Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Ouch! Confession of a barefoot writer

            All kind of things were going on. Frank Sinatra made his singing debut, Finland surrendered to the invading Soviets and Benito Mussolini joined his buddy Adolph Hitler in going to war against Britain and France. It was a lively year, 1940, and the U.S. census folks counted more than 131 million Americans. That included nearly 13 million African Americans.

            In 1940 I heard a talk by a middle-aged Georgia teacher who smiled a lot when she talked about growing up in the heart of the old Confederacy. She was born about 30 years after Sherman’s Union Army burned Atlanta, which 1940 moviegoers were watching in blazing Technicolor.  “Gone with the Wind” swept the Academy Awards.

            This lady, who began absorbing racism with her first breath, and didn’t seem to know it, was an up-front volunteer when the needy of any race needed anything. In her talk she described a visit to Tuskegee with a group of white teachers, invited to lunch at the famous black school in Alabama. The white guests were seated, she said, while the black hosts remained standing. “They knew their place,” she said.

            Of course they knew their place, but it took decades for many Americans to recognize that dismal place. Union soldiers by the thousands had given everything they had to destroy slavery; their victory was diluted by racial segregation, a dissimulation invented by the defeated. Many remember the signs marking “white” and “colored” drinking fountains and rest rooms, laws requiring separate seating in buses and, the greatest scandal of all, in churches. Blacks did not often make it into newspaper stories, except an occasional piece by a police reporter. A major newspaper declined to identify any black woman as married; there were no Mrs. John Smiths—just Jane Smith—in stories about black citizens.

            I admit a certain bias. I’m a life member of NAACP. I’m also a life member of the USA. I believe in what they both stand for, but I do not agree with everything either one does. It is easy to be a card-carrying automaton, allowing the outfit to make all the decisions, and lots of people carry those cards. Judgments are swift and impersonal.

I make another admission. I’m writing this while hosting gout in one entire foot. Occasional gout visits are part of the mystery of multiple system atrophy (MSA).  Just because the writer is barefoot he is not Gandhi. Gandhi spun with a wheel. This writer just spins.

            Now consider the case of Rachel Dolezal in Spokane, Washington, a nifty city in one of the most beautiful parts of the country, home to Gonzaga University and a lot more. Maybe you, too, were lucky enough to be there for Expo ’74. Rachel was president of the NAACP chapter. Her long-time claim to be African American was challenged by her parents, then by others who did not know her and had never seen her. Here was an opportunity to extend an arm of comfort to a troubled person, of trying to understand a woman’s need and confusion. But critics scolded her, sent her back to where she came from.

            We Christians do that in our churches. We commonly pray for the Eternal to forgive us in precisely the way we forgive others, a state of mind and heart demonstrated so powerfully by African American Christians following the church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina. But we do not always respond in the way of Jesus and his Charleston disciples.

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