Just after 9/11, a group of us were talking about our fear and the impact the event had had on our lives and an African-American gentleman in the group was strangely silent. I asked him later why he had not participated in the discussion.
A sad smile appeared on his face. “Black people in general aren’t saying much,” he said.
I realized that what he’d said was true, so I asked why, and he answered. “As a whole, we’re not afraid of what happens from outside the US. We’re more afraid of what happens from within.”
Still confused, I asked him to explain. He chuckled. “It’s obvious you’ve never had a cross burned in your front yard.”
“Oh,” I replied, finally beginning to get it. “I didn’t think about that.”
A few years later, I sat in a committee meeting where we were discussing how much to charge for an event we were having. Somebody suggested that we charge more for single tickets and less per ticket for couples. As a marketing professional, I understood the logic—it wasn’t quite “two for one” but it did seem to be an incentive. The price for two, even with the discount, was more than the price of a single ticket. As an unmarried woman who wasn’t seeing anyone at the time, though, I felt punished, and I suspected a few widows and other single friends would feel the same.
Later, when I mentioned it to the leader of the group, she said, “I’ve been married for so long, I didn’t even think about that.”
This morning, in honor of MLK, I reread the letter he wrote from the Birmingham jail. The same part always gets me, and it always will, no matter how many times I read it:
“…when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people…”
I suspect at least one of the clergymen to whom he wrote the letter, one who had a little girl of his own to whom he might one day have to explain some inhumanity shown to her, read that and said to himself, “Ooh…I didn’t think about that.” At least I hope so.
“You have to be carefully taught,” says the song from the musical “South Pacific.” That’s true, in part, but there’s a lie in it, too. It implies that the teaching occurs explicitly—that everyone sets out, with malice, to teach their children that those with different skin or religious beliefs or political opinions are bad, inferior, less than.
I don’t think so. Instead, I believe we have become so self-absorbed, so closed, so focused on our own lives that we never even think about the pain we may cause others in our obliviousness. Until, that is, someone incredibly innocent, incredibly undeserving, is caught in the crossfire of blame for another’s rage, another’s fear, another’s frustration.
Perhaps it’s time we thought about that.