Claiming the Spice of Life
In the spring of my sixth-grade year, 1963, my first boyfriend was a handsome, olive-skinned Italian boy. I loved looking at my light freckled forearm next to his darker one as we held hands on the ferris wheel. I noticed other differences between my Italian friends' families and my Irish kin. "Variety is the spice of life," Grandma Gillard used to say. I agreed.
That same spring I walked through the living room as my parents sat glued to the television news. On the screen a furious-looking policeman sprayed crowds of what I thought of as colored people with a fire hose. Women who looked a lot like my mother screamed obscenities and shook their fists. The scene made my heart hurt, but it seemed so far away. I just kept walking.
That summer, I came into the house all tanned and sweaty after a day at the pool with my friends. On the screen this time I saw hundreds of black people listening to a dignified-looking man. He spoke in a loud voice. "I have a dream," he kept repeating. He said he wanted his four little children not to be judged by their color but by their character. I stayed to listen.
The mention of his children made me think how my parents wanted the best for my brothers, sisters and me. They and their parents had lived through hard times during the Depression. As Irish, they had felt some prejudice. I had never felt it myself, but I remembered feeling really bad back in third grade when people wouldn't vote for Kennedy because he was Catholic. We went to Catholic school and cheered when President Kennedy won.
My parents said education was the weapon that would dismantle prejudice. Mom taught third grade at the public school and dad had moved from physical education teacher to vice-principal in a nearby district. Dad was always taking needy kids -- sometimes even grownups -- under his wing. Mom bragged she could teach anybody to read if she had enough time. They talked to us a lot about working hard at school and making them proud.
The fall I entered eighth grade, my mother called my little sisters and I into her bedroom one morning before school. My older brothers were sitting on her bed and she held my baby brother on her lap. Mom told us our dad had died in a car accident coming home late the night before. She said we'd have to go on without him now and each of us would find our way to make Daddy proud. I could get high marks and be a real achiever, she said. I felt frozen for a long time after that, but I knew I would do my best. At the funeral I saw how many people my dad's coaching and his spirit had touched. I had a lot to live up to.
In 1968, my junior year, I was chosen to be our town's foreign exchange student. Lots of people collected money to pay for the trip. I hoped I'd go to Paris or a sleepy village in the French countryside, but in the envelope that arrived I saw a family of brown faces. In school we'd learned the names of three races -- Caucasian, Negro, and Oriental. The people I saw didn't fit any of those categories exactly. "Ku-a-la Lum-pur," my mother and I sounded out the city's name. Mom laughed, "Let's get out the globe." My relatives said she was crazy to let me go to Malaysia, so close to Vietnam. But Mom had a dream for me too.
Martin Luther King died that spring. I thought of all the people whose lives he had touched and I thought about his children. Did they feel frozen? Did someone tell them to be achievers and to make their dad proud?
My Malaysian sister, Aini, kept me from getting what I hoped would be the best tan of my life. She wanted me to wear long sleeves or carry a parasol. She never took me swimming that whole summer. "Don't you understand?" she blurted one day. "You're lucky to be fair." I understood that my skin color set me apart, but what I experienced couldn't be called prejudice. Somehow my race, over centuries, had turned the tables. My Chinese and Indian school friends doted on me, the American girl. Shopkeepers spoke differently to me than to my friends in the market. I finally made sense of those television news broadcasts and felt sad.
When I got home, my teenage friends didn't want to hear about my new interest in race relations. I asked, "Don't you think we could do something? Find ways to help people get along?"
"Don't you want to know who dated your boyfriend all summer?" they asked me in return.
When I told my guidance counselor I was considering the study of Arabic -- "Maybe I could be a translator?" - he laughed. "Honey, honey, honey, your mother can't afford to send you to a school that offers that. You'll go to the state college, be a teacher, don't you think?"
I stopped thinking about race when I went to college. Changing people's minds about race seemed like a hopeless task. The black kids sat together at dinner and no one made a move to change that. But in 1973 when I started teaching sixth grade English, I made my first black friend, Langston Hughes. He was already dead, but the record I found of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis reciting his poems brought Langston back to life. Their voices took my suburban middle-schoolers and I to Harlem, Chicago, Mexico and out to sea. We heard one of his characters say how "Life ain't been no crystal stair." But Langston urged us to "Hold fast to dreams." His Madam poems taught us how to talk back to "the Man" and how to push past despair and grab at "Life!"
By 1985 I'd begun to claim myself as a storyteller, though I was still teaching full time. An inner city principal asked me to do an assembly program about the life of Dr. King. His students were making "I have a dream" t-shirts, he said, but that wasn't enough. He wanted them to know the story of this great man.
"You want me to tell the life of Dr. King?" I was stunned.
"Are you a storyteller or aren't you?" he asked.
I accepted the job and headed for the library. My suburban students and I made a giant annotated timeline including stories from Martin's father's and grandfather's life as well. We saw that his life was a product of those who had gone before him, taught him, and set him an example. Working on the stories of his life made me consider his death again, after all these years. I thought of how holding my dad's story in my heart had affected me as a teacher. My students and I began sitting in a circle and telling stories of prejudice, of times we had felt its pinch or witnessed it in the world. My eleven-year-olds were not turning and walking away.
In 1999 I read in a local diocesan newspaper about a black Catholic church celebrating its fifteenth anniversary. Fifteenth? How had I never heard about it before, I wondered. "Everyone is welcome," the article said. I talked my non-church-going husband into driving with me into Arbor Hill. We were met at the door, hugged and kissed, by women in colorful African costumes. The sight zoomed me back to my Malaysian friends in saris and sarongs. "Welcome. Welcome," they greeted us. The priest danced through the sanctuary, grinning, with the holy book on his head. This was not like any other Catholic Mass I had been to. We sang every verse of every song, swayed to African and Caribbean rhythms, and clapped our hands. My husband was more than a little ill at ease (not to mention hungry half-way through the hours-long service), but something inside me felt at home. Martin, Langston, my dad and my students were all there with me, even that naive eleven-year-old I'd once been, ashamed by racial hatred. It was a day of reconciliation.
In recent years I've attended an interfaith storytelling group. We hold meetings at a local Hindu temple, a synagogue, a Muslim school, and a college interfaith sanctuary. I hear the echo of my Malaysian friends and feel a sense of the oneness of humanity when we share tales.
Last fall I traveled with forty storytellers to South Africa, walked the streets of Soweto and entered the Robben Island jail where Nelson Mandela spent so many years. Standing in the footsteps of so many who had fought to undo the harm of racism moved me deeply. Its scars still run deep in that land as in my own, but now I know people whose everyday lives are healing the wounds. I met a South African woman who continues to grieve and to tell the tale of her son who disappeared sixteen years ago. A man told me that though he knows who killed his father, he's never found out where or if his remains were buried.
And I met Shirley, a white woman, who, as a commander in the African National Congress, fought beside Mandela and so many others. Because her face was plastered on wanted posters throughout South Africa, she had to sneak into a hospital, via its back door, to meet a doctor who would deliver her baby and not betray her identity. Shirley, at first, had not wanted to tell a tale. "My story is too big," she said. "Now my work is to collect the tales of Apartheid." But the story she did share ended with her walking with her new son, and an armful of flowers out the hospital's front door, onto a street she would fight to make free for all.
I don't look, on the surface, like a civil rights activist. But I am a gentle warrior for human dignity. In the legacy of my parents, both gone now, I'm an educator, and I elicit as many stories as I tell. Listening is the placard I carry today. I still share the poems of Langston Hughes and the tales of Martin Luther King Jr. I'm proud that my son, now a grad student in intercultural relations, attends classes on everything from the plight of refugees to diversity in the workplace. He didn't study Arabic either, but no one laughed at his big ideas about helping people get along. We're not walking away any more.
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