January 16, 2023- The process tends to loop around in circles, sometimes spiraling forward and other times heading back the other way.
April, 1959- A tough-looking boy, a bit older than me, rode up on his bike as I was walking back from the south side of town. He said his name was Richard; that he was a Creole from New Orleans and that I looked like a money man. I was eight, Richard was probably ten. I showed my empty pockets and he sniffed and rode off. “Next time, Money Man!” I didn’t see him again until we were in Junior High. He was into other things by then, and never bothered me. I later learned, from another Black child, that Richard no one in his life, except his Grandma, who was a custodian at the high school.
June, 1963- A seasoned jazz saxophonist, named Wilton Felder, sat down and recorded a re-arrangement of “Lullaby by JS Brahms”. It was nothing close to a lullaby, when he was finished. Mr. Felder was expressing his rage-at the murder, in 1956, of Emmett Till; at the murder, a few days before the recording, of Medgar Evers; at the many instances of cruelty towards people who looked like him . He was in no mood to offer gentle comfort-and so he made the piece soar to the heavens-loud and angry. The performance was terribly prescient. Three months later, four young girls, dressed in their Sunday finest, were blown to bits by a crazed bomber, as they waited in a Birmingham church.
April, 1968- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to a group of sanitation workers and others who were gathered in their support. He remarked that the people were “headed to the Promised Land”, and that he “may not get there with you”. That night, as he took in the night air of a Memphis spring, he was sent to the hereafter. Far to the north, in the mostly white town where I was coming of age, a few of my friends mused aloud, about going over to a black neighbourhood in the next town, and stirring things up. The father who overheard those remarks forbade his son from taking part-as my father would have, if I had even wanted to be part of such a thing. As it was, I only wanted to see black people treated fairly and my heart was broken. I went on home.
June, 1969- Communication was not my strong suit, as I entered Basic Training in the U.S. Army. Having had little direct experience with African-Americans, I found that I had committed a few faux pas. Lavern was already a beaten-down, world-weary soul, at age 19. He desperately wanted to be understood, and had a hard time expressing the ways in which people like me had hurt him. A sharp-eyed friend advised me that some other black trainees were talking with Lavern, and looking my way. I spoke with a mutual friend, who was also black; the two of us sat down with Lavern, and got things amicably settled.
September, 1969- One cold morning, at Advanced Individual Training, in Indianapolis, I was having a hard time waking up and must have had a sour expression on my face, as we gathered at the latrine sinks, to shave our faces. Wayne was spring-loaded and outspoken. He thought my scowl was directed at him-and put me on notice that this was not acceptable. A more even-tempered black colleague explained that this was how African-American men communicated with one another-direct, full-in-the-face. In this way, I was being let inside. I had no further issues with Wayne, or with any other person of colour, the rest of the time I was in the Army. Direct, and to the point, always worked.
July, 1995- I was getting ready to cross a busy street, in St. Louis, with my wife, son and our hosts. Of a sudden, a hand grabbed my arm and pulled me back-just as a car came speeding along in the inside lane. The man who saved me had appeared to be on drugs-but he was aware enough to keep a stranger safe. This gave the lie to our hosts’ musings about black people being worthless. There was no further racist talk coming out of their mouths during our visit.
All these years later, one of the main speakers at today’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service asked, among other things, how many friends of colour each of us had. It was a rhetorical query, intended to get us thinking. My unspoken answer is, “Many, but nowhere near enough”. The keynote speaker then underscored this question, saying that ALL people’s lives indeed mattered. To that African-American, female pastor, everyone was due respect and accordance of dignity-even if they act despicably.
All people means all people.