Sun 2020-06-21 01:14
I had a memory today that sort of caught me, evolved into a deep thought, and then morphed into a quasi-epiphany.
The memory begins when I was a small child living in Dexter, Maine in the latter half of the 1970s. It was a late summer afternoon, and I had been playing in the empty residential street with a group of my friends. My mother leaned out of the front door of our house and called me home. I said goodbye to my friends and bounded across the lawn to our house.
My mother saw my beaming face and asked, "What are you so excited about?"
I said, "Danny has a pet turtle and he was showing everybody!"
"Oh, that's nice," said my mother. She didn't recognize the name I had mentioned and, glancing over at the crowd of kids, asked "Which one is Danny?"
I pointed and said, "He's the boy in the red t-shirt."
My mother's face changed. The corners of her mouth curled down a little and she squinted her eyes.
When I turned back and saw my mother's face, there was an expression there I didn't yet recognize at that age. Confused, I asked her what was wrong.
"Huh? Nothing. That's great." My mother smiled thinly down at me, then she ushered me inside and told me to go wash up for dinner. She went into the kitchen and stood at the sink, staring out the window.
There's some things I haven't yet told you about Danny. He was the same age as me. He liked turtles and Tonka trucks. And he was black. In fact, he was the only black kid in my neighborhood, the son of a couple that had moved to Dexter just a short time prior. Danny may have been the first black person I ever met. He is certainly the first black person I remember meeting.
Now at this point, you may have already come to the conclusion that my mother was in fact, a bigot or a racist. That the expression on her face was that of disapproval over the fact that "those people" had moved into our safe, peaceful, white neighborhood.
But if you would, please hold back your outrage for just a bit longer.
For some background on this memory, you should know that my mother was born in 1946 in the northeastern United States, into a white working-class family in urban Connecticut. She was the youngest of three children, and the only daughter. She grew up some years prior to the Women's Liberation movement, but even in the early 1960s young women were trying to change what it meant to be female in America. As a girl, my mother was rebellious and possessed of unpopular ideas. As my mother got older, she found that she desperately wanted more out of life than to be relegated by default to the role of wife and homemaker.
My mother was just a teenager at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. She graduated high school shortly before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, a year after Martin Luther King led a march on Washington and delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech. When I was a teenager, she would later tell me that King had been inspirational to her in those years. That the idea of blacks struggling to get an equal seat at the table resonated with her own feelings and experiences as a young woman trying to be treated as an equal in a man's world. That core idea of equality as a guiding principle acted as a lens through which she viewed the world around her - showing her the way it was and the way it should be. I think it can be fairly stated that my mother believed strongly in equal rights for all people, and wanted to see an end to both racism and sexism in America.
So standing on the doorstep of our house in Dexter a decade later, my mother did not scrunch up her face at the mention of my black friend because she was a racist.
In truth, my mother had felt a swell of emotion in that moment and was trying not to break out in tears at the realization that her young white son didn't even know that he had a black friend. That children born just a few years after all the marches and protests, violence and division, hatred and anger - could possibly grow up "color blind." To me, Danny wasn't the black kid. Danny was the kid in the red shirt who had a neat turtle. To my mother, that was almost a miracle.
That kind of color blind equality is what we used to strive for in America less than half a century ago. To see all people as equal, endowed with the same rights and privileges regardless of their color or gender. To create a world where the color of one's skin has no more bearing on one's life than the color of one's eyes.
I feel like there was a point where we as a nation were on the path towards that vision of equality, and then somehow, somewhere we lost our way. 40-something years after that summer afternoon in my memory, the focus in our country has shifted from trying to see everyone as the same to instead having a hyper-awareness of our differences.
The popular methodology now seems to be to identify people not as unique individuals but as members of one group or another, sorting them into boxes as homogeneous widgets classified along racial, ideological, sexual, and political lines. Ultimately, it seems the goal is no longer unity as a country but rather to divide people on the basis of nothing more than the most superficial qualities. To reinforce group identities and to focus one group's anger and frustration against another. The very notion of equality has been superseded by a hierarchical structure based on the relative privilege of opposing groups with "oppression" no longer being something to overcome, but rather serving as the social currency with which to purchase compliance of others to one's own demands.
I've seen enough of the road behind to know that if we don't change course soon, the road ahead is going to take us right off a cliff. I only hope that there is time yet to turn the wheel.