the 99% of the others; they believe that somehow they might, just might, move up into that 1% category somehow.
As for politics there was only the Democratic Party and I can’t remember any discussion of politics over dinner ever. My mother’s job was affected by politics but it pertained only to the poll tax, which was mandatory for voting. Then, my mother worked for the county in which we lived and, as a result, she had a “poll tax list.” This was a list of poor people whose poll taxes were paid by a politico (I never knew or even asked who) and on election day my Mother drove the voters to and from the polls, telling them en route who they were to vote for.
As for religion, my town was almost totally Protestant. There were a couple of Catholic churches and a synagogue. While my family did not socialize with Jews, they “accepted” them in much the same way they did the peculiar Catholics. One of my aunts married a Catholic and it took the family a while to get accustomed to this. As for the nonviolent message of Jesus, it was never addressed. As a Christian you didn’t lie or cheat or steal or kill (that is unless in the military). Period.
I have given more than a little thought to the above-described social system and think I have developed a determination to work against these beliefs which I consider destructive.
One principle that my jazz musician/social worker mother impressed upon me was that if somebody did something hateful to me I should respond by doing something even more hateful to them. One reading of the Quaker tract, “Speak Truth to Power” convinced me this was all wrong. The Quakers’ answer was forgiveness.
I’m convinced that war is the greatest evil of our day and we are not going to eliminate it until enough people are determined that we must. This means accepting some beliefs that are common to all the great religions of the world—i.e., all humanity is one; we are all brothers and sisters; we all have the same needs for food, love, housing, etc. I believe that once racism is truly at bay we’ll be on our way. For Americans this means action. My present action is to urge everyone I know to read “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, which is as important today as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was during the Civil War.
The present political system seems to have grown so much more antagonistic, almost pugilistic, that one wonders how democracy can work. But it’s the only system we have. How can ANYONE justify the huge huge amounts of money—almost half the annual budget—going to the Pentagon as funds for the needy are cut?